This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project with Irving Baker is taking place on June 12, 1997 at the office of Irving Baker. The interviewer is Mollie Lakin.
Interviewer: I am at the office of Irving Baker, a young man who has become quite prominent in our city and has a fine story of his own. His father, Rabbi Julius Baker, a pleasant memory, is a story in itself. Today, I am going to interview Irv, asking him about his father and leading up to Irv’s commitment to the ideals Rabbi Baker instilled in him.
Baker: My father came to this country in 1932 as a result of my mother and her mother returning back to Europe as she was already a citizen here in this country. They went back to Europe because she was of marriage age and they were pretty religious traditional people and they were unsatisfied or dissatisfied with the quality of the commitment, the Jewish commitment of the young men that were available in this community and what’s more it was just the opportunity to go back and visit family pre-Second World War Europe that still remained behind. Arriving in Europe, she, she met my father through some mutual acquaintances and they proceeded to get married in 1931 but he was usable to come to this country immediately, because he had to get his papers and whatever was necessary however she being a citizen of the United States made his entry in to this country much easier and he arrived around March 1932.
Interviewer: Did she have family here?
Baker: She and her mother her parents lived here, in fact they lived with with her parents for quite a few years. In fact through my first few years of life we lived with my grandparents the Yablok’s until 1943 when my father purchased a home, at that time it was called the neighborhood Linwood Avenue, which was the Southeast side and that was the first time I ever lived in a room all by myself, in a bedroom to myself, until then, as I recall the four of us slept in one room. I slept in a crib until I was five because there was not room for a full size bed. But that is when my father came to this country he didn’t speak English but he picked up English pretty quickly. Went to what was then night school to learn English. He got a job in Lancaster, Ohio as the Rabbi. Lancaster was a community that had more Jews there than it does today but also the Synagogue there serviced the Jews from Logan and Hillsboro and many of the surrounding cities he was also a Schochet and a Moyel as well as he taught, once a he learned his English. When his English got a little better, he was able to teach the boys for their Bar Mitzvah’s and he gave some type of Hebrew lessons. And it was a reasonably full time job, and…
Interviewer: What was the Jewish Community like?
Baker: They had a decent size Jewish Community they had the Synagogue, and the Synagogue was in existence until, in fact, until just a very few years ago. The Synagogue was sold and the proceeds in fact are being made available right now into the Columbus Jewish Community probably in the area of Jewish education because of I have had a little bit of input into what they are going to do with the money and that’s my suggestions. He prospered as a Rabbi there and as the Moyel and as the Schochet and as a teacher. He did dabble a little bit with real estate. He bought a double and fixed it up. He would make a couple units out of it. He was a handy man. He was a pretty handy person and he was able to do a lot of work himself. Later on as the results of his handy work, he built the Ahavaa Sholom School. He physically built the Ahavaa School. I mean he did much of the actual work.
Interviewer: What about the new building on Broad Street?
Baker: The new building on Broad Street which was built in 1963, and opened in 1963. He was, at that time, the elected Rabbi. He had been elected to be the Rabbi when the Shul moved from Ohio Avenue to Bexley, to East Broad Street, and he was offered a salary of $1.00 a year and he accepted it. But I don’t think they ever paid it.
Interviewer: He was a beautiful man.
Baker: Anyway, he used to be really physically fit. He was, at that time, in business with me we were in the building business. He had pretty much given up being the Rabbi the Moyel and the Schochet and everything else, not only in Lancaster, but completely because my business was prospering and he was going into business with me. But for about a two year period he proceeded to build the Ahavaa Sholom Shul and we really never saw him around the office much, he was busy doing that. He was not only the Rabbi but he was the builder of this Shul. That was his position in Columbus until he decided….. my mother passed away some years earlier…. a few years earlier he remarried and had a child and they decided they wanted to live in Israel and they moved to Israel in 1972, I believe, and remained there until shortly before his passing in 1986. In Israel he dabbled in a few things but never very successfully. I mean I used to advise him just to eat Kugel. Because he tried… oh we were involved in a restaurant franchise operation which got knocked out by the ’73 war.
The timing was bad. He went into an electronics business, building components, electronic components with a fellow who happened to be a nephew of his, not exactly but a cousin step-son-son-in-law. He knew that all the knowledge was in that cousin’s son-in-law head. In those days also, that was in the 70’s, when the reserve troops were called up at least 30 days every year and if your 30 days came up or some skirmish came up and you were a one man business your business was shut down. Well the business wasn’t shut down, but he didn’t know anything about building electronic parts so when the business was shut down it was shut down for good. And that turned out to be an unsuccessful venture also. After that he mostly was involved in Israel. He did some lecturing and taught a little bit, he lived in Natanya for a time which is an Anglo, well its really, an Anglo Community a lot of people from the Anglo countries lived there mostly from England to Australia. Those places more so than the United States but he liked it.
He liked his time in Natanya and he liked the atmosphere there and the climate and he liked living by sea and he was there until he came to Miami Beach in 1984 as a result my step-mother was suffering at that time from Alzheimer and he wasn’t satisfied with the facilities in Israel, as they existed, and he thought he would be better off in this country. He didn’t give up Israel, he never sold his apartment and he planned to go back and forth and travel back and forth but unfortunately he was here only about a year and half when he had a stroke and passed away. The end of story is that my step-mother, today, is still alive and she is in Israel.
Interviewer: Do you remember anything special about your childhood here in Columbus? Where did you go to school?
