Joseph Applebaum grew up in Zhitomir, a famous Jewish settlement in Russia, and migrated to the U.S. before his bar mitzvah. If not for his family in Detroit, he would have made Aliyah and moved to Israel. Joseph grew up in an orthodox home, and after serving in World War I, became an ardent Zionist and follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. He trained to be a rabbi, but ultimately became a salesman. Gene always thought he should have been a teacher—he was a sweet and educated man, and very cultured. He read a lot and listened to classical music. Gene once described his father as a “darling bright guy.”
Minnie Applebaum came to the U.S. in 1927 from David Horodok, another famous settlement town in Belarus from which many Jewish Detroiters hail. Throughout Gene’s childhood, she kept the Jewish holidays and a kosher home. Minnie was his first and primary influencer in regard to philanthropy, teaching Gene to give back at an early age by donating money to plant trees in the land of Israel.
Growing up, Gene’s parents never argued. If and when they disagreed, his father would tease his mother that his hometown, Zhitomer, had a streetcar, and hers did not—indicating he was smarter because he came from a big city.