Bible has been my passionate study since college.  I have had wonderful teachers: Brandeis –  Shimon Ravidovich, Nachum Glatzer, Cyrus Gordon; Hebrew Union College – Sheldon Blank, Julius Lewy, William Hallo, Matityahu Tsevat, Ellis Rivkin; Hebrew University – Shmaryahu Talmon, Avraham Malamut, Nechamah Leibowitz; Columbia University Graduate School – Isaac Mendelsohn, Edith Porada.  I chose in 1966 to devote myself to the pulpit and did not complete a PhD at Columbia, but teaching has been a treasured part of my life.  I was adjunct professor of Bible at University of Louisiana at Monroe for 15 years, and before that, taught at Colorado College, Colorado Springs.
Early on I was interested in archaeological/historical studies.  I focused on the origins and early development of the people of Israel.  University classes moved me in the direction of literary criticism and theology.  I teach Bible as world-class literature and relevant ideas.

In 2012 my wife Barbara and I followed our grandchildren to Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens). I now teach Torah at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.

“IT’S GOOD TO BE A JEW” is my response to the Yiddish comment Schver es tsu zein a Yid (“It’s hard to be a Jew”).  I learned the line in irony from my father, alav hashalom (“peace upon him”), who would repeat it as he sat back, happily patting his belly, following a meal of my mother’s, a.h., cholent, the beans, barley, and beef dish she learned from his mother in Budapest.  During my college days in the 1950’s it seemed that a leading topic for conversation was how hard it was to be a Jew.  Through the following decades, it seemed, any Jew could and would offer a list of the problems facing our people.  The best that might be said was that we were the stronger for overcoming our predestined difficulties.  Or perhaps, we earned merit for clinging to our destiny.  We survived.

The response to this negativity occurred to me years later when I was writing a holiday sermon.  Surely Judaism does not exist for the purpose of making us miserable.  There must be some advantage to being a Jew, some good to balance the difficulties, some benefit to the individual, some beauty, some pleasure, some fun. 

I have clear memories of my father as a Reform rabbi, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  He taught that our people must survive so as to demonstrate higher values in the face of popular prejudices that diminish the divine image. In the first decade of my career racism and war dominated my sermons and activities.  Being a Jew was mainly a matter of responsibility.

Then came a radical change. Blessing my newborn son at his first Shabbat dinner woke me to a fresh appreciation of the world.  From Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s I had learned about the weekly ritual of a father placing his hands on his child’s head and reciting the three lines that begin, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. . .” (The priestly blessing from Num 6:23-25.) Without having thought much about it, I picked up our week old son who was crying in his bassinette by the dinner table.  I lifted him face to face and as I said the words he quieted.  Moments before, I was weighed down and daunted by the cares of fatherhood: feeding, clothing, educating, protecting a new person.  Then, in an instant, before the blessing was done, I felt the relief of a supporting presence. I would not be alone in watching out for this child. It was a spiritual experience.  The flash of awareness caused me to shift direction: spiritual experience, personal and familial, became my frame of reference.  The point of being a Jew is that it is a good way to grasp and savor, to celebrate life.

My resources: a Reform background; learning to daven with a Conservative group at Brandeis University Hillel; several months in an Israeli Orthodox setting – Kibbutz Sha’albim and Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem; rabbinic training at Hebrew Union College. Following ordination I pursued an academic career in Bible and archaeology before getting married and committing in the late 60’s, to the pulpit in New York City.

A large suburban Philadelphia congregation, Adath Israel, offered me, in the 70’s, the task of creating a program for young singles, college age through mid twenties. As assistant rabbi I had a budget and a secretary and full support of the senior rabbi and the board to do whatever I could think of. How to reach out to a segment of the congregation that had little or no inclination for Jewish practice? Shabbat dinner gatherings had been among my best college (Brandeis) involvements. My wife, Barbara and I had been doing Shabbat for years and when we had children, the little ones soon found their places in the ritual.  It occurred to me that the dining room would be the ideal place for young people to meet, talk, learn.  Even prayer and song go well with good food. 