Baker: Well my childhood, I lived on Fulton Street until I was about five years old. It was the middle of the Second World War, at which time, we moved to Linwood Avenue and I was enrolled in 1943 in Ohio Avenue School. My recollections of that school was..like I didn’t belong there. I mean I don’t think any Jews belonged to the Ohio Avenue School. The teachers, I think, Were all Nazis.
Interviewer: I thought that was an all Jewish area.
Baker: Well it was but the teachers weren’t and my early recollection is sitting on the steps in front of this principal’s office and having to sing Christmas carols and if you didn’t sing them they would hit you over the knees with a ruler or a yard stick. But that was different times and some how we survived. I can only remember being a little Jewish his and these Shkotzeem, that looked like they were seven feet tall, that always wanted to beat up on me but I wasn’t afraid of anybody so like a fool I got beat up on. Well I was, I was known as kid, I was known as “Ramie” I’m not sure how that came about “Ramie” which is a Jewish transliteration of or a Jewish translation of Avrom Yitshok that was my name, after my grandfather. My father’s father mysteriously died in Europe. This was long before the war. The rest of the family survived in Europe through the ’30’s and were killed in the Holocaust with the exception of one uncle and one cousin including my grandmother who I never met but I had sent cards to and were getting cards back in Yiddish. But her husband whose was named Avrom Yitshok which I was named Avrom Yitshok. He apparently had gone off to Warsaw on some kind of a small business trip back in the late ’20’s when and he got pneumonia there and died.
They didn’t know about until weeks later, I think. As far as tracing our family history it so happens that my father was some what of a genealogist and he did some tracing of the family, he went to back to Poland in 1966 and started doing some research into the family and that time and couldn’t find any record of anybody having survived or having been born into his family prior to the late 1600’s early 1700’S. He traced the family back that far. His conclusion was that it was a very good possibility that, at that time, we were converts into Judaism as certain charismatic kind of characters did roam around at that time. Jewish charismatic characters roamed around the failed settlement or the Polish Russian areas and found that people were interested in Judaism and becoming Jewish in the… and our parent’s parents who think of the Jews in the dark early isolate fit? that …even the rest of my family were all blonds and blue eyes. I don’t know where I came from. But, interesting though, he was doing the same research on his wife and step-mother family in the library in London and came across documents that traced her family back to the 10th century. So obviously, this kind of information is available if one has the determination and where with all to go looking for it.
Interviewer: That’s interesting.
Baker: I gave you the reason why they was settled, originally settled in Central Ohio and…my memory goes back very well to my childhood because I recall moving from this very small house on Fulton Street where we all lived together to our own rather larger home on Linwood Avenue…where there were nine-ten rooms in the house. We didn’t know what to do with all that house. But my childhood, I went to Ohio Avenue School, I went to Roosevelt, from Roosevelt I spent one year in New York in a Yeshiva Torah Vados was an interesting experience, I think for them and for me. I think we had a mutual agreement that I would leave and they would send me off with an honorable mention because if I come back a second year I’m sure that neither one of us would have survived. It was the wrong place for me. It was very extremely right wing, it was my choice to go there, it wasn’t my family’s choice they had suggested some place more moderate but whatever the reason was and I don’t really remember why I chose Torah Vados.
Interviewer: What was the Hebrew School status here in Columbus?
Baker: The Hebrew School status at that time, as it was, probably at that time there were a half a dozen boys from Columbus that ever gone went away to the Yeshivah. In fact I can only think of one or two others that were probably there and some others that I did not know of.
Interviewer: Who did you know that went to Yeshivah?
Baker: Harold Tennanbaum had gone to Telzeh Yeshiva in Cleveland and I would have to think hard to think of somebody else but I’m sure there were a few others that had gone away at that time. I remember this was just post Second World War and the Yeshivah’s were probably not in the best of conditions during Second World War. Many of the teachers that even taught at that time, were survivors which made for not exactly the best teachers. Some of them were…
Interviewer: Did Columbus teach more?
Baker: There was no Jewish education in Columbus outside the Columbus Hebrew School which I went to for a matter of months only in my life I couldn’t take to riding on the school buses the time involved. My father taught me and he prepared me as he prepared many boys. Jerry Zelizer went away to Yeshivah of course he ultimately became a Rabbi. My father prepared him for the Yeshivah. And there were, like I say, were a few others…David Zisenwine, of course Jerry and David are several years or some years younger than me and by that time, perhaps, they were more that were availing themselves of this kind of education and it was also later on they were going to be Yeshiva’s post high school work or maybe post college, I don’t recall right now. My case, I went to the 8th grade and it was a bit traumatic not so much to me as my living there but education wise. I mean me as well as my father prepared me, I was far behind the kids that had been in there.
Interviewer: Is this in Cleveland?
Baker: This is in New York, Brooklyn, who had been there throughout the beginning. I had started out in an 8th grade English classes or secular classes and 5th grade Hebrew classes. I wasn’t very big for my age but I was a lot bigger that 5th graders and the desks were small for my legs to fit under. Also, but eventually I caught up and by the time I left there, I suppose, I was at least passable for 8th grade I’m not sure I excelled, but by my own knowledge, I was the best boy, and I came back to Columbus and folks in the interim had moved to Bexley and I finished up school in Bexley, Bexley High School and went away to Ohio State University. By the time I was 21, I was married and had a couple of children very quickly. I’m a young guy with old kids today.
Interviewer: But the thing is your Jewish education sort of stopped…
Baker: My Jewish education almost stopped completely at that point. When I came back I still did some learning with my father. Being a high school kid you know, good by god, I’m gone off to high school. You got other things on your mind, football…
Interviewer: This is quite interesting. This will lead us up to the fact about your position with the Torah Academy.
