Herbert Belkin, an entrepreneur, educator, political activist, newspaper columnist and avowed contrarian, died at home on Feb. 13 surrounded by his family. He was 88.
Herb loved to learn, debate and challenge conventional wisdom. He read at least three newspapers every day and a book a week. His capacious memory, keen insight and talent for political predictions earned him the nickname “The Oracle” from his family. Herb taught himself a trade, built a successful business and continued to learn new skills all his life. That mindset led to an enriching second career as a historian, writer and teacher who taught classes in modern Jewish history at colleges and universities around Greater Boston.
Born in Mattapan, Herb grew up in a tightly knit Jewish community in Winthrop. At 15 he was riding his bike down a hill near the beach when he was hit by an Army truck. He spent much of the next year in a hospital bed. When he could finally stand he was nearly a foot taller than his parents.
He attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he studied business and psychology, led a swing band (he played tenor saxophone) and was a leader in his ROTC unit. He graduated in 1954 and drove a delivery truck for his father, who had opened Belkin Stationers in Lynn the previous year. In the evenings he pursued a graduate degree in psychology at Boston University.
At 31, he went on a blind date with Sylvia Berman, a beautiful brunette from Marlborough. Three months later he proposed to her at the Merry-Go-Round restaurant in Cambridge. The couple settled in Swampscott with their two children.
Over the course of his lifetime Herb organized and attended countless political protests, took part in acts of civil disobedience and was an informed and vocal critic of public policy. He donated generously to social justice causes as well as ten gallons of blood to the Red Cross.
Herb was an active member of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and later Temple Shalom in Salem where he loved to blow the Shofar during the High Holidays. He hoped the piercing, ancient sound would stir people to act for the greater good of the community.
He and Sylvia travelled to Europe, Israel and the Caribbean and in the 1980’s, at the height of the cold war, Herb became active in the nuclear disarmament campaign. Eventually he became a leader in the Massachusetts Nuclear Freeze.
Concerned that the lessons of the Holocaust would be forgotten, Herb championed remembrance projects and in 2002 the Holocaust Center of Boston honored him for his “unfailing commitment and profound dedication.” Around that time he began reading deeply about the roots of Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel. That interest prompted him to write a column about modern Jewish history for the Jewish Journal of the North Shore, The Jewish Advocate in Boston and the Times of Israel. He also blogged under the pseudonym “No Spinnicus.”
He wrote hundreds of columns with grace, conviction and moral clarity covering a wide range of topics including early Zionism, Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, Jewish humor and the politics of a two state solution. He believed that Israel must remain a Jewish state.
He also wrote deeply researched columns and letters to the editor of many newspapers. He challenged everything from the tax policy at the local golf course to the inability of dental hygienists to have their own practice.
Herb’s interest in history prompted him to design courses for senior citizens which he delivered at the Explorers of Tufts University, Salem State University and Brandeis University. He also lectured at Jewish senior centers and synagogues.
Herb played competitive tennis into his 60s, loved the theater – Shakespeare in particular – and had a sly sense of humor and a self-deprecating wit. His grandchildren were the apples of his eye. Every Saturday for more than a decade he took his two grandsons out to lunch. The standing date was one of the highlights of his week.
One afternoon when one wandered off in a supermarket when he was about seven Herb walked up to the phone on the wall, turned on the intercom and called his grandson to meet him in the cookie aisle. Asked if should not have found a manager to make the intercom call he said, “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”
Herb enjoyed good health up until the end of his life. He wrote columns and taught classes through the fall (belaboring Zoom technology). He received a steady stream of letters of appreciation from both his students and readers.
Herb leaves behind Sylvia Belkin, his wife of 56 years, a daughter Elizabeth Zamansky of Marblehead, and her husband Leonard Zamansky; his son Douglas Belkin of Evanston, IL and his wife Colleen Mastony; and three grandchildren Adam Zamansky, Benjamin Zamansky and Lillian Belkin. He also leaves behind twin sisters Bobsie Feldman of Boca Raton, Fl., and Sheila Flaxman of New York City. He was interred at the Puritan Mt. Sinai Cemetery in West Roxbury. Donations in his name may be made to the Jewish Community Center of Marblehead.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, services were private. In lieu of flowers, expressions of sympathy may be made to the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, 4 Community Road, Marblehead, MA 01945. Arrangements by Goldman Funeral Chapel, Malden. For online condolences, go to goldmanfc.com.