You might have noticed that the American flags in New Jersey flew at half-staff on January 7.
That was at the order of Governor Philip Murphy, and it was to honor the memory of Albert Burstein of Tenafly, who died on December 27. He was 96 years old.
I met Mr. Burstein in 2015, when he was a mere 92, a lawyer who still went to the office in Hackensack. Here’s how I started the cover story on him then:
“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.”
And then I went on to write a long cover story about Mr. Burstein, leaving out far more than I could put in. The hook for the story was that the New Jersey Law Journal had just given him its lifetime achievement award, but really, given that he’d already earned a Bronze Star from the U.S. government for his service during World War II, and that the French government had named him a chevalier of its Legion of Honor, the Law Journal award was almost gilding the lily.
As I learned four years ago, Mr. Burstein, the son of immigrants, grew up in Jersey City, a serious Reform Jew, a basketball player, and a good student. He went to Columbia — that’s always a very hard school to get into, but it was far harder for Jews during those quota years, but he made it. He loved college, but he was too aware of the “huge dark cloud” hanging over Europe to relax entirely. He was drafted during his junior year, and sent to a program for smart people — its formal name was the Army Specialized Training Program. But then the United States invaded Europe, and he became an infantryman. “Hard times,” he said about it, laconically. He got to Europe after D-Day but was in combat for two months. He almost died, was sent to the hospital to recover, and so missed the Battle of the Bulge, where most of his unit were killed.
He saw concentration camp survivors. “It was a terrible time,” he said; he was aware of his own relative extremely good fortune, despite the horrors of his war.
When he got back, he met and married Ruth Appelblatt, the love of his life, who survives him; so do his children and grandchildren, and his brother.
In the mid 1950s, the Bursteins moved to New Jersey; he was a lawyer by then, and joined the Democratic Party. He fought political fights in Jersey City, where they lived. They eventually moved to Tenafly; from 1971 to 1981, he was elected to the State Legislature, where he represented the 37th district. He worked on funding for public education, fighting to make it fairer. After he decided not to run again, he worked on public commissions, doing whatever he could to make the world fairer.
Al Burstein was an old-fashioned liberal; he believed in truth and justice and fairness, in hard work and kindness, in education and decency. He was lucky in many ways; he was brilliant, which is a gift, although it must be cultivated, and he did. He was loving, and he was well loved. He lived a long and complete life, and although his survivors mourn him they remember him with pride and love.
We as a Jewish community are lucky to have had people like Albert Burstein fighting for us, and even sometimes, when it was necessary, fighting with us. We mourn him.