Bernie Hyatt

A giant among us: Bernie Hyatt, former Jewish Advocate owner, dies at 99

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A giant among us: Bernie Hyatt, former Jewish Advocate owner, dies at 99

Bernie Hyatt

Bernie Hyatt always seemed to be around a story, or telling one. A Harvard-educated attorney and the son of a rabbi, Hyatt rejected law and instead combined two of his strongest passions: Judaism and journalism. For more than half a century, he embodied Jewish journalism in Boston. A dapper dresser and raconteur, he wrote over 6,000 editorials for the Jewish Advocate between 1950 and 2003, eventually rising to become editor, publisher, and owner of the Boston weekly. Over the decades, Hyatt championed Zionism, the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and support for Soviet Jewry.

Hyatt died after a short illness March 27 at the age of 99.

A native of Annapolis, Md., he was second in his class at the University of Maryland, got his master’s from the University of Chicago, and went to Harvard Law School. He also served as an Army paratrooper during World War II. Playful and a lover of words, he described his time in the Army as “going abroad.” After the war, he married the late Barbara Hyatt – whose father, Alexander Brin, owned the Jewish Advocate. The couple had three children: Susan, Judith, and Josh, and six grandchildren.

At his modest graveside ceremony last week at Beth Israel Memorial Park in Waltham, Rabbi William Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel of Brookline said Bernie’s work helped bring the Boston Jewish community closer. “He believed deeply that the Advocate was the place to unite and educate the Jewish people,” said Hamilton.

Among journalists, and especially editorial writers, he seemed to be an anomaly. He loved his work, but never claimed to be an authority on anything – including the topics of his editorials. “These editorials are thoughts on a subject that may not be right, but they are subjects that the public should be thinking about,” he told the Boston Globe in a 2003 interview.

“He didn’t take himself very seriously, but he did take the issues of the day seriously,” said his son, Josh, who followed his father’s footsteps and became a writer.

Still, he found his way to cover important stories. In the 1950s, on a trip to Boston, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – surrounded by security agents and local philanthropists – motioned to Bernie, and soon the two were deep into conversation. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Bernie flew to Israel and visited the frontlines in the Golan – handing out sandwiches to Israeli soldiers.

Hyatt was a natural cheerleader. He was always talking about his wife and children and their accomplishments. Inside the newsroom, he served as a mentor to many young Jewish journalists. “Bernie was erudite and open-minded. He took much pride in hiring aspiring young reporters who shared his passion for covering all aspects of the Greater Boston Jewish community,” said Larry Harmon, who served as the Advocate’s managing editor from 1982-1987.

“The Advocate had developed a somewhat staid reputation over its many decades,” Harmon said. “But sensing an opportunity, Bernie opened its pages to voices outside the mainstream Jewish organizations, including frank analysis of Israeli politics and fresh contributions from the Jewish Renewal movement.

“Though he wrote mainly on national and international topics of importance to the Jewish community, Bernie greatly encouraged the pursuit of hard, local news. And he always defended his writers, which mattered a lot in a community that wasn’t accustomed to reporters from the Jewish paper nosing around. Trust me, he was one of the great ones.”

Bette Keva followed Harmon as managing editor in 1987. During the next five years, Hyatt encouraged Keva to cover all aspects of the Greater Boston Jewish community – from the professional organizations such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Anti-Defamation League to the underserved, such as the Jewish poor. “I began working for this colorful, energetic, deeply dedicated newsman for five years, until 1992,” said Keva. “He reveled in being my mentor, taught me how to maneuver the pitfalls of the demanding Jewish organizations and the readers. He taught me how to tamp down my emotions and write a reasoned article that gave voice to all sides, and he kept me out of trouble most of the time. He had great love for all of us who worked for him, and it was genuine. Even talking to him recently, he showed the same fire for social justice that steered him in his career. I’ll miss that guy.”

Hyatt, who served as a walking historian of Boston Jewry, declined numerous interview requests in his later years. But Brett Rhyne, who served as the Advocate’s last editor before it closed in 2020, recognized just how essential Hyatt had been to the community and recorded 10 hours of their conversations.

“When it came to the Jewish organizational world – which was so much more central in his time than it is today – Bern perfected the journalist’s art of ‘being neither in nor out’ [as the late New York Times columnist Tom Wicker once wrote]. He was at once a player and a detached observer; truly an agent of change. Like all great newspapermen, Bern told wonderful, funny, heartbreaking war stories. He also knew where all the bodies are buried,” said Rhyne.

“He seemed to have known everyone who was anyone in the Jewish community, both here and in Israel,” said Steve Maas, a former Advocate editor. “He told me how after a late night at the Advocate, he would stop at the home of the Bostoner Rebbe, where they would chat over bowls of cornflakes. Bernie publicized the plight of the perishing Jewish community in the inner city, bringing to light, for example, an acid attack on a rabbi at his Boston home. He epitomized chutzpah, once getting kicked off Richard Nixon’s campaign train for daring to ask a challenging question. But what came through time and again in his stories was his strong sense of justice and fairness, his keen understanding of human nature, his recognition that no story is black and white, his inveterate curiosity, and his unflagging sense of humor.”

“Bernie encouraged us to be the best we could be and never turned the paper away from covering controversial topics, no matter the heat,” said Dale Norman, a former Advocate city editor who covered pieces ranging from same-sex marriages to profiles on controversial Jews such as Meir Kahane.

This reporter first met Hyatt while freelancing for the Advocate in 1987. After my first byline he called me into his office and wanted to know more about my life. Bernie was different from the traditional editors of the day – who were always on deadline and up to their elbows in papers, books, and newsprint.

Bernie spoke with a smile, and didn’t even take a call while I was in his office. We talked about writing, and he seemed genuinely interested in my career. Years later, he called and told me that there was an opening for a managing editor at the Advocate. I got the job.

We kept in touch, and spoke mostly by phone through the years. “A Jewish newspaper connects the community, and we will always need one in Boston,” he told me after the Advocate ceased publishing.

And now, I wish I had told him what I am feeling today: That we will always need a Bernie Hyatt; someone who places humanity and humility above self-importance and pride. We will always need a journalist who is dedicated to documenting history and reporting the truth. And we will always need a cheerleader who is as mystified as anyone about our very existence and grateful for the opportunity to live and connect with others. Θ

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.

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