Joe Esselin

"What Will You Do with the Yerushe?"

Arriving at Joe Esselin’s modest apartment in Lincoln Park, Chicago, I was greeted with a warm “Sholem aleykhem!” Quickly the conversation turned to his father, the Yiddish poet Alter Esselin. Preserving and making accessible his father’s work is a passion for Joe, who just turned ninety—biz a hundert un tsvantsik (he should live and be well till 120). Alter Esselin’s poem “And What Will You Do with the Bequest?” has guided Joe’s life and thoughts on how to commemorate his father’s legacy.

Joe Esselin shared with me his photographs, mementos, and even his father’s toolbox. His father’s collection of personally inscribed Yiddish books was treated with special care. Esselin explained how his father, born Orkeh Serebrenik in Chernigov, a city in the Ukraine, grew up to become Alter Esselin, the “carpenter poet” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Orphaned at a young age, the young Orkeh was apprenticed to a carpenter. At the age of fifteen he arrived in the United States and began to wander from city to city, working as a journeyman carpenter. In 1918, inspired by the work of Moyshe Leib Halperin, he began writing poetry. His first poem, “Der fodim fun gloybn” (“The Thread of Belief”), was translated by a friend into Polish and first published in a newspaper read by the Polish-Jewish community in Canton, Ohio. His work then began to appear in Der veg, Detroit’s Yiddish paper, and Kundes, the famous Yiddish humor magazine in New York. Alter Esselin published three volumes of poetry, all of which are now immortalized and universally accessible through the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. A one-volume English translation appeared in 1968.

Joe Esselin has made provisions to leave his entire estate to the Yiddish Book Center. “The world of Yiddish and Jewish literature is amazing,” he said, “and I am happy to play a small part in preserving it. I have had many sleepless nights wondering what would become of my father’s legacy. I am so glad Aaron Lansky did what he did and created the Yiddish Book Center.” Esselin has also created the first charitable gift annuity at the Yiddish Book Center.

“We are enormously grateful for Joe Esselin’s generosity," Lansky said of Esselin's estate plans. "His yerushe is the perfect tribute to his father’s memory. It will help preserve, strengthen, and perpetuate Yiddish culture for countless generations to come.”

—Zvi Jankelowitz

From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2013).

Joe Esselin passed away on February 12, 2016. The proceeds of his estate will help fund the Alter Esselin and Joseph Esselin Translation Fellow in the Translation Fellowship Program at the Yiddish Book Center.

The following is an excerpt from Joe Esselin’s interview for the Wexler Oral History Project.
View the full-length interview.