Jay Zeitlyn, 75, of Bala Cynwyd, a knish-baking business owner, magazine distributor, and freelance driver long before there were ride-sharing companies, died at home Friday, Aug. 24, of cancer.
A Wynnefield native, Mr. Zeitlyn grew up in Lower Merion. Music was an ongoing theme in his life. As a teen, he worked as a DJ at WDAS radio, where he discovered gospel and soul music. He went to concerts at churches and the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia.
After receiving a high school diploma from the Columbia-Taylor Institute in 1960, he briefly attended Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, but returned to Philadelphia and became part of the South Street counterculture scene in the 1960s.
He was stage manager for the Electric Factory when it opened at 22nd and Arch Streets. He was the driver for performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Van Morrison, Nina Simone, and the Chambers Brothers, taking them to and from the airport and train station whenever they played the venue.
Mr. Zeitlyn was interested in the stories of others, and carefully listened to their goals and what they might need. Then he set out very quietly to help meet those needs.
"He was a friend to all, a connector of people, and a 'human internet,' especially in the Philadelphia music scene from the 1960s until now," said his son, Dylan.
"Jay's humility obscured his impact," said his friend Hana Halper. After word of his illness circulated, letters poured in to his family testifying to that effect.
"We were able to read these letters to Jay, and he was incredibly touched and was actually surprised by the outpouring," said his son. "Jay had a deep, unassuming kindness. He loved people."
In 1967, he met and married Lala Zeitlyn. They began their marriage by hitchhiking from Europe to India by way of Iran and Afghanistan. The trip provided stories for the rest of his life.
Between 1969 and 1974, the couple had three children. To support them, Mr. Zeitlyn worked as a distributor for Rolling Stone, a job he held from 1967 to 1985.
In 1974, Mr. Zeitlyn, a vegetarian, found he needed a snack for workdays on the road. That led to his next passion.
"I needed something that was nutritious, that was vegetarian, that I could hold in one hand and drive the truck with the other," he told the Inquirer in 1988. "All we ate was vegetables and grains, and Lala just took the leftovers, wrapped it up in whole wheat dough, and baked it. And I said, 'Hey, it looks like a knish.' "
That was the start of Lala's Knishes, which the Zeitlyns baked in the basement of their Bala Cynwyd home and sold to health food stores from Maine to Virginia. The knishes contained brown rice, celery, carrots, toasted sunflower seeds, fresh ginger, tamari — a kind of soy sauce — and spices. Lala's Knishes was in business for 22 years until 1996.
As early as the 1970s, Mr. Zeitlyn had a premonition that health and organic foods would become popular. "He ended up pretty amused at how much that turned out to be true," his son said.
For the last 15 years, Mr. Zeitlyn had worked as a freelance driver.
"Jay Z — I'll take you there," his business card read. He became friends with many of his clients.
Mr. Zeitlyn and his wife divorced, but remained close friends.
In addition to his son and former wife, he is survived by daughters Emily and Mirah; three grandchildren; and a sister.