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Through the Yiddishkayt Lookingglass

The Burston Family

We celebrate and honor the lives of Herschel and Nora Burston who generously supported Yiddishkayt in 2016.

We asked artist Beynish (Helix ’15) to imagine these two remarkable lives.

Artist’s Note:
If I had to define “Through the Lookingglass,” I’d say it’s the acknowledgment of a world existing parallel to the one you know—and to go through the mirror is to go past the reflection of your known world and to dig deeper into the mystery of the one “less traveled.” My friend Abbie Phillips introduced me to the colorful lives of Herschel and Nora Burston earlier this year. Through stories, photographs, and first hand accounts written by Nora and Herschel’s son, Brad, I discovered a Jewish life that at times reflected my own experiences and upbringing. It begged to be drawn, so—I drew it. A big thanks to Herschel and Nora, their children Lani and Brad, and Yiddishkayt for showing me the mirror.   — Beynish


Nora was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 13, 1912. She was the only child of cigar makers Samuel & Ashi Milach, who came from Pinsk in the Russian Empire, today in Belarus.


Due to Ashi’s respiratory distress, the family moved to Denver, Colorado where the National Jewish Hospital was located. As anarchists, Nora’s parents didn’t believe in marriage. In order for Nora to be registered in Denver’s public school system, the two reluctantly agreed to say their vows. Good thing, too...


...when the family picked up and moved to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, California, Nora went on to be valedictorian at Roosevelt High.


Nora excelled in her study of piano and voice. When she sang at benefits for the local Workmen’s Circle, it was often annoying: between arias some guy would hawk sausages to raise funds. Nora appeared on local radio, cut records, and was even considered to voice Snow White in the original animated film.


Nora spent her summers in Petaluma at a cooperative chicken ranch operated by Yiddish-speaking left-wingers.


Herschel was born in Antopol in the Grodno Province of the Russian Empire, today in Belarus, on February 5, 1911. His mother, Rivka, was an excellent seamstress to local nobles and made young Herschel a coat from a German uniform.


At age 11, Herschel and his family picked up and moved to Los Angeles, California. He started school not knowing a lick of English. After a year of hard work, he spoke his new language fluently and was even chosen to lead the class as they marched to their graduation.


One of the ways the family made a living was to have Herschel and his father drive in their Model T Ford out to the chicken ranches in the Valley and load up the car with chickens to sell back in South Central L.A.


Herschel studied pre-med at UCLA, where he met Miss Nora Milach. The beginning of their relationship was limited to his giving her rides to school—she paid her share of the gas.


They went together for years. After finishing UCLA, Nora returned to Roosevelt as a high school art teacher.


Herschel began his medical practice. One of his regular patients was beloved musician and comedian Mickey Katz.


With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Herschel knew that he would soon be drafted. So two weeks later the two were married on December 21, 1941. They were married for 72 years.


Nora and Herschel raised their children Lani and Bradley in North Hollywood.


What was the secret to their longevity?
I believe it was the ice cream. Every night, so late that they were off the nutritional clock, he and my mother would secretly steal into the kitchen, dish up ice cream and stop time.
– Bradley Burston, written on the occasion of Herschel’s 100th birthday


Following in her mother's footsteps, Lani became an artist and needlepoint all-star. Lani's idea to honor her parents by this donation was inspired by her parent’s long life and love of yiddishkayt. Lani's work as an artist literally continues this "thread."

Bradley grew up in the youth movement Habonim before joining the Jewish Radical Community at Berkeley. In Israel, he served as a combat medic like his grandfather who had been a "feldsher" (army surgeon) in the Tsar's army. Bradley is a seasoned Israel based journalist who is currently a columnist and a Senior Editor of Haaretz.


A dank!
Thank you to the Mishpokhe Burston for their noble support of Yiddishkayt. Let’s all raise our ice cream scoops in honor of their generosity!

Nora Burston's series of California oak tree paintings are featured here.