Past Exponent Editor’s Legacy Archived in Print and Words Unwritten

Al Erlick worked for the Jewish Exponent for 24 years, but kept busy during his lengthy retirement. | Photo provided

Saying Al Erlick was a storyteller is an understatement.

“I think of him in stories,” said his daughter Janet Erlick, “because he was such a brilliant storyteller. We grew up hearing stories about his adventures in the Army and his adventures in the movie business interviewing all of the celebrities of the day. He had stories about family and stories about his time traveling the world for the Exponent.”

Al Erlick retired as editor of the Jewish Exponent in 1994 after 24 years. He died May 24 at the age of 88.

When asked how she would describe her father, Janet Erlick chuckled, “Huh, how much time do you have?”

Two services were already held in his honor in Fort Lauderdale, where he lived for the last two years of his life with his wife of almost 55 years, Barbara, and Janet Erlick nearby. A third will be in Philadelphia June 25 at 4 p.m. at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, 1906 Rittenhouse Square.

Many friends have shared similar sentiments: “I remember the Russian refusenik story; I remember when the KGB was giving them the ride-around; I remember the crib story,” Janet Erlick reiterated.

His first job was at Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine, where he interviewed celebrities like John Wayne and James Garner, but his first-ever interview was with Ava Gardner.

Already nervous, she was an hour late, which gave him time to really get nervous.

Finally, she appeared, posed in the doorway and said, “What color would you say my hair was?”

“My father was brilliant and amazing,” Janet Erlick said, “but he didn’t notice certain things. He was a guy.”

His response: “I don’t know, white?” The platinum blonde ran out and slammed the door.

After more experience, he later had opportunities at the Exponent to interview every sitting president at the time and meet with world leaders.

But his coverage of the Jewish community extended well past Philadelphia, when he and news editor David Gross spent 10 days in Russia visiting Jewish refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad, which was published in a six-part series in 1979.

They were immediately targeted as Jews by Soviet officials in the airport customs office, where they searched through everything in their luggage from long underwear to six blank cassette tapes.

They received Soviet visas under the guise that they were teachers — which was in fact true, as Al Erlick taught journalism at Temple University — as opposed to journalists of a Jewish newspaper. They joined a tour group of Americans from Kansas and Missouri, who were quick to mistakenly mark the differences of these two add-ons from the rest.

After a sketchy cab ride that passed the same movie theater three times and ended up in a snowy vast land, the reporters hopped out to meet Leningrad refuseniks. Friends and families gathered to share their stories, forced to remain in impoverish Soviet limbo during the attempts to leave to country for Israel.

“We are hostages for all the world to see,” one refusenik told them. “We are characters in a novel by Kafka.”

Post-retirement in 1998, he returned to the newsroom for a brief stint as acting editor of Washington Jewish Week.

But during his time at the Exponent, Al Erlick himself was the subject of a protest because his wife was not Jewish. Being the man that he was, he went to the protest to see what all the fuss was about.

“He went up to one of the protesters,” Janet Erlick recalled, “and said, ‘What is all this?’ A guy said, ‘This guy Al Erlick is here and he’s trying to convert all the Jews in Philadelphia to Christianity!’ My father said, ‘That’s terrible!’ ”

After some discussion, the man asked Al Erlick if he wanted to sign their petition, to which he responded, “No, because I’m Al Erlick, you schmuck.”

That sense of humor didn’t go unnoticed. He often wrote small joke columns, with a typical satirical Jewish voice.

He toured the Borscht Belt telling jokes, too. One evening, a blizzard delayed Garry Shandling’s set, so Al was asked to stall — which turned into 40 minutes of jokes off the top of his head.

People told him after, “You were better than [Gary],” which Janet Erlick said he got a kick out of.

Even at 88, Al Erlick took center stage in multiple ways.

As director of the Florida Children’s Theatre, Janet Erlick convinced her father to hop back on stage, another one of his passions as he was a touring actor in his youth.

He auditioned for the community theater production of Seussical at 87 — the youngest in the company was 7 — and played the circus master. The following summer, he played the admiral in Mary Poppins.

Al Erlick played the circus master in a community theater production of Seussical on his 87th birthday. | Photo provided

This wasn’t the first time the father-daughter duo worked together in theater.

When Janet Erlick was 12, she auditioned for Wait Until Dark at the Cheltenham Playhouse, and her father knew the director.

“She said, ‘Your daughter is very good,’” Janet Erlick said, “‘and I have another part. Since you’re going to be driving her all the time, why don’t you read for it?’”

Per another “famous Al Erlick story,” he was touring for a production of Julius Caesar, playing the title role. After dozens and dozens of performances, the acting chops went on autopilot.

But during one moment of the famous death scene, he staggered.

“I did say Et tu, Brute?, didn’t I?”

He laid on the ground as the now-bloodied Caesar, questioning if he said it after performing it so many times.

After the curtain fell, castmates said, “So you don’t say the most famous line in the whole play?” (In the same performance, Marc Antony forgot to say, “Lend me your ears.”)

But the West Mount Airy native’s devotion was to the Exponent.

Janet Erlick said she and her brother, Kenneth, grew up at the Exponent with their father, back when it was housed on Locust Street.

His office, cornered in the newsroom, was accompanied by a large couch that he never used, as he preferred to be where the action was.

They spent their childhoods sitting at his desk — which was piled to the ceiling with papers — making rounds around the newsroom and helping archive a century of old Exponents.

“It was such a deep labor of love, the way that he worked on looking at the world and challenging people to think of things critically,” she said. Prior to the internet, the Exponent “was really a lifeline for not only the Jewish community in Philadelphia but also one of the premier ways people got information and helped understand the world socially and politically at that time.”

He led discussions about current events up until his death, preparing by reading and watching coverage from different sites like FOX, MSNBC and CNN.

When he was hospitalized, he was mad that they didn’t have MSNBC.

“He was diagnosed with terrible things and in misery, but when the nurse came in to ask if everything was OK,” Janet Erlick remembered, “he mentioned that he was a newspaper person and a reporter and needed to have a balanced perspective.

“When he would go up against people that tended to be on a much different spectrum than him politically, or when he was looking at navigating all of the different Jewish populations within the region from Hasidics to Orthodox to Reform to Reconstructionist, that across the board no matter people’s perspectives, they respected my father and respected that they would be talked about fairly, but that he would do everything in his power to understand the world from their point of view.”

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