Beloved Baltimore storyteller Gilbert Sandler, whose deep knowledge of the city informed stories told in the pages of the JT and other publications and on WYPR, died Dec. 19 of cancer at 95.
Sandler is author of the book “Jewish Baltimore” and was one of the city’s foremost experts on its Jewish history. He could speak on subjects ranging from assimilation to delis.
“Gil is sort of a symbol of how close-knit the Jewish community is in Baltimore,” said Deborah R. Weiner, co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore” and a local historian. “The fact that he was so popular shows that people really wanted to hear those stories. And I don’t think you could say that about every Jewish community in the country.”
Sandler graduated from Baltimore City College and was studying at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a navigator on the U.S.S. Leonis during World War II, and finished his undergraduate studies at Penn after the war. In the 1950s, he began an ad agency called Gilbert Sandler and Associates, and married Joan, the mother of his three children, Joseph, Marie and Judith. They were married until Joan’s death in 2002.
During his eulogy, Sandler’s son Joseph said the workplace culture at that agency could not have been more different than the debauched office antics in the television show “Mad Men.” Every pencil was accounted for, and every bill was paid on time, Joseph said.
Each of his children lovingly described Sandler as a worrier during their eulogies, which also painted him as a selfless, adoring father. His world-class sense of humor and loquaciousness made him many friends. Sandler’s granddaughter Nora said at any lunch meeting, the two were guaranteed to be interrupted, at least once, by an acquaintance saying hello.
Sandler’s funeral on the morning of Dec. 21 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville was attended by hundreds. Sandler’s death was not unexpected, which may have accounted for the lightheartedness in the chapel, where his life was celebrated, not mourned. At least six men and two women came to pay their respects clad in Sandler’s signature tan bucket hat with a blue-and-red stripe above the brim.
In addition to family, friends and former co-workers, Sandler was eulogized by Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, where he was a member. Burg said Sandler was indescribable, and that “it would be hard to believe he was gone if he hadn’t talked so much about dying recently,” to uproarious laughter.
“When we got together, we started by reminiscing about family, which is a kind way of saying that he educated me about my own family,” said Neil Rubin, a history teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a former JT editor. His grandfather and Sandler were cousins. “When Gil called you on the phone, he was always midway through the conversation. He never said, ‘Hi, it’s Gil.’ He would just be off and eventually you’d get to say, ‘Hi Gil.’”
Sandler also made his mark on the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.
“From the time I arrived in Baltimore seven years ago, Gil was an advisor and friend and mentor. He was such a great resource for the museum,” said Marvin Pinkert, the museum’s executive director.
“That same kind of joy and warmheartedness that you heard on the radio, that wasn’t a production. That was Gil.” — Luke Spicknall, WYPR producer
Last year, Sandler became the first person to receive a formal set of honors from the museum for his work in supporting Baltimore Jewish history. Pinkert called Sandler “a man of his word,” citing a June event at the museum featuring Alfred A. Moses, a former Baltimorean and former U.S. ambassador to Romania. Sandler agreed to introduce him, but by the time of the event, was too ill to do so.
“He physically couldn’t do it. But he felt so guilty and he wanted to make the arrangements to make sure that Alfred was properly introduced,” said Pinkert. “Even when he was feeling really terrible, he kept his obligations to others.”
Sandler, Pinkert added, was a “plain mensch” who cared deeply for his family.
Sandler’s legacy will live on at the Jewish Museum in an upcoming exhibit called “Fashion Statements,” for which Sandler loaned the museum his trademark hat.
One of Sandler’s last public appearances was at the Jewish Museum on April 10, when he gave the opening address for the launch of the book “On Middle Ground.”
“We drew from a lot of Gil’s story in our book. He had a lot of great anecdotes that could illustrate some of the things we were trying to portray,” Weiner said.
Weiner said Sandler’s gifted storytelling complemented her and her co-author Eric L. Goldstein’s academic historical approach to writing the book, giving it a welcome personal touch. Weiner, a former historian at the Jewish Museum, first met Sandler when he came to do research for his weekly Sunday Sun “Baltimore Glimpses” column.
Luke Spicknall, a WYPR producer and engineer who most recently produced Sandler’s “Baltimore Stories” segment, called it an honor to work with him. “He knew the city so well and was able to capture the characters of the city in his stories that was colorful and honest and respectful,” he said.
Spicknall recalled Sandler’s humor and playfulness, saying Sandler often broke into song during their recording sessions.
“From the couple years I knew him at the end of his life, that same kind of joy and warmheartedness that you heard on the radio, that wasn’t a production. That was Gil,” he said.
Sandler was a frequent JT contributor. A 2007 piece about Suburban House is representative of his style and his deep knowledge of the city and the community: “[It’s] unrepentantly circa 1960, or earlier. Many there at breakfast, lunch and/or dinner have the look of what’s left of the gang that rode the last No. 33 streetcar up Park Heights Avenue, went to the last show at the old Forest Theatre on a Saturday afternoon and jitterbugged at the last Jewish high school fraternity dance at City College. When they sit down and scan the menu, their ravenous eyes glaze over, out goes the diet.”
Sandler is the husband of the late Joan Sandler (née Strouse); father of Joseph E. (Karen) Sandler, Marie S. (John) Schott and Judith Sandler (Joseph Klein III); grandfather of Nora L. Sandler, Eli M. Sandler, Elizabeth S. (Robert) Belton, Eric M. (Rose) Hoffman, Alexander J. Klein, Lucy S. Klein and Noah Z. Klein; great-grandfather of Addison Collins, Nicholas Belton and Ezra Hoffman; and son of the late Joseph S. and Minnie Sandler.
Gil’s death will be known as a day when we ceased to know a bit more of our past. A man who connected many of us to our roots. May his memory be a blessing.