The Eulogizer: Former Nathan’s Famous owner Murray Handwerker, political activist Ben Masel

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Murray Handwerker, 89, Nathan’s hot dog mogul

Murray Handwerker, who grew up behind the counter of his father’s Coney Island hot dog stand and then turned Nathan’s Famous into a national fast food chain, died May 14 at 89 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“I was raised behind the counter of the Coney store,” he said in 1986. “My playpen was a 3-by-3 crate the hot dog rolls used to come in.”

Handwerker claimed in the oral history “It Happened in Brooklyn” that Nathan’s was “the original fast-food operation."

"We called it finger food; you didn’t need a knife and fork," he said. "But it was always quality. My father insisted on that.”

Nathan’s, named for Handwerker’s father, grew to fame in the prewar era; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once served the hot dogs to the king and queen of England. But Handwerker returned from Army service after World War II with even greater expansion plans. After he joined the company he expanded the menu to include, among other items, shrimp and clams — over his father’s objections

"My grandfather was of a generation that he felt that it was for the family," said Murray’s son Bill, "and that Coney Island was all that was necessary."

Separately from Nathan’s, Murray revitalized a classic Long Island roadside restaurant, Roadside Rest of Oceanside, in the 1950s, but later rejoined the family business and made it one of the first Nathan’s restaurants outside Coney Island. The company began franchising in the 1970s, went public, and then suffered financial reversals.

The Handwerker family sold the company to a private investment group in 1987, which later took it public again. The company is now traded publicly on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol NATH. It reported 2010 revenues of $50.1 million.

Ben Masel, 56, political activist

Ben Masel, who campaigned for decades for the legalization of marijuana, among other causes, died April 30 at 56 in his hometown of Madison, Wis.

Masel began his activist career four decades ago while a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He was expelled from the university shortly after enrolling   there and became, at age 17, “the youngest person placed on President Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list."

Masel, a native of New Jersey, stayed in Madison and became a gadfly protester who also made several high-spirited long-shot runs for statewide office in Wisconsin. He published campaign posters displaying his nude image on the premise he would be a politician “with nothing to hide.” 

Esther Schwarzbauer, who described herself in a long and affectionate online “homily” to Masel as a lifelong friend, said Masel was “not always the chief organizer, but frequently the fearless leader” at events such as “Weedstock” and the Great Midwestern Marijuana Harvest Festival.

Masel was vice president of the Wisconsin state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and had been state director for the group. He received the national group’s Special Appreciation Award for "a lifetime of outstanding work in advancing the cause of legalizing marijuana" earlier this year.

Marijuana legalization was not Masel’s only issue. He once claimed that he had set the "outdoor world’s record for political arrests during his long years in Madison. He might have been right.” In recent months, while suffering from lung cancer, Masel left hospital care to join protests in Wisconsin involving state workers’ unionization rights.

Masel described his political orientation as being beyond “puny categorization. Ben was a Yippee, a Zippee, a rabble-rouser, and friend to more people than many people will meet in their entire lives.”

A 2006 profile of Masel, written as he launched another long-shot candidacy for the U.S. Senate, said he “seems to like shaking the system more than playing by its rules. He’s had an axe to grind since facing the Vietnam draft and his soon thereafter expulsion from UW-Madison for anti-war shenanigans.”

Masel was a contributor to the popular blog Daily Kos, which described him as “a fighter to the end.”
 

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