I put together a loose-leaf booklet of blessings and songs. Shabbat hymns interspersed between the candle lighting, blessing of the children, kiddush, and motsi. The booklet had words and music to a growing list of z’mirot and folk songs and the complete Birkat Hamazon. Barbara baked challah, and roasted chickens and made spectacular deserts. I gathered names and phone numbers of over 300 young people and set out to invite a dozen or so to our home for dinner every Friday. Resistance faded as word spread about the food, the joyous atmosphere, and the serious talk, the intellectual exploration that never lagged before midnight.

Holiday parties on Chanukah and Purim were a natural with that group. For Chanukah everyone brought a menorah, so that living room, dining room, hallway, were all glowing with lights. Following the blessings and lots of singing, some made latkes, others fried sufganiot, and all the rest gathered into groups to play dreidle for peanuts. For Purim people came in costume and outlandish makeup. We read through the entire Megillah, with freestyle noisemakers. Afterwards everyone formed and decorated hamantaschen for immediate consumption and for delivery as shalach manot.

We used the spacious and elegant temple facilities only for High Holiday services and for one rock music Shabbat service that I commissioned from a band that had been practicing in our basement. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we sat in a large circle, with room in the center for movement (e.g. all did the full bow in aleynu, and we chanted Sh’ma in a close packed, unified bunch). We printed the music to the responses and hymns and had several student musicians leading the singing with guitar, piano, and harp. At nearly every prayer we paused for responses, questions, and talk. In place of sermons we used movie shorts to raise discussion.

I served Temple Shalom of Colorado Springs in the late 70’s and 80’s.  It is a merged congregation, holding Reform services Friday nights and Conservative every Saturday morning.  I liked the scope and my children grew comfortable in both forms of worship.  On Simchat Torah we marched and danced the seven hakafot with a pair of jazz musicians in the lead, on trumpet and baritone. Then the participants formed a circle at the perimeter of the sanctuary and we unrolled an entire Torah scroll into their hands, for the readings. Each Purim we read the Megillah in a different style. Once I assembled readers who could handle Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Polish. The reading proceeded with each paragraph in a different language. For balance we added Brooklyneese and Alabaman.

Monroe, Louisiana, beginning in 1989, concluded my pulpit career.  Not far and not so different from Clarksdale, gentle people growing up in a small southern city.  They got used to my style of singing services and holiday celebrations.  Following a gubernatorial race that included a neo Nazi, they joined my work in an interfaith, interracial organization.  I got close to my Christian colleagues of all stripes.  A learned Catholic priest became my weekly study partner and we continue by computer.  I taught Introduction to Bible at the local branch of the University of Louisiana.

When our first (of three) granddaughter was born in Boston we retired and moved here immediately.  I teach Bible in a lifelong learning institute at Brandeis, my alma mater.  We live downstairs from our children and their children.  On our two days a week of child care, Barbara, dancer and imbued with artistic interests, introduces the little ones to the delights of decoration, the fun of weekly challah baking, and the warmth and beauty of Shabbat and holidays, same as she did with our three children.  Now at the festive table we are the elders of an extended family, less leaders and more observers and participants.  The next generation has adapted what we gave them and given it their own form and content.  (My father’s idea of solemnity during the Friday evening candle lighting, Kidush, and Hamotsi, included “cemetery silence” from the kids.)

Our son Avram is a public high school teacher in NYC, currently on sabbatical at the University of Massachusetts, pursuing MFA in poetry.  Our daughter Aliza, with a masters in public administration, directs Mayyim Hayyim, a liberal mikveh in Newton.  Our son-in-law, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, is Director of High School Programs at Brandeis. Our daughter Shira (aka ShirLaLa) has produced four CD’s of rock