Talking with Paul Blank

Matthew Litman

This story was originally published on, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Paul Blank teaching at JDS.

Matthew Litman: Let’s start from the very beginning. What’s your full name?

Paul Blank: Paul Jacob Blank.

ML: Not Jebediah?

PB: No. Who said that?

ML: Wasn’t that you who said that?

PB: I lie all the time. I don’t know if you’ve figured that out yet.

ML: Where were you born?

PB: Newark, NJ. … Beth Israel Hospital in Newark and the current Israeli Ambassador’s father was the doctor who delivered me. … He’s still alive, I mean he’s in his nineties. My father and him were very good friends actually.

ML: Tell me about your family.

PB: I have two sisters. I’m in the middle. Well, let me start from the beginning. I have a mom and dad. They’re both in New Jersey. My dad was born in New Jersey but then his family moved back to the Ukraine, because they didn’t like it here [in America]. And he lived the first few years of his life in the Ukraine. Then they [his family] moved back here because they were afraid of what was going to happen in Europe, and they were right in doing that. …  My dad dropped out of college his first year and joined the Navy. He was in the navy for many years,  then he met my mom.

ML: How?

PB: Well, that’s a really interesting story. My mom had a very different upbringing. My dad was from Elizabeth, New Jersey and my mom was from Newark, New Jersey. She actually came from a very wealthy home. …  She was going to college and her roommate was my dad’s sister, and when my dad got out of the service, or came home for vacation on the service, [my aunt] decided she was going to set him up with all kinds of dates. So she set him up with four women, and my mom was one of the women and for four consecutive nights he went out with different people. He had to wear his sailor uniform — he didn’t even have any civilian clothes. And he decided he liked my mom the best, so, he married her.

ML: They’re still alive?

PB: Of course!

ML: Wow! (pause) How old are you?

PB: What’s the supposed to mean?! (Laughing) I wish I had their social life. They’re the most popular people I know. They have more friends than anyone I know.

ML: When did you start playing the piano?

PB: When I was in third grade.

ML: Who was your first piano teacher?

PB: Mrs. Avotines. … She was a great teacher. She was nuts, totally nuts, but a great teacher.

ML: Was she your teacher until you went to Kibbutz?

PB: No, I made a mistake, I think. Musically speaking. I was actually pretty good when I was younger, and then I got accepted to study under a guy named Mr. Choppanelli, I remember that was his last name, and you had to sign a contract that you would practice for at least three hours a day, or something like that, or he wouldn’t see you. I mean, you only got one chance and that was the end of it. It was very hard to become a student and I actually got accepted to become his student and I decided that I didn’t want to do it. Part of the reason was, I must’ve been in seventh or eighth grade and I was first discovering what jazz was and I really thought it would be cool to play jazz. So I got another teacher who was a neighbor of ours, Mr. Weiss. He had been a jazz pianist in World War I in the army and he became my teacher. I studied jazz piano for a couple years after that, but the mistake I think I made is …  [that] I had the opportunity to study with this guy [Mr. Chopanelli] and I didn’t take advantage of it.

ML: What’s your favorite color?

PB: Blue.

ML: That just reminded me, why do you wear different shades of blue every day?

PB: Because it matches my eyes.

ML: So your whole closet is just full of blue clothes?

PB: Pretty much.

ML: Do you wear anything else but blue outside of school?

PB: No, mostly blue. Almost everything I own is blue.

ML: Really? No reds?

PB: A little bit [of red], but if I wear red it’s just because it heightens the blue in the other part of the clothing.

ML: Where’s your favorite place to go?

PB: I love  the C&O Canal. … I love taking walks there and running there. … Oh, I’m running the Marathon again this year, I’m running my fifth marathon this year. October 28.

ML: What’s your fastest time?

PB: No, we’re not gonna talk about this.

ML: C’mon.

PB: Nah, it’s ridiculous.

ML: Is it like three something?

PB: Yeah sure. (Laughing) What are you, crazy?

ML: If you could have a dinner date with one celebrity who would it be? Dead or alive.

PB: Ben Gurion, I think I would really like to have dinner with him. I see him as a phenomenal leader. I really admire great leaders. Most people who we think are great leaders are really not great leaders. I think Winston Churchill was a great leader, I think that Franklin Roosevelt was a leader, I think that Ben Gurion was a great leader, (pause) I think that Stalin was a great leader, even though he gets a bad rap. … He was a complicated figure, but, I mean, if nothing else, he won World War II.

ML: How do you want to be remembered? What would be on your gravestone?

PB: “He lived his life, like his parents lived their lives.” I think if I could emulate my parents that would be the deed. My father is the nicest guy in the world — he’d help anybody, do anything for anybody, everybody loves him; he doesn’t have an enemy in the world. My mom is the most sociable, energetic, outgoing person in the world who just loves life. She was always smiling, laughing and happy. So, “He lived his life, like his parents lived their lives.” How does that sound?