Baker: That comes about with something totally different, I mean, I have a view as to Jewish education and I am obsessed with Jewish education. You know we grew up, including yourself, I mean I’m older/younger, than you but I still remember. We grew up in a time to be a Jew; you only had to have a good memory. You had a memory of the Holocaust, you have a memory of the State of Israel coming into existence and you say I’m proud, I’m a Jew. I survived the Holocaust, other civilizations didn’t survive, those that tried to kill us didn’t survive, I was there when the State of Israel was created. That’s terrific. OK, take a kid today, ten, 15 even 20 years old and you tell him about the State of Israel, you tell him about the Holocaust, you might as well be talking about the Spanish Inquisition or you can talk about the invention of television when you talk about the State of Israel both of the came about 20 years ago, they have no recollection. And, therefore, they don’t teach them who they are, what they are, where they came from and where they are going and they have no reason to stay where…they have no reason to stay in the religion. What is this? What kind of religion is this? Everybody, nobody likes us, we gotta…we do crazy things, were expected to spend a lot of time in Synagogues and Temples, we’re expected to eat strange foods, we’re expected to dress in different ways, act different ways, we’re expected to it’s very costly to be Jewish. Why would anybody want to be Jewish? So, without education, without some reasonably strong education, how can you expect the kids to continue to want to be Jewish?
Interviewer: There is an interim of blank tape…
Baker: …business man gives because he works by the hour, hourly wages may be tremendous, but it is still by the hour and they don’t think in terms of a business man who has not necessarily more discretionary money, but he has windfalls that sometimes he utilizes the windfalls for charitable giving. So what’s happened is the Federation remains level as the needs have gone up the Federation budgets have increased because there are more in the service area and there is more and that’s where I think Federation will be the future service. Foundations will be the future, if we are going to have a future, its going to be in foundations. There is a tremendous advantage today in establishing foundations, tax advantages and estates. You can do it while you are alive, because there are advantages there also. But while you don’t have to be a wealthy person to establish a foundation, everybody can establish a foundation and that foundation wanted to gives the person a certain of your immortality because that name foundation will continue long after their the individual is gone. Secondly it provides income to institutions or institutions and the principle stays intact. The corpus stays intact and the only thing you are spending is the income. That’s got to be the future because there’s no possible other way we are going to be able to raise the kinds of funds necessary to maintain our institutions and staff…for Israel Bonds every year. It’s almost become a tradition for me to speak Israel Bonds at the Ahavas Sholom every year. The charities I have pretty much spoken about.
My main involvement has been with the Torah Academy and Israel, the United Jewish Appeal, Columbus Jewish Federation which I have been president of, the Torah Academy and in fact years ago president of the Kolami previously it was called the Columbus Hebrew School. I have been on the board of the Columbus Jewish Federation for numerous years up until this past year when they finally rotated me off, I think, for a year or two. I am on the Board and a member of the Executive Committee of the Columbus Jewish Foundation where I am reasonably active at the Foundation and I consider myself to be a supporter of the Jewish life in this community, as it will be life with the American Jewish Community in the future. Federations will no longer be able to handle the intervention and the budget deficit, financing for agencies as the needs for these agencies increase and the money available to campaigns stays level as it has been for several years in this Community. As the type of people that make up our Community changes and it goes from a business man to a professional or service oriented person, the charitable dollars you might garner from them decline. Professional people do not tend to give like a Religious person, but as their kids start go grow up they start to think more traditionally and then they start to realize the needs.
The value of what it is that we have and what we have to pass on and how important it is to be who we are. I mean we’ve given this world too much to just say lets chuck it all and all become like they are gonna have one type of currency in Europe, you know one religion in the world. Chuck it all, it will be easier. It will be, less-wars are fought over religion. If you didn’t have religion you wouldn’t have wars. But I don’t know what you would have.
Interviewer: That sounds great and I…
Baker: Synagogue affiliations, obviously was the Ahavas Sholom. Growing up, I was Bar Mitzvahed at the Ahavas Sholom and I remained a member there and I am still a member there-not as active as I should be, but more of a contributing member. I’m more of a member of the Agudas Achim today, but would take very, very, very little for me to become more pro-active with the Ahavas Sholom, as I still consider it my congregation. I have had the opportunity to be there several times a year, Yom Kippur, I go whenever I have Yahrtzeit, I go there for Yiskor and I speak.
I choose not to be. But I don’t advocate that religion should change to suite me, I am happy with religion the way it is. I’m not looking for Conservative Judaism where it would fit more to my life style, I’d rather be a non-practicing Orthodox Jew than be a practicing something else Jew. And that’s what I am, I am a non-practicing Orthodox Jew. I like the religion the way it is. Someday day I may come back to it. In the meantime as long as we hold that as our standards, we have a chance to survive.
Once we start to compromise the standards to satisfy the people, it’s only a matter of time till you comprise. You comprise yourself away to have nothing left. So that’s my philosophy, I don’t, whether I gained it from my faith before I started this out, did I adhere to the teaching of my father? Maybe, maybe that was the fact, I’m not sure. I know there was a great hiatus, a great lull there where we didn’t, I didn’t think this way and maybe came back as a result of that and maybe it is an acquired thinking. I’m not sure I didn’t think this way, it was just that I wasn’t vocal about it. And I…I don’t know whether it’s acquired thinking or what. Maybe as your children get older and you want to see them live more Jewish lives, you now have grandchildren and I think in terms of making sure that they can get the kind of Jewish education that you want, and you want to make sure at sometimes may not necessarily apply the same principles as you do, but in the meantime if you make the right provisions, financially, as well as, as well as emotionally, physically, spiritually, philosophically, theologically and another “g” we can think of, it helps.
