Shtetl memoirist, Yiddish impresario Philip Bibel dies at 97

In Philip Bibel’s old shtetl, Shebreshin, the locals’ idea of a night out on the town was to watch the local sleepwalker stumble around. In fact, gawkers even traveled from neighboring towns to catch a glimpse.

Putting pen to paper as a nonagenarian, Bibel recalled the way of life the Nazis crushed underfoot in his memoir, “Tales of the Shtetl,” remembering even the smells of his Polish hometown.

Take, for example, his tale of Moishe Kliske, the mailman who reeked of tobacco:

“It was a well-known fact that before delivering the mail he would read all the post cards, and occasionally he would even steam open some envelopes to read the letters inside,” he wrote. “He never divulged what he read, never gossiped, but he knew what was going on in all the households — all the intimacies revealed in the correspondences that came under his care.”

Bibel, who two years ago told j. he felt he was “extending the lives” of his slaughtered neighbors by writing about them, died on Thursday, Oct. 5, three days after suffering a heart attack and falling into a coma. He was 97.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1926 as a teenager, and went on to live the frenetic life of a busy autodidact — a busy autodidact who needed to make ends meet during the depression.

The budding playwright set out for New York hoping to break into Broadway, but instead he wrote and produced plays for the Yiddish theater. He met his future wife, Bassya, when she acted in several of them. In order to supplement his income, he operated a laboratory, mixing chemicals for use in the fur trade.

“Philip always found some manner of work,” recalled son Bennett of San Bruno.

“Living through the Depression, we had the coal-fired stove and we were poor like everyone else.”

The Bibels returned to San Francisco in the 1930s and Philip followed his father Boris, an Orthodox rabbi, into the woodworking field. He founded a furniture company called Pacific Woodworking in the Mission, at one point employing 26 craftsmen, and built sets for the San Francisco Opera.

“They used to take real pride in what they did. And at the end of the production line was my grandfather, Boris. And if he didn’t like what he saw, it went right back again,” recalled Bennett Bibel.

“I used to love going down there [to the furniture factory] There was sawdust everyplace. And Phil was one of those people who didn’t teach you by talking. His idea was ‘Well, there’s a machine, don’t put your hands there. Find out how it works.’ I gradually figured out every machine in that place. He was one of those people who always feel his kids could learn by being independent. You had to make your own mistakes.”

Philip and Bassya’s San Francisco homes — in Haight-Ashbury with all the immigrants, then in the Outer Richmond among the vast sand dunes and, for the past half century, in the Marina — were almost like salons. One day there’d be the White Russians, with Red Russians the next. Then there’d be the artists and the poets and the writers.

Bibel eventually sold his furniture company, but found he wasn’t cut out for retirement, and sold furniture for the House of Karlson until he was 85. Then he retired for a second time and began seriously writing his memoirs along with stories and poems. He also put his woodworking skills to good use crafting three-dimensional sculptures (his brother, Leon, was an internationally renowned artist with pieces in more than a dozen museums).

The Bibel family is close, and Philip received a visit or phone call from one of his three children, five grandchildren or eight great-grandchildren almost every day. Until several years ago, he would annually host a massive Passover dinner with 30 or 40 family members attending (he even designed his own special table to accommodate everyone, which the family would assemble and disassemble yearly).

It was also a family affair to get Bibel’s memoirs into print. With his eyesight failing his second wife, Monique, had to help him with the writing (Bassya died around 20 years ago) and son Bennett and grandson, Steve Greenberg, edited his manuscript.

Over the past few years, Greenberg, an attorney in Nevada City, would call his grandfather every day and read to him. At first Greenberg read Bibel his own Shtetl memoirs, but then moved on to Isaac Bashevis Singer books and Jewish-themed articles from the New York Times.

Bibel requested his obituary not run until after his burial (which was on Thursday, Oct. 12 in Colma). He also requested the long list of his survivors’ names not be printed.

“For Chanukah, he didn’t want things. He wanted his great-grandchildren to write him stories,” recalled grandchild Mandi Friedel of Rio Vista.

“And each year, they’d write them and read them to him.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.