Slain Ashkenaz owner recalled for his sense of justice

Several years ago, at the height of the fight to maintain Berkeley's People's Park as an enclave for the disenfranchised, activist David Nadel would spend entire days at the site handing out protest literature and listening to the concerns of those who made the park their home.

He would do that after staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning running Berkeley's Ashkenaz Music & Dance Cafe, the folk-dance and ethnic music club he founded in 1973 and named in honor of his Eastern European Jewish roots.

"David had that energy," said Emily Earl, who worked with him at the club for eight years. "Once he got on a cause, once he even had an idea… man, he was just there, completely driven and focused. You could not sidetrack him."

Nadel, 50, died Saturday, Dec. 21 at Oakland's Highland Hospital, two days after being shot in the head by a disruptive customer who had been ejected from Ashkenaz and later returned.

Nadel donated his organs; the day after his death, his heart was placed in the body of a 22-year-old.

Meanwhile, the suspect in the shooting, described by police as a young Hispanic male about 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds with black hair and brown eyes, was still at large at Bulletin press time. Those with information on the crime are asked to call (510) 644-6839 and ask for Inspector Bierce.

As friends and co-workers struggled to come to terms with Nadel's sudden death, they recalled a passionate, generous man whose life was driven by, more than anything else, the pursuit of justice.

"He was a tzaddik [righteous one]," said Laurie Chastain, an Ashkenaz staff member who knew Nadel since 1974. "He had a strong temper and he could holler like nobody's business. But the thing is, he was fair. He weighed issues in an extremely fair way."

Friends attribute that sensibility to Nadel's Jewish heritage.

"Ethics was his main connection with Judaism," said longtime friend Richard Kaplan. "Money was never the bottom line with him. It was people."

Raised in an assimilated Jewish home in Los Angeles, Nadel saw the movie "Fiddler on the Roof" a year before opening Ashkenaz. The film helped shape his ideas for the San Pablo Avenue club, which over the years has showcased a diversity of cultures and served as a popular meeting place for progressive groups.

"I was so taken with the ramshackle homes of the Ashkenazi Jews [in the movie] and with wondering, `Who are these people?' that I had to get on a plane down to Los Angeles to ask my Grandma Glassman all the questions a grandson should ask," Nadel told the Bulletin in 1992.

Grandma Glassman had answers — on everything from life in Brest-Litovsk on the Polish-Russian border to the history of Nadel's grandfather, who organized against the czar.

The discussion helped Nadel decide to name his club Ashkenaz and gradually to remodel the exterior and interior of the building after the old synagogues of Eastern Europe. The bar there, for example, is based on the gable of an old synagogue; archways are modeled after chuppot, Jewish wedding canopies.

"The whole thing of folk dancing is to preserve old stuff," Nadel told the Bulletin. "I'm into that preservation thing. The more you do it, the more it stays among the people."

In 1993, the Berkeley City Council designated Ashkenaz a landmark. The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission, which initiated the action, cited the vast number of cultures celebrated at the club and compiled a list of more than 150 community groups that have held fund-raisers there.

Among those are homeless activist organizations and such Mideast peace groups as the International Jewish Peace Union. Nadel was an outspoken advocate of a two-state solution and a critic of what he several years ago called Israel's "vicious and fascist" policies toward Palestinians.

At one point, his strong political opinions drew criticism from members of Berkeley's Jewish community, who boycotted the club. But other segments of the community supported Nadel and his positions. Later this year, in fact, the Ashkenaz owner planned to hold Purim parties at the club for both Kehilla Community Synagogue and Aquarian Minyan.

"Idealistic people get a lot of noise and heat from others," Chastain said. "[David] was a person of the highest idealism and integrity. He was someone who insisted on knowing the truth and telling the truth."

Nadel is survived by his mother, Ruth, and brother Ron and sister Nancy, all of Los Angeles.

A memorial service for him will be held at Ashkenaz Saturday, Jan. 18 and Sunday, Jan. 19. Further information can be obtained by calling (510) 525-5054.

Contributions in Nadel's honor can be sent to Friends of Ashkenaz, c/o Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702. Friends say the money will be used to pay funeral expenses and club debts.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.