Yesterday, the sad news passed from neighbor to neighbor: Joe Silverman, the "mayor" of Marlborough Road, was gone, at age 95. It may be a cliche to call someone a pillar of the community, but for half a century, the man known and loved by many as "Papa Yossi" had been exactly that--a grounding point, a tower of strength, and a steadfast support. It is hard to imagine our little piece of Flatbush without him.
At his funeral today, we smiled as we recalled together the feisty little guy who, as his son recalled, "fought for everything." Joe had a gravelly voice that needed no microphone; he was a fixture at every community board or police precinct meeting, taking the floor to deliver his always unequivocal opinion. He revived the Caton Park Block Association almost single-handedly, recalled another old-timer, and the solidarity it created helped steer us through the rapids of the crack-riddled Eighties. When he finally retired from its presidency, we declared him President Emeritus for Life, an honor he seemed to genuinely treasure.
Joe and his family didn't cut and run in the dark days of that crime wave, just as they didn't join the white flight of the Sixties and Seventies. The retired bagel-baker and pattern-maker was not the type for a life of suburban ease; he relished life in his newly multiracial neighborhood, and never lacked for a crusade--always on the side of the underdog. His most courageous hour may have been his outspoken defense of the Korean fruit-store owners who were targeted by the race-baiting "activist" Sonny Carson and his crew for a wildly publicized boycott; having stood up in his time for both Jews and blacks, Joe knew racism when he saw it, and roared his disdain for the thuggish Carson and his minions at every opportunity.
But it was Joe's boundless generosity of spirit that poured forth in remembrance. It didn't surprise me to learn that he was an adored uncle and grandfather. The whole world seemed to be his family; on our block, a curious but familiar ritual was Joe's "nursing home barbecues." The bell would ring, and it would be Joe, demanding that all able-bodied men join him in wheeling the residents of a nearby nursing home to the middle of Marlborough Road (cordoned off by his buddies the cops). There, Joe would grill hot dogs, rustle up a kid to sing or do magic tricks, and generally show the frail old folks a few hours of fresh air and fun. The last time he did it, I swear he was himself older than most of his "guests." I am told he performed similar routine miracles for the kids at United Cerebral Palsy.
Partway through Joe's funeral, there was a heavy rumble of footfalls in the back of the chapel; it was the cops from the 70th precinct. More than a dozen of them, come to honor a righteous man who shared their mission of protecting our community, shared it in word and deed. It occurred to me how seldom we are blessed to meet people whose everyday life converges absolutely with their principles. Joe Silverman of Flatbush achieved this integration and authenticity, and retained it to old age. I can't improve on the measured words of his rabbi: "This man," he said, "was a mensch."
Our condolences to his beautiful and indomitable wife Helen, who cared for him heroically, and to his entire family.
"Seven Generations" by Frederick Franck