And now they have d Day School for Jewish education. I am not advocating it to be Orthodox or whether it should be a Conservative school. I don’t care; just let it be an intensive Jewish education so these kids will not go off to college not knowing who they are.
Interviewer: Does the home life have a great deal to do with it?
Baker: Of course it does, you’ve got to have a home active spirit that supports day school environment, that supports…most kids are just trained to be Bar Mitzvah, rote to perform a Bar-Bat Mitzvah and after that nobody cares anymore whether they get any more Jewish education.
Interviewer: That’s the sad thing.
Baker: You have parents that drop their kids off at the Synagogue and they go play golf, tennis…what do you expect from them? So when they get to college and some Hari Krishna or some Moonie gets a hold of them and tells them.. gives them all this spiritualism, they say “that sounds pretty good to me, I have never had any of this. That’s sounds pretty good. In my home, we didn’t have anything like this, we had only hypocrites there. They told you one thing and did something else”. And that’s what you can expect. And that’s been my philosophy….I’m not a religious person, I am a traditional person, I think at times I could be more religious perhaps, but not right now…it’s an assimilation.
Interviewer: It’s assimilation.
Baker: What we have managed to do is complete the job that Mr. Hitler tried, that he started. He had no idea that we would complete the job ourselves. If we’re going to put the finger in the dike and stop this and stop this blood letting it’s only going to be through Jewish education. Nothing, nothing else is going to work. You can have all the organizations, all the societies, all the groups, every thing you want, it’s all worthless, it’s all worthless if you don’t educate people. Because the statistics are there, it’s not anything that you have to write or re-write the statistics are there. Kids that get a minimum of six years of Jewish educations in a qualified day school, is less than 8% in inter-marriages. Those don’t raise their children Jewish is off the charts. Its not even, there is no recorded numbers. Yet on the other side, those people that get no Jewish education with less than six years of a day school education the inter-marriage rate is 52% of which 44% of those do not raise families as Jewish families. What’s the answer? The answer is we have no future our future is very dim and dismal if we don’t do something about it and put our money where it should be instead of fooling around with all kinds of experimental programs. You’ve got to put the money where it works and it works in the…
Interviewer: You did a lot of work on your own.
Baker: Well, I mean I have been involved in the community since, I got involved really soon, I got involved back in the earlier ’60’s pretty much so when I had.. maybe I was fortunate, I was lucky and I had the means to put money where my mouth is, which helps someone maybe that’s not the way it should be it should be if your committed money shouldn’t be there, it shouldn’t be a necessity but the facts of life are that generally if you got money it helps. It’s not that I am rich, I’m never rich but I was comfortable and I was able to do the things I wanted to do to make the community a better place. It wasn’t that I did it because I’m so charitable. I did it maybe for selfish reasons. If the community is a better community it is a better place for me to live, it’s a better place for my children to live, it’s a better place for my grandchildren to live.
Interviewer: Judaism came into play?
Baker: Judaism came into play because I see a community that it’s not only a community but it’s the United States Jewish Community which is failing. I mean its failing to the extent that we had six million Jews in this country in 1945 by any type of demographics that you want imaginable there ought to be 30 million Jews here today. The fact is that there is only 5 million Jews here today. What happen to them? We weren’t washed up in the flood, it wasn’t the time of Noah we didn’t have a famine like in…
Fortunately, most of the rest of the, at least in the Anglo Western World, the Jews have prospered pretty well, so we don’t really need any help from anybody.
Interviewer: Tell me about Columbus, what does it have to do with Columbus?
Baker: Well, because it’s where I live and it has to be a great city, I think it’s a terrific city, I can’t think of any other place that I would rather live in than Columbus, except for the lousy weather we have here. I mean if they had a beach and warm weather I probably would never leave, but it is a terrific city. It is a city that has acquired everything its set out to get. It has gotten every thing it wants as far as the Jewish Community and as far as even the general community. We just had a Proposition 1 to put in an Arena. Well for whatever reason and I won’t go into it, I voted against it. I didn’t vote against it because I didn’t want an area, I voted against it because I knew the arena was going to come anyway. And as it comes, this city does what it has to do in order to be the great city that it is. As far as the Jewish Community is concerned, we have probably one of the finest day schools in the country, we have senior citizen housing, that is probably one of the best for a city of this type in the country.
Interviewer: Yeah and you have had a lot to do about it.
Baker: We have a Jewish Center that is probably one of the best in the country for a city this size.
Baker: It was an interim that didn’t apply to me, because there was never any thought in my mind that I could ever be anything but a Jew. I can’t imagine it, I can’t imagine ever, I have always said I was born…some people were born with three strikes against them; I was born with three good things happening for me. I was born white, I was born in New York, I was born a Jew. In my mind I thought I could have been born a black African Swahili. But, no I wasn’t, so I… whether it’s an accident in geography or was, is a demographic, geological or whatever you want to call it, I was born with all the advantages I think that anybody could have. Some people thing being born Jewish is an advantage, I think it is. I think we are a people that born a Jew you have more than just your family, you have the whole world, Kol- Israel. But try to tell that to a ten year old, 15 year old, he isn’t going to understand. He is not going to understand that if you or if I get in trouble in Columbus, Ohio and it becomes, it gets out on the internet somebody in Sidney, Australia might come to my help. That’s because we are people, we are more than a religion, we are more than a nationality, we are people and we have looked out for each other since probably since the Holocaust. I don’t think at that time, unfortunately we didn’t. We weren’t so closely knit, today we are closely knit. We look after each other. That’s obviously the centrality of that we all focus on is probably Israel. That most of us focus on is Israel.
