A very busy 92 years
Al Burstein of Tenafly talks about his life, from Jersey City childhood through WWII horrors and adventures in legislation to now
When you talk to Albert Burstein — World War II vet, Columbia grad, lawyer, political reformer, state legislator, education advocate, grand old-school liberal, native and lifelong Jerseyan — you have to reorient yourself.
On the one hand, you feel as if he’s a contemporary. None of the subtly patronizing “he’s still so sharp” assessments can be applied to him. He’s scary-smart, just as he clearly always has been. Ask him a question about this week’s politics, and he’ll analyze it and answer it, elegantly, cogently, convincingly.
On the other hand, Mr. Burstein is 92 years old. That means that he has almost a century’s worth of stored knowledge. Ask him a question about politics in the 1980s, or ’60s, or ’40s, and he’ll analyze it and answer it, elegantly, cogently, convincingly.
Get The Jewish Standard Newsletter by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
Or ask him to tell you his story.
Last month, the New Jersey Law Journal honored Mr. Burstein, who lives in Tenafly and still practices law, now with Archer & Greiner in Hackensack, with its lifetime achievement award. That’s certainly not the first honor he’s received — among many others, he earned a bronze star from the U.S. government for his World War II service overseas, and the French government named him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for fighting Nazis on its soil.
We can start Mr. Mr. Burstein’s story in February of 1912. That when his father, Julius, came from Ciechanów, Poland, when he was 17 years old and had just completed the equivalent of a high school education. He had made his way first to Warsaw, and then to Hamburg, “peddling buttons, but he was not making a living,” his son said. So, all alone, leaving behind parents and siblings who later were murdered during World War II, he crossed the Atlantic on a ship “appropriately named Abraham Lincoln,” Albert Burstein said.
When he landed in New York, “My father had a dollar in his pocket, and very limited English. It’s amazing, the courage they had.” (The “they” here, of course, is both his father and the other immigrants who came across the ocean to this promising but entirely unknown new world, secure in the knowledge only that there was no turning back.)
“When my father came here, he had just one address, of someone who had come from Ciechanów, was living in Jersey City, and had a business there,” Mr. Burstein said. “My father made contact with him — you had to have someone who you could tell immigration about, so you wouldn’t be a public charge.
“My father began working for this man, and slowly but surely he began building up his knowledge of the language and the customs.” He worked hard, he saved money, and “eventually he started his own business, in the soft goods line — linens and curtains and drapery,” Mr. Burstein said.
Mr. Burstein’s mother, Hannah Siegel Burstein, came from Żuromin, a Polish town close to Ciechanów, but the two did not meet until both were in the United States. Helen Siegel had a hard childhood. Her mother died when she was an infant, and the aunt who took her in “was not pleasant,” Mr. Burstein said. Her father had immigrated early and brought her older siblings first. By 1917 or so, though, she had arrived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she lived in a walk-up on Rivington Street. Soon, people who knew both of them brought Hannah and Julius together; they married on January 1, 1922, and she moved across the Hudson to her husband’s New Jersey home.
“They had a walk-up, a block from the store,” Mr. Burstein said. He was born in Jersey City in November 1922 — “my parents were busy,” he said — and he grew up there.
“Jersey City had a growing Jewish community at that time,” he continued. “The percentage that sticks in my mind is about 8 or 9 percent of the population.” He and his brother, David, lived first at 270 Bayview Avenue, and then, when his parents’ business proved successful, on Broadman Parkway. “That’s where I spent the rest of my childhood,” he said.
Mr. Burstein went “through cheder” — that’s a traditional Hebrew school for elementary-school-age children — “at the Bergen Avenue synagogue. It was a traditional synagogue — I don’t remember its Hebrew name — and we were members there. We were there through my bar mitzvah, and then for about a year after that, and then I became an apostate.” That was in about 1933.
It is a sort of topsy-turvy story, with politics not coming out exactly the way you’d expect them to.
“I hadn’t quite decided that I was finished with religion at that point, but our rabbi became a controversial figure,” Mr. Burstein said. “His sermons focused a lot on international affairs — if you were going to label him you wouldn’t call him a communist, but he was a left-thinking individual. He aroused a lot of animosity in the congregation.
“So we left there and joined Temple Beth El, which was Reform, and I spent the rest of my time in Jersey City as a member of that congregation.”
