Joseph (Yossel) Friedenson carried the title of “rabbi,” but his “pulpit” was far wider than any within four walls.
Rabbi Friedenson, longtime editor of the monthly Yiddish-language Dos Yiddishe Vort (“The Jewish Word”) journal published by Agudath Israel of America, died Feb. 23 in New York at the age of 93.
For close to 60 years, his writing gave voice to the thinking and concerns of the post-Holocaust Eastern European Orthodox Jewish community. He was married to his wife Gitele, who died in 2006, for 64 years. They were married in November 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto.
A survivor of six concentration camps during the Holocaust, Friedenson was finally liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945. He was not a proponent of “Holocaust remembrance” memorials or museums. Writing in the Jewish World Review in August 1998, he complained that remembering has become “the new Jewish religion.”
At the age of 90, the dedicated editor was still reading seven-point type and still devoted to his, albeit dwindling, audience. He remained an active voice for Torah-observant Jewry until his last days.
In August 2012, writing for Agudath Israel of America, Friedenson discussed the celebration of the 12th Siyum HaShas, the completion of the cycle of the Talmud, as “a day of great victory…a day that testifies loudly and clearly that we Jews are an eternal people, indestructible and everlasting…. The day of the Siyum HaShas is my day of victory, the day of victory for all survivors and the day of victory of every ‘Talmud Jew.’”
Jeanette Friedman, author, advocate and one of the founders of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, recalled Friedenson as “a brilliant man, entirely dedicated.”
“He loved his job so much that he worked at it until he could not work anymore,” she told JNS.org. “Even after a stroke, he was still editing the paper.”
Together with Volvie Friedman (Jeanette’s father) and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Friedenson was one of the founders of the postwar Agudath Israel movement. In addition to his position as editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, he served as the movement’s secretary general.
Dos Yiddishe Vort, printed in black and white, is “dedicated to the problems of Torah Judaism…the mouthpiece for the dwindling Yiddish-speaking contingent” of the Agudath Israel movement. The journal began in the post-Holocaust displaced persons (DP) camps, and its first two issues were printed in transliteration in Latin letters because Yiddish type was not available.
“Friedenson was Dos Yiddish Vort,” said Friedman expressing fear that the magazine “dies with him.” Friedenson, she said, had not missed a deadline in 54 years.
“He was awesome, literally awesome,” Friedman said.
In 2007, Toby Appleton Perl, Friedenson’s niece, wrote in the Forward newspaper about her uncle’s continuity and diligence, noting that he “has been editing this Yiddish monthly almost single-handedly…since 1945, [counting] the first editions he put out in the Feldafing and Landesberg displaced persons camps in Germany.”
Securing kosher food, mikvehs (ritual baths) and religious schooling for Holocaust survivors and their children – basic necessities for maintaining an Orthodox Jewish life – were prime objectives of Agudath Israel in the post-Holocaust DP camps. Friedenson’s establishment of Dos Yiddish Vort in the camps served as an important tool to accomplish those aims. When Friedenson immigrated to the U.S. he continued to promote the objectives and goals of the Agudath Israel movement, especially in its political-theological struggle with David Ben-Gurion’s secular government in Israel. That generation of Holocaust survivors, wrote Perl in the Forward, was “determined to regenerate ultra-Orthodoxy in the wake of the near-destruction of European Jewry.”
Friedenson re-established Dos Yiddishe Vort in the U.S. as a monthly publication. According to Perl, he read voraciously, including publications on many points of the political spectrum such as The New York Times, Israel’s Yediot Aharanot and Haaretz, and German editions of Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Algemeine and Die Zeit.
Friedenson once headed a writing staff that included Moshe Prager, David Adler, Moshe Yehuda Gleicher, Nissim Gordon, Rabbi Simcha Elberg, and Hillel Seidman – renowned Yiddish authors in the U.S. and in Israel. At its height during the 1970s and ’80s, Dos Yiddishe Vort had a readership of 7,000-8,000. Even as its readership aged, the paper remained an influential voice: Friedenson supported the development of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, believing that the Sephardic community voice needed to be independently heard.