Interviewer: And if Israel is in need, were there. So I got involved more today with the foundation than I am with the Federation because I see it as the more viable means to the future of the Jewish Community.
Interviewer: Of the Jewish Community.
Baker: I’ve personally established several foundations one for the Torah Academy High School and another one for general purpose, a third one for a scholarship fund for a recipient each year for child either continuing on at the High School Torah Academy or going away to a Yeshivah then I have a Founders Funds and I’m working on another one right now. Because I think this is the way to put your money into those things that are important to you in the Community. I have established something to be happy about and to take care of in my own little way. I mean it’s not that I’m going to make that big a difference in the world but like I think I can leave the world maybe 1/100th of a degree better that I found it.
Baker: Then you know you had a purpose while you were here. Somebody will say what did he live for, I don’t know, he lived to play gin rummy, I don’t know maybe that’s all I lived for but I hope that maybe there was something more important than that.
Interviewer: That’s a wonderful.
Baker: But I’m going down a sample list, you have a sample outline for questions, as I say, I have given you of my parents, my grandparents, my grandparents I only knew the one set of grandparents, my mother’s parents and they were very interesting pair of people who had an impact in this Community in their own small way.
Interviewer: Impact in your life.
Baker: In my life and even in the Community my Zaideh was a Chazen. He wrote a good deal of music which the Chazenim are still singing some of his music. I have one sister and one step-sister, my sister is older and has been in living in Chicago for the last 40 some years. them my step-sister has lived in Israel since she’s been a child. She married in Israel and she has remained in Israel for the most part of her life she lived here for short periods from time to time. The only other relatives that I have that are here are an uncle and a cousin, two cousins.
Interviewer: What are there names?
Baker: Aaron Yablok is a cousin of mine from my mother’s side and he is here in the Community. I’m not particularly close to any of them not by any design or reason, it just happens our lives have taken different directions and our interests have taken different directions. I was fortunate enough to skip the military not maybe fortunately I don’t know, I was too young for Korea and to old for Vietnam. In the meantime when they did still have the draft at that time I had recently gotten married and I was called to a come for a physical and at time, unbeknown to me, my wife had her appointment at a doctor and she came home with glad tidings that we were expecting a baby. It’s in those days when it was peaceful times between Korea and Vietnam it let you out. So they never got me, they never took me and I don’t think I would have made a very good soldier anyway. I was married in 1959 to a girl from Akron, Ohio. We met in college and we remained married for about 17 years at which time it didn’t work out. I have two lovely children from that marriage but we were divorced and I was divorced for about 15 years until 1990 when I married my present wife, Marsha. I have two children Symantha who lives her in Columbus married to Theo Sumpkin and I have to grand-daughters, she has to daughters 6 months and 2 1/2 years. My son, Stephen, is in St. Petersburg, Florida, in fact today is his birthday. I just got a call on my voice mail from him thanking me for something I sent to him. He’s an attorney in St. Petersburg, unmarried.
Interviewer: Oy, have I got a girl for him.
Baker: That’s what everybody says. We’ve travel extensively; to Israel in fact I made my first trip to Israel and kind of by accident in 1962. My then wife, my first wife, and I were traveling in Europe and we wound up in Athens, Greece and we were just spending a few days in Athens we were walking down the street one day and walked my a El Al ticket office and in the window as some may recall there advertisement use to be a billboard of a DC-3, it was a very old plane on the beach and a girl in a bikini standing next to the plane and I though you know that’s pretty enticing, I wonder how far we are from Israel. My geography was failing me at the moment. I walked inside and I said when do you go to Israel? We have two flights a week on Tuesday and Thursday, I quickly realized today is Tuesday I asked what time the flight left today? They said 2 o’clock, I said do you have two seats?
Yes. We went to Israel. We got off the plane in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv for those who have been there it’s Ben Gurion, a very large airport. At that time it was a barrack with two guys sitting behind a , you didn’t open your luggage, and you walked out the door, and there were old 1948 Desoto Cabs that they picked up in New York, I think, with diesel engines put in them and there were donkeys and carts and that was the extent of the transportation going in to Tel Aviv. The road at that time was a one lane road. So, when you came down one way and somebody was coming the other way somebody had to pull off on the berm so the other car could go by. Needless to say Israel, is a completely different country today. But we were so enticed by it at the time the following year I read in a international paper about the United Jewish Appeal, national mission and I had not given to the Appeal. I was not involved with the United Jewish Mission other than as a kid in high school, going out in 70’s and getting $5.00 bills from high school kids, making contributions to the Federation campaign.
We hooked up with that trip. That was the national mission, U.J. Mission. What I didn’t know then, it was only the second mission they had ever run. The first one was in 1961, we were on this one 1962, this was 1963, I think, U.J. Mission. Israel was a different country then altogether than was is today-not just the airport, not just the road to Tel Aviv but the fact it was a tiny little country before 1967. There wasn’t very much to do or see in Israel. They take you over to Hadassah Hospital and they could take you to the Zionist home or something like that. Jerusalem itself was a small sleepy town on the west side of the wall and wasn’t very interesting and nobody really went there very much. Tel Aviv was the hub of things. But it was nothing more than just…you could Kvell over the fact that everyone was Jewish but…other than that there wasn’t much there.
Interviewer: Did it mean anything to you?