(The rabbi, research shows, was Benjamin Plotkin, the Jewish Theological Seminary-trained rabbi who was politically active; an opponent of Frank Hague, the longtime mob-connected Jersey City mayor; held the bimah at Emanu-El in Jersey City for 51 years; and was honored by the state legislature in 1982, the year after he died, for being “a fighter against fascism and the Nazi movement” and as the founder of the American Jewish Alliance, which was “dedicated to peace and justice.” So although the Bursteins left the synagogue, some of Rabbi Plotkin’s ethos affected Mr. Burstein’s career nonetheless.)
Why did Mr. Burstein leave the more traditional Jewish world — remember that back then, the lines between the Orthodox and Conservative movements were far more porous than they are now, with the mixed-gender seating in Conservative shuls often the only difference between the movements’ practice — for the Reform one?
The old-world scholarship and worldview that the more traditional parts of the Jewish world reflected “did not fit comfortably with my parents, even though they were brought up in Europe,” Mr. Burstein said. “They were beginning to break away. As a result, they felt more comfortable with the Reform congregation.
“This was when classic Reform was starting to lose its appeal; when they realized that people were not entirely at home with an entire service in English, so they began to do a little more in Hebrew.” The rabbi there was “not a dynamic sort of individual, but he suited the times.”
Mr. Burstein went to public school. “There weren’t that many Jewish kids in high school” —Henry Snyder High School — but our out-of-school presence was centered on the JCC in Jersey City,” he said. “It was a thriving place.
“High school was uneventful for me,” he continued. “I was active in athletics. I played football, but only in my last year, because my mother wouldn’t let me before that. She had a gut reaction to it. But I kept pestering her, and I did play, and we won the county championship. I also played basketball for four years, and I was on the tennis team for two years.
“My only distinguishing characteristic, aside from the fact that I was one of the few who played in a series of athletics, was that my grades weren’t bad,” he said. Like many of his Jewish peers, he was college bound (“My parents, like in 99 percent of the Jewish homes, insisted on that as a given”), and he set his mind on Columbia. Not only was it a good school, “they also had a football team that won the Rose Bowl in 1932, and they also had a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Sid Luckman, the quarterback, who went on to the Chicago Bears.” Sid Luckman was Jewish, so he “became this young man’s idol.”
After Mr. Burstein’s guidance counselor paid him a backhanded compliment that Mr. Burstein still cherishes — “He told me that for an athlete, you’re not a bad student” — the young man applied to Columbia. He applied nowhere else. “I was accepted,” he said simply.
Columbia had a quota system then. “I was kind of naïve; I didn’t have a real understanding of it,” Mr. Burstein said. But his roommate also was Jewish — that was not a coincidence — and the son of a father who also had been at Columbia, 25 years earlier, when the quota already had been in effect. “The Jewish quota then was about 10 percent of entering freshmen,” Mr. Burstein said. “There was not nearly the percent of Jews there that there is now.”
Columbia was just across the river and a little bit north of Jersey City, but “I was living on campus, and that opened up a new world,” Mr. Burstein said.
His football career lasted only one year.
“I played freshman football — they had a separate football team for freshman then. I didn’t make the first team. I was a second-stringer. I went out for varsity in the spring, and I was making progress. I probably would have made the squad, although not as a starter — but we had a major scrimmage, and just toward the end I got knocked out. I had a mild concussion. That ended my football career.”
What did his mother, who had tried to keep him from playing football, say about that? “My mother didn’t know about it,” Mr. Burstein said. “I was very devious.” And he had no long-term effects. Still, he said, he remembered nothing from just before he was hit until about seven hours later.
He loved Columbia. “The academics were of a high order; when I took the train to Baker Field, I would have to make sure to have that week’s assignment with me. You had to work on the train.” (Columbia’s football team played in a field at Manhattan’s northern tip, a moderately long subway ride away.)
Mr. Burstein played basketball throughout college, he concentrated on his studies, he had an active social life, and he enjoyed those years. “Pretty much everyone at Columbia was smart, and so you got to hang around with people who have similar objectives, and you find yourself more and more comfortable using your mind,” he said.
Still, something enormous was hanging over all of them, a “huge dark cloud that covered everything,” he said.
World War II was raging in Europe. No one knew if or when the United States would enter the war, and American Jews did not yet know about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, but young men of draftable age knew that their futures were not necessarily theirs to map.
“During my first year in college, 1940-41, before Pearl Harbor, the war was more distant,” Mr. Burstein said. “Obviously, the kind of stories coming out of Europe, with the Nazi advances, posed a kind of personal danger to us, a danger that you had to think about, if you were not a dummy.
“What happened is that you go about your normal business, whatever it was you were doing.
“And then Pearl Harbor happened.” It was December 7, 1941. “The war was getting closer.”
