Gloria Lieberman and Steven Holm

"It had to be Yiddish. There was no other way.” A Sister Honors Her Brother's Memory

Gloria Lieberman and Steven Holm

When Steven Holm was growing up in New York, he shared a room with his grandfather, who had come to America after four years in a displaced persons camp with Steven's parents and his older sister, Gloria. The family’s first language was Yiddish, and it was the only language that Steven’s grandfather spoke. While Steven himself was born in America and became what his sister describes as an “all-American kid”— he loved rock n’ roll and fast cars, and he even had a motorcycle—his Yiddish fluency was encouraged by the close bond he had with his roommate grandfather. Yiddish was their shared language.

Steven loved Yiddish, recalls Gloria, and he spoke it beautifully. He appreciated its humor and the connection it provided to his family’s homeland and past, and he learned to sing and tell jokes in Yiddish and frequented the Yiddish theater in New York. Ever the proud older sister, Gloria loves to tell her favorite story about Steven’s bar mitzvah, where he gave his "fountain pen speech" in Yiddish to an audience of more than 300 Polish Holocaust survivors. “People laughed, people cried, people were overcome with emotion,” she reminisces. “They never forgot the experience and referred to it throughout their lives.”

Later, as a successful lawyer with many international clients, Steven used his linguistic skills—he was fluent in Hebrew, too, which he learned in yeshiva—to communicate and mediate conflict. For instance, there was the time he encountered twelve men speaking Yiddish and cursing each other during a dispute in a conference room. Steven took the accordion that Gloria had given him—an art deco version of the first instrument he had ever played—and regaled the men with Yiddish songs until they soon forgot their troubles. “They were cracking up . . . he was very endearing,” Gloria remembers. “He could daven like nobody else.”

Steven’s love of Yiddish and his deep connection to his family prompted him to travel to his parents’ village in central Poland, outside of Lublin Parczew. None of their family was left, but Steven found his father’s house and a former neighbor, who had remained in the town. He was able to phone his father and connect him with this friend from long ago, thus serving as a bridge between past and present.  

When it came time to honor the memory of her beloved brother, it seemed fitting to Gloria and her husband Larry to make a gift to the Yiddish Book Center as another bridge between past and future. “It had to be Yiddish, she says. “There was no other way.” Through the establishment of the Steven Holm Fund for Yiddish Instruction at the Yiddish Book Center, the language whose beauty and humor Steven so cherished will live on through a new generation of Yiddish speakers.

“What would he have done?” Gloria asks herself. “He would have let people learn Yiddish.” And that’s exactly what this endowed fund will do.

—Faune Albert

For information on how you can establish an endowed fund or support the Yiddish Book Center in other ways, please contact Zvi Jankelowitz at [email protected] or 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the development newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2021)