Baker: Well it meant something because it’s a Jewish Country and it’s your country. But it so much to me that I went 6 months later on this mission and continued to go every single year for the last 35 years. In fact there were years that I was there 3 or 4 times a year, since my father lived there, I used to go every Pesach, usually in the fall. I was there, I don’t know how many countless times I have been there with the United Jewish Appeal, on a mission or because they asked me to go there for a meeting or a follow-up for something even so as much as I went once for two days just to make a shiva call when Kula, when they bombed Kula up, when they bombed the bus stations. This was in 1994 and just a group of us got together and decided we were just gonna go to Israel and make a shiva call on the people. So we flew in on a Sunday and we were home by Wednesday. So we were there literally one night. We turned around and came back. So I have made numerous, numerous trips to Israel as a result of that first trip going there just because I went up an El Al Ticket Counter in Athens.
Interviewer: Was she up to…
Baker: Well if it hadn’t been then I certainly would have been there soon thereafter, it was there just to be found and certainly after 1967 when it got so exciting. It was such an exciting place to be with the several years before the 1973 war it was a beat of vibrancy in the country that was just as phenomenal you couldn’t get it out of your head.
Interviewer: Are they welcoming you to Israel?
Baker: Yes, they would welcome anybody that will help the country. Things there are literally 40 years behind times. You know that’s a subject of another story. But basically they…when I was in Poland, I was looking, as I was saying, I was looking for some things of my mother and her sister and brothers and I knew the city where they were from, but, what I didn’t know was that the city they were from, was not the city they were born in. Therefore, I was unable to locate any the birth records on these people which was what I was hoping to find. And that was basically was the reason for the trip to Poland, and like I say, I have no interest in going back there, if there is anybody that is going to do any genealogy work they have to do it without me. I found it a very depressing place. It’s probably, I would call, the largest Jewish cemetery. The whole country is just soaked in Jewish blood and I get very depressed about things like this very quickly.
Places that interested me a great more in growing up, was when my father took me once to the ocean, to New York as a small kid and we had relatives that lived in Coney Island and I looked at the ocean and this was probably towards the later part the of the Second World War. And I didn’t understand such things as horizons and why I couldn’t see across the ocean. I thought if I could see across the ocean, I could see people fighting because it was just across the ocean where the war was going on, but you learn a little more about things like that later on. But I always had this thing about wanting to live near the ocean. So today I have an apartment in Miami that’s on the ocean and you can’t take me away from it. It’s like a rebirth to me every time I go and I sit on my balcony or go to the beach. I can’t wait to get there, except when I’m there a week or two I can’t…that’s just the way we are and that’s our human nature that’s why they call us the wandering Jew-keep wanting to wander off to somewhere else.
Interviewer: That basically you are a Jew no matter where you are.
Baker: Yes, I mean we are what we are and the whole idea of what you mentioned is very interesting. I always felt that my mother, unfortunately passed away by accident in 1959 when I was pretty young. And then my father died in 1986, so twice on two occasions I had the year to say Kaddish and it’s interesting that I’ve always been a wanderer. I always traveled a lot, I like people, places and new things.
And even in 1959 we traveled somewhat, we were in Mexico and we went different places and I’d find different Shuls with different people. One thing about it that was so interesting is: One: how they made you feel at home where ever you were no matter what the country, no matter what city; and two: that with the adjustment for the time, the time zones all over the world, the Jews were saying the same prayers at the same time everyday. This is something, which is something that no other people do that. This is collectively how we survived. If we split ourselves apart we wouldn’t have survived. That’s interesting and I had some very interesting experiences. I remember, in ’86 in fact, that’s when I came to the recognition that I don’t think you say Kaddish for the parent, I think it’s an affirmation of faith, your own affirmation of faith. No matter of how far you may have strayed, that will bring you back. It’s a very unique experience because again in ’86 when may father passed away, I was in China, Hong Kong.
I remember being in Washington as a chaperon with the Torah Academy class that year and davenening in the mornings in this little Shul, George Town, that Herman Wolf davenened there every morning. Where else would I meet people like this? There is one in Florida and I went into a Conservative Shul the daily Minyon, is the same as an Orthodox. That’s where Danny Kaye had passed away. His brother and his niece were saying Kaddish for Danny Kaye. It’s also nice, interesting, that you have the ability to be the Omer to conduct the service in almost any place and it’s interesting that no matter in what country, city, or place. I just meet new people, interesting people, but you have one thing in common, you’re all Jewish and you are all saying the same thing. You’re all there to open Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv and except for the adjustment of the time zones you were doing the same, we were all doing the same thing. I think that’s what I believe that’s what it is all about anyway, I don’t think it has anything to do with the memory of your parents or honoring your parents, as a matter of fact, there is nothing in the Kaddish that has anything to do with death. There is nothing in it that has anything to do with a person that has died. It’s an affirmation, it’s really just an affirmation of faith and it’s an interesting way that we do it. We’re unique; we are unique people because we do things like this. Instead of sitting, looking and having showings of dead bodies, talking about how nice they look, we do something else, we put that aside and we go on with it.
Interviewer: That’s what life is for.
Baker: That’s what it’s for. Ask me anything else you want I don’t, know what else to talk about.
Interviewer: Well, I really appreciate that you have given us good incite as to your feelings towards your life here in Columbus, your dad, what he meant to every body here in Columbus, he was a great man and of course he was a very beautiful man.
Baker: He was a very interesting guy to tell a story. You know that several years after he died that I realized that he was gone, because I would hear a good story, a joke, he was great for a story or a joke and I would call him up all the time, even when he lived in Israel, I would call him up and say, you gotta hear this, this is fantastic, you gotta here this. It was several years after he passed away that I realized, hey I can’t call him anymore; I don’t know the number…
Interviewer: Well here is a man who appreciated humor, he was an intelligent man. He saw the good side of everything. Some people…
Baker: He did, he really did and he really turned a lot of peoples lives around some people didn’t know what he did. I know of people here that he’s turned people’s lives around that really he helped people out of the ways that they that other people don’t even know what he did do. I mean I know of a situations and he was really very unusual. He was a very unusual guy because he had some unusual talents. He could learn just about anything he wanted to learn. He did. He literally taught himself a number of things and even later in life when he was down in Florida the last year or so, he was alone a lot because his wife was already in a nursing home, my step-mother was in a nursing home, he would sit and watch these TV shows like National Geographic and these kind of shows, he would start talking about butterflies or rabbits, or leaves on trees, different leaves on trees. He could walk down and he could say those things and how do you know that? Well I learned to talk to them.
Interviewer: He never gave up learning.
Interviewer: Even in his old age…
Baker: He did, he really did, he taught himself to start the building business. He literally went to the library and took out books and he studied how to read plans and this was his building business.
Interviewer: What an inspiration to…
Baker: I mean I was just a seat of the pants builder myself. I mean, I got into probably a great deal more than he was into it for that matter. But he was really, he was my inspiration, I mean I needed a way to make money and I couldn’t figure out any way to make it better, faster, than in real estate, in the building business. It worked out fairly well for me.
Interviewer: As religious as he was, he wasn’t considered with…hard to understand what is being said.
Baker: As far as religious, that would have been his obvious choice, but he never pushed me into the fields that he was in, because he found that the fields as something he found his fields as something that wasn’t…first of all in those days, I am not even sure today whether there terribly, respected. In those days any type of public service job was not particularly a respected job, they liked you, but you were their Schochet, you were their Moyel, you were the teacher, even the Rabbi wasn’t a terribly, highly respected position and certainly it didn’t pay very much.
Interviewer: Expect that he must have been…
Baker: And so, he never pushed in, never pushed anybody into those fields, if anything, he didn’t push me into any field and let me stray for myself and I was kind of a stray.
Interviewer: But he was always there behind you.
Baker: Yes, he was always behind me, but I was always kind of a stray. Whatever happened to me, whatever became of me, I am not sure why me. Maybe it was bashert, maybe it was planned that way, I don’t know. I mean, I think maybe Dad had a plan for me. I’m not sure what it was, but if this was what it was, it felt pretty well, because if I have my life to do over again I wouldn’t change one second of it. I would do everything exactly the way I did before.
Interviewer: Well, you learn by experience.
Baker: Even though I made so many mistakes…
Interviewer: But that’s how you learn…
Baker: Many tragedies, but in tragedies something good comes out of it. My mother died when I was 21 years old, it was a tragedy. As result of that, my father remarried and he had a daughter, my step-sister who is expecting her 6th child now. That’s a whole new family out of one tragedy. The tragedy was there for the moment, it is a tragedy that my mother would still be alive today if I were there. I can’t worry about that, that’s over with, in the meantime look what’s happening, there is a whole another family that’s the segment of a family that lives in Israel. She has 5 children and the 6th one is expected. It is a whole another aspect of life here. Otherwise wouldn’t be, it would just be my older sister and myself and our few kids and that’s it. What we are, we are.
If there is another branch, the branch shows something good comes from everything. Would I have married the same woman that I married knowing that I was going to get divorced 15, 17 years later. Yeah, because I wouldn’t have the kids I got, if I hadn’t married the woman I married. So it’s all a matter of beshert I don’t think it’s that…
Interviewer: That’s what life is.
Baker: I’m not sure it is, I just think that it is a matter of chance and circumstance that it happened that way and you can’t dwell on it, you have to move on.
Interviewer: You live with it in your memories.
Baker: Right, right.
Interviewer: Then you pick up what comes…
Baker: Yeah, you learn and you learn…
Interviewer: But the most important thing is being a mensch.
Baker: Yes, I think that’s the right word, a mensch. Being a mensch is very important. What is being mensch it’s important to interrupt being a mensch in a lot ways. But the end result is a mensch is somebody that does something that just doesn’t just exist. Existing is easy to do. Something that everybody can just exist on three meals a day, they can sleep, they can eat, they can have all bodily functions and all the sexual activities, but that passes on and that’s the end of life, that’s it. That’s it, that’s…
Interviewer: That’s what they mean to other people, it’s the memories that they leave behind.
Baker: And that’s why, of course, that I will tell you that’s an interesting thing about memories. That’s off the subject completely almost. When we were discussing the Torah Academy, it is now going to have its 40th year next year but this year is the 40th.
Interviewer: Is this really the 40th year already?
Baker: But the 25th anniversary, I might have been present again, I don’t recall but anyway I was involved in the planning of the affair of the dinner of that year and we were talking about having a real gala affair and part of the planning committee were relative youngsters as youngsters to me.
Interviewer: Who were they? Do you remember?
Baker: I don’t remember now. But we talked about bringing Dr. Marvin Fox, who was one of the founders of the school in Columbus and one of the people that was on the committee said, who is Dr. Marvin Fox? I said to myself, here is a guy that is here, in Columbus so many years, had such an impact on not only on the university, but in the Ahavas Sholom, in the community, in the day school and beside his national and international acclaim, he had such an impact on the City of Columbus and nobody knew who he was because when he left Columbus he didn’t leave anything behind. And that’s when I thought, I really got thinking about foundations. If you really want to have future generations know who you…maybe you don’t want to know who you are, but if you want to know who you were or a least to ask…
Interviewer: Maybe it’s an impact on the people.