The armed forces sponsored programs at colleges; Mr. Burstein, whose weak eyesight, he feared, would have ruled out his acceptance by any other branch, joined the Army Reserves. At first, he said, the U.S. government tried to keep many college students in school instead of having them all drafted at once, with no more to pull into the war later, so he was able to finish his junior year. “Then I was called up on May 8, 1943, and went through basic training in Camp Wheeler in Georgia. They gave us tests there, and that made me eligible to go into a special program called ASTP — the Army Specialized Training Program. That was for the purpose of going into the army’s intelligence corps.
“I was assigned to study German — the language and its history and background. I didn’t speak it before, but I was fairly adept at languages. I was transferred to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The course was supposed to last for eight or nine months, and then I was going to be transferred to the central intelligence headquarters at Camp Lee in Virginia.”
“But something else happened.
“The invasion of Europe.
“In June of 1944 they shut down all the programs, so they gave me a certificate, which was meaningless, and they sent me overnight from a nice warm bed in Lincoln to an infantry outfit in advanced infantry training in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“At that point, it was the worst experience I had ever had. I went from a comfortable middle-class life, having a bed to myself, to living like an animal.
“I became an infantryman. Hard times. Hard times.”
The training lasted for about a month, and then the unit was sent to Boston, and the next day was put on a transport ship. “We found ourselves in Cherbourg, France, seven days later,” Mr. Burstein said.
“By that time, the invasion had taken place.” D-Day was June 6, 1944. “By this time, it was late August. There was still fighting going on. It was very difficult for the American troops, even after they had landed successfully, to break through the lines and really push the Germans back, except by slogging your way through.
“Patton — who had gotten a great deal of equipment, because of his personality — had taken Paris. We were on the right flank of Patton’s army. I was part of the Seventh Army. We didn’t have the same kind of support. By that time, we were not too far from Lyons. We bivouacked in a little town called Luneville; everyone called it Looneyville. How could you not?
“I was in combat for close to two months. We went into the fall, and it was one of the worst times, weather-wise, that the French had ever experienced. And because there were not reservists behind us — they had exhausted all the reserve troops for the invasion — when we landed, there wasn’t anybody behind us to come in and relieve us.” So they stayed in place, in combat, in the rain, in the cold, well past the number of days and weeks when they should have been allowed some respite.
“There were many times when I thought I was a goner,” Mr. Burstein said.
Enemy fire was not the only danger he and his unit faced.
“I was living outside, without any shelter, for a straight period of maybe a month, maybe even more, when I developed trench feet,” Mr. Burstein said. “When they finally relieved us from frontline duty, and I took my boots off” — the boots had been on his feet all that time, because there was no way to bathe, there were no dry clothes or socks, or shoes, no reason to take them off, and many reasons to keep them on, for the meager protection they afforded — “my legs exploded.
“That probably saved my life,” he continued. He was sent to a hospital, where he remained for about two months, while the men in his unit who were healthy enough to go back into battle were sent to the Battle of the Bulge, where most of them died.
“I had no feeling in my feet at all,” he said. “The only treatment they could give at the hospital was to stick a pin in your foot to see if there was a reaction.” If there was no reaction for too long, or if the leg started turning black, it would be amputated. “So when they stuck in the pin, I wanted it to hurt,” he said.
Eventually, when some feeling came back to his legs, Mr. Burstein was transferred to Dijon, and then to Marseilles, where he finished out the war in a transportation unit.
“We acted as a supply depot, not only providing equipment to our own troops but also to a major extent negotiating with the Russians. By that time they were beginning to break through Poland to Germany. But I was out of combat, using my non-Army-related French.” He stayed in Marseilles until January 1945.
“The most dramatic thing that I experienced, other than things like digging foxholes and taking shelter with metal whizzing past your head, was when I was in Marseilles, the European war was over, and some of the concentration camps began to empty out,” Mr. Burstein said.
“They sent a group of about 15 people who had just been released to Marseilles. I went with the chaplain from our base, a rabbi. We came into this darkened room, and you see these people on bunk beds. They looked like — you can’t believe it when you see it and smell it close up. It was something that never leaves your mind.
“They were begging for anything we could get for them, food, clothing. We couldn’t get them anything from American provisions, but we managed to act as petty thieves, and bring them things.
“It was like looking at living corpses. They were men and women, but it was hard to tell the difference.
“By that time, there had been enough written and coming out through a variety of sources about the camps to indicate what had been going on, but it was different when I saw it. I have gone to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and several other museums, but frankly my reaction has not been strong there. They don’t have nearly as much of a searing impact as seeing the real thing.
