Psychiatrist E. Joseph Charny, who survived Oct. 27 massacre, has died at 95
Cheerful polymath and athlete's life offers historical perspective
Dr. E. Joseph Charny, a pipe-smoking, dream-interpreting psychoanalyst whose attendance at Shabbat services at Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 27, 2018, led to national recognition, died on Jan. 10 in Washington, D.C. He was 95.
Born in 1927 in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Charny’s story evidenced the zenith and nadir of American Jewish life. Fearing persecution, his parents fled Odessa, opted for the United States over Palestine and raised a family of three sons.
After graduating from Central High School in 1945, he attended Swarthmore College, “almost by accident,” he noted during a 2016 StoryCorps conversation. “When they found out I could run a quarter mile in less than 54 seconds, they were very happy to take me on.”
Before receiving Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honors from Swarthmore, Charny served in the Army. He was stationed in Italy at the end of World War II and later received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He completed a residency and internship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Western Psychiatric Institute and taught psychiatry at those two Pittsburgh institutions.
Historians and psychiatrists often refer to the mid-20th century as the heyday of psychoanalysis. Charny was a devotee of the field.
“Dad went the whole nine yards,” his son Joel Charny said. “I mean he smoked a pipe. He had a couch in his office. He interpreted dreams.”
Apart from running a private practice and later serving as director of clinical services at Woodville State Hospital, Joseph Charny’s scholarly contributions included an analysis of Abraham Lincoln's rhetoric before the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Society and an article praising Freudian theory in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
Charny’s erudition was obvious, but his demeanor wasn’t pompous, Squirrel Hill resident Marcia Stewart told the Chronicle.
Stewart was introduced to Charny around 1955 by her late husband, Dr. Mervin Stanley Stewart, a fellow resident at Western Psych.
“Mervin had a great deal of respect for Joe’s Hebrew and Judaic education,” she said.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Charny attended religious school and was bar mitzvahed, but it wasn’t until after his retirement that he became more involved with formal Jewish practice and congregational life, his son said.
A program pairing Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha minyan-goers with day school students enabled Avi Baran Munro, Community Day School’s head of school, to observe Charny’s interactions with the children during morning prayer.
“He made it fun for the students,” she said. “He engaged with them. The relationship was very beautiful.”
Audrey Glickman met the late psychiatrist during a 2015 synagogue trip to Israel. She told the Chronicle she was amazed by his brilliance and humility.
With interests in Shakespeare, Auden, Beethoven and Caravaggio, “he could talk about anything,” she said. “His mind was always open, and if you’re a person with an open mind, that’s a delightful person to hold a conversation with.”
Charny also had a keen interest in history.
Well before he survived the most violent antisemitic attack on U.S. soil — and provided national and local interviews that made his name and image recognizable to thousands — the former Pittsburgher studied combat. During the late 1960s, he and his wife, Peggy, took their three children to Gettysburg, Lexington, Concord and battlefields across the United States.
His surname also holds historical significance, paying homage to Chernobyl, a city 60 miles north of Kyiv where the family held a place of religious prominence. Charny’s grandfather Nahum was named after his ancestor Menachem Nahum Twersky, an 18th-century Ukrainian rabbi who promoted Hasidism and authored “Me'or Einayim” (Light of the Eyes) and ‘Yismach Lev” (A Happy Heart).
Centuries before Charny’s ancestor encouraged a connection to Judaism through cheerfulness and spirit, another forebear embodied polymathic talents.
Shlomo Yitzchaki, a medieval French rabbi better known as Rashi, scribed commentaries requiring knowledge of law, science, history, art and music. Rashi’s writings appear in almost every printed copy of the Babylonian Talmud and Hebrew Bible today; less known, however, are his compositions on contemporary Jewish life.
Years after establishing a yeshiva, as the People’s Crusade passed through Worms in 1096, Rashi witnessed the horrifying murder of fellow Jews. He wrote about the killings within several selichot, one of which is read erev Rosh Hashanah.
Charny told StoryCorps that growing up in Philadelphia he and his brothers made light of the family's supposed ties to rabbinic greatness, but that his father “insisted we understand how where we’re from affects how we live our lives.”
Writing in his Central High School yearbook, Charny’s classmates recognized his talents and potential almost 80 years before his death:
“‘Handsome Joe’s’ face, perpetually wreathed in a grin, is definitely an institution in the class … He is an excellent, though easy-going, student and a stellar athlete. ‘Joe’ is always ardently enthusiastic about something, and never a dull moment is spent in his company. His keen wit and disregard of convention make every trifling occurrence an adventure. However, he is capable of fine work and thus assured of success in any field of endeavor.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.