Baker: Ask, you must do something, leave something in your community that will remain after you are gone and then perhaps that is the closet thing we can get to immortality-is leaving something behind with our name on It’s not a matter of giving a million dollars and having a building named after you, which is alright too, but it’s a matter of just doing something in some area of importance and that somebody might ask 50 years from today, who was Dr. Marvin Fox, who was Rabbi Baker? If you’ll ask this question, somebody might even have and answer. I think that’s important because of two reasons: one, should that person be remembered and two, it gives other people the idea that this is away to create immortality, this is a way to do something worth while toward the Community, it encourages other people to do it and that’s sometimes what is needed is encouragement-is all the people need, the will, they have means, the means they have, all they need is the encouragement and that’s what dose it. I think it’s important, that again goes back in my involvement in foundations which I think is very important. Probably after with Jewish education was recipient of foundation and Israel, I think foundations is the future of Jewish Communal life. We can exist, but we can’t have a communal life without.
Interviewer: What do you think the answer might well be? That the education is the answer for the assimilation of all the Jewish people?
Baker: Only education, there is no, I don’t think there is any other answer. I mean you could have some…
Education could fall into various categories, but I think primarily it’s got to be basic education. It has to be supported by strong family commitments. But today our family commitments are not necessarily very strong because there are so many broken homes. Mixed marriages, this kind of thing. With all that can be, if you don’t have it strong at home at least give them a good educational system. Let’s send them away to good summer camp programs, let’s get these kids to Israel. Israel is the greatest teacher you can have, if you send a kid on a program a good summer program to Israel they will just come away from there with a different feeling about there Judaism. I mean suddenly.
Interviewer: They belong there…
Baker: They belong, suddenly the Shaigitz or the Shikseh doesn’t have anything in common with them. I mean they want to start talking about the Kotel, or they want to talk about the Gologh, they want to talk about the various things from Gologh and all of a sudden what’s this Gog knows about these things, what they don’t know they don’t care, and they shouldn’t care, why would it interest them anymore than the revolution in the Irish revolution. It may interest Jews, it should, but periphery we have an interest in it, we have an interest in Zaire and Rwanda but we don’t understand completely. But we understand the Middle East. We don’t all agree on the solution, we don’t even know necessarily whether it could be solved. But we at least…
Interviewer: We’re proud of it.
Baker: We can discuss, we are not like the second son of the third son of the Seder, who doesn’t know enough to ask a question. We can ask the questions, we don’t know the answers, but we can ask the questions. It is important of me to ask the questions…
Interviewer: The only way you learn this is by asking the questions.
Baker: But you take kids today, they’re going to answer them. They have this kind of knowledge and they’re going to need some shaigitz or shikseh and they’re gonna see if they can talk about ball games, they can talk about knitting and sewing and cooking, but when it comes down to who you are, and where you all came from, they won’t know about it. Major things to talk about. And that’s why education so important. If we educate the kids, this won’t happen. This won’t happen.
Interviewer: There was a generation that seems to have gotten lost some where.
Baker: They are not lost, because it’s that generation between us and them that knew about the things that kept us together. The Holocaust, Israel, these kinds of things and this latest generation which at least the day is getting wanting to learn a greater percentage of school going to day schools. But there was that group in between there that just went off. Why are half Moonies, half the Hari Krishna’s, and half these other cults…why are the Jews? Not looking…why are they Jews? You’d be surprised how many of these cult groups are Jews because they never did see any importance in Judaism because the parents didn’t know anything, so they didn’t want their kids to know anything. Can you imagine bringing up the kid in this country and saying… the more they are the Amish to some extent do this and they have problems. But saying I don’t want you to learn arithmetic pass 2 and 2 is 4, and I don’t want you to learn English more than four letter and four letter two syllable four letter words. I mean, what kind of ignorant people would we have? Yet we think nothing about raising a Jewish kid in this world and teaching him nothing, let him have a Bar Mitzvah Party.
Interviewer: Having a Bar Mitzvah party and that’s it?
Baker: Not only for a party but what he learns is by rote, is strictly by rote, I mean you could teach a parrot or a monkey to perform with what most of these kids perform. I hear sometimes wonderful accolades about look how wonderful he was. Ask the kids if he knew anything. He didn’t know a damn thing, he didn’t know…he learned, he memorized, he memorized a Mofter, he remembers…, but believe me it unglues the day after he opens his last gift for the fountain pen runs dry. He’s unglued…
Interviewer: Unfortunately he…
Baker: Because he can’t when there is no basis for that education. It’s just by rote, it’s just a memory, an exercise in memory, basically, as far as we’re concerned that exercise is an exercise in futility. We have no future based on that kind of education. A future based on a strong Jewish education with kids come away, you know you can’t even reject, I’m not talking about religion, I’m not talking about being religious, I don’t think you reject religion if you don’t know what it is you’re rejecting. I mean, if I choose not to observe something, I choose not to observe it because I learned a little bit about it and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. OK, but if you just reject it because you don’t know anything about it, that’s to shame, that’s a shame, that’s… that’s like say, my I don’t eat fish, well I never tasted it so I’m not gonna eat it because I don’t like it. Well, OK, if you never tasted it you don’t know whether you like it or not.
Interviewer: But it’s up to a parent to give a child the basics…
Baker: And you have to give it and encourage them.
Baker: And that’s and that’s pretty much my emphasis on life.
Interviewer: It’s a real pleasure talking to you, I really enjoyed this.
Baker: OK, we’ll see how this comes across.
Interviewer: Thank you, Irv, for sharing your personal life experience with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.