“It was a terrible time.”
Finally, Mr. Burstein went back home. “We went on one of the liberty ships,” built for speed, not comfort. “We hit a North Atlantic storm, and I thought that would be my end, after all that combat.
“It was pitching and yawing, and we were in bunk beds, crammed with returning soldiers, and a lot of them were throwing up. So the smells…
“But the irony was that when we finally got into New York harbor it was 3 or 5 in the morning. We couldn’t get in close because there were dredging problems, so we had to wait for a couple of hours, until they could get some tenders. And then, where do I land but Jersey City?”
So when he got home from war, he really was home.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. He had to go to Fort Dix for his discharge, and then “I took the train from Fort Dix to Journal Square in Jersey City. The thing that absolutely struck me when I got out of the train and onto the Hudson County bus line to go to my parents’ home were people’s accents.
“There was such a nasal twang to it! It was unmistakably Jersey City.”
Next, there was the readjustment to civilian life.
“I was in service about 33 months,” Mr. Burstein said. “You can’t avoid coming back a different person than you were when you left.”
Columbia had a special program for returning veterans and he could have begun it right away, but he chose not to. “I wanted to get back to civilization at my own pace,” he said. “First, I didn’t do much of anything. I did a little helping out in my father’s business. I had rather a lazy man’s life for the next few months.”
He had been a summer camp counselor before the war, and he went back to that camp, Echo Lark, in the Poconos near Poyntelle, Pennsylvania, the summer after he came home. “It was weird,” he said. “It was like wanting to go back to my childhood.” By September, he was more than ready to go back to Columbia, and once again live in a dorm. He was one of many veterans there. “It was like a parade of returnees,” he said. “And Columbia never had luxurious rooms, but compared to the foxholes…”
During this time, Mr. Burstein decided that he wanted to be a lawyer, so he stayed at Columbia, graduating, through an accelerated program, in June 1949. “New Jersey required a nine-month clerkship before you could be sworn in as a lawyer,” he said. “It was an archaic system. After the clerkship, you took the bar.”
He did that in June 1950, more than half a century ago.
Two years earlier, Mr. Burstein had met Ruth Appelblatt on the Columbia campus. Ms. Appelblatt, who came from the Bronx and had graduated from Brooklyn College, was working on a masters in education there. Although when they first met she had been dating one of his classmates (“One day, in my audacious period, I went up to him and asked for her phone number. He muttered some obscenity, gave it to me, and I never talked to him again”) the two quickly fell for each other.
They married in December 1950. She taught in Manhattan, and they lived in a sublet on Riverside Drive that was “luxury beyond compare,” he said.
Still, three years later, the couple moved to New Jersey, and they have lived here ever since. “We decided that Jersey City would be where I would practice law,” he said; for 30 years, he was at Wolf Baumann and Burstein there. “We moved into an apartment house in Jersey City, about a block and a half from the JCC. By the time we had our first child, Jeffrey, in 1953, I was plugging away, trying to get a living wage, and working in my father’s store to buttress our income. And then, slowly but surely, it began to build. In 1956 we had our second child, Diane, and in 1961 our third, Laura.”
When they lived in Jersey City, it was notoriously corrupt. “I became to some extent part of public life there, but with a couple of other people I formed an independent political organization,” Mr. Burstein said. “We were not of a mind to go into the Democratic Party at that time, because of the corruption. And we certainly were not ideologically sympathetic with the Republican Party.
“Jersey City had a very archaic system of governance,” he said, and it served the people in charge but no one else. His group advocated the creation of a charter commission that would change the system. “I wrote the report, and I took it to the offices of the editorial board of the local newspaper, the Jersey Journal. I had a slight relationship with the editor, Gene Farrell, but I didn’t really know him, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I really was rather naïve about the way in which these things ever see the light of day. So I left it with him, and within two or three days I get a call from him.
“He asked me to come over, and of course I sprinted over. And he said do you mind if we might have to change this — and it was something like changing a colon to a comma. It was a very light edit. He published it — and that became the centerpiece for the next stage of my public career.”
That career led him to chair the Community Charter Council, and “we succeeded in having the commission created, and I became counsel. It went to the ballot, and we won the motion to change the government.
“We won by a substantial margin.”
He fought a number of political battles in Jersey City, winning some more but eventually losing to the machine that stayed in place for many more years — in fact, its hold weakened only in the last half decade.
Their children went to public school, and when it came time for their oldest, Jeffrey, to enter high school, Ruth Burstein objected. “It was in an accelerating state of decay,” Mr. Burstein said. So although the move meant that he would have to commute to work, “we moved to Tenafly.” It was 1965. “We have lived in the same house happily ever after,” he said, smiling.
For a time, he stayed away from politics. “When I was part of the losing effort in Jersey City, I swore that I was finished with politics,” he said. Instead, his wife decided to join the local Democratic club, in what then was a strongly Republican town. She engaged with the issue of developing a large piece of virgin land — she was strongly in favor of a statewide preservation effort — and ended up by drawing him in.
From 1971 through 1981, Mr. Burstein was in the state legislature, a Democrat representing the 37th district, the eastern part of Bergen County. “One of the things I liked about it was that I could get involved in a whole variety of important statewide issues,” he said. “I started with the belief that elections, as a bedrock of our democratic system, should be paid for by the state, with restrictions on contributions. I wrote my own legislation about it, and I didn’t how to write legislation. By doing it myself, I learned how many angles you have to approach something from.” That, of course, is a useful life skill, applicable to almost anything.
He also devoted much time and passion to education; he chaired the education committee, and worked to change the way public education is funded in the state, focusing on the disproportionate amount of resources flowing to richer districts. In 1975, the legislature passed an education act that he spearheaded, which mandated fairer funding.
He also was responsible for changing trust and estate law in New Jersey to simplify it and make it more uniform, he said.
“From my standpoint, these positions were the products of the Jewish values that we were brought up on,” Mr. Burstein said.
After 10 years, Mr. Burstein retired from the legislature. “I decided that 10 years was enough,” he said. “I didn’t want to hang around and do the same things over and over.” Instead, “I continued my interest in governmental activity; I was on several commissions that were appointed by governors, first about how the education law change was going, and then on the matter of governmental ethics. I also became the first chairman on an entity that had existed years ago, the election law enforcement committee.”
Oh, and he also was on the editorial board of the New Jersey Law Journal “for 15 or so years,” Mr. Burstein added.
Mr. Burstein has been at the Hackensack law firm since 1986, when he was 64. “It’s been a fruitful part of my professional life, because I began getting matters from judges and courts not only in Bergen County but around the state,” he said. “I had made contacts from service on various commissions, so I became a special master, a mediator, doing things of that kind.”
He still works with trusts and estates, and some of it becomes family law. “You do hear a lot about family relationships that is often painful,” he said. “That’s where most of the arguments happen. Not with outsiders, but within relationships, so I am a kind of arbiter for a lot of that stuff.”
The work he does now is intellectually taxing, as it always had been. “I get a great deal of satisfaction from it,” he said. “It is a variety of things, and it keeps the brain working. When I go to see my primary care doctor, he says to keep working.”
He and Ruth are the happy grandparents of three grandchildren, to whom they are close.
What are the most striking societal changes that Mr. Burstein has seen over his sweepingly long career? “I would have to say, even though it’s a broad-brush comment, that social mores have broken down in a way that I think has been harmful to us,” he answered immediately. “As a society, the disciplines of behavior have become almost nonexistent. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but I do think that the idea that there was a disciplinary system under which you grew up and that you would carry forward into your adulthood has been badly diminished. I don’t know what to attribute that change to, but I know it exists.
“And I say that as a liberal,” he added. “You can be a liberal, and at the same time be sensible.”
There have been positive changes too, he said. “The revolution in communication is the single most beneficient and probably the most provocative of the changes that I have seen over my adult life.”
And then there is a very local positive change that this Jersey boy points to with delight. Jersey City. “It is absolutely astonishing to me that such new life could sprout up there,” he said. “We all marvel at what has happened there. It is very satisfying.
“They rave about it in a way that was unimaginable when I was growing up,” Mr. Burstein said with satisfaction.
Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, the Democrat who is the majority leader in the state Senate — and who represents the new iteration of Mr. Burstein’s old district, the 37th — worked for Mr. Burstein in his first campaign, and has both liked and admired him ever since.
“Al Burstein was one of the most respected members of the New Jersey State Assembly, for his manner, for the way he handled things, for his intellect, for the issues he worked on,” she said. “He always understood the ins and outs of the legislation he was proposing or trying to garner votes for.
“To this day, when I run into them — Al and Ruth — in a restaurant or a movie line, to my eyes he has not changed one bit, in his mind, how he feels about issues, or his looks.
“He is as articulate as when he would stand on the floor of the Senate. He is a brilliant man. He has a set of progressive values, which he has kept, no matter what, and he has an undergirding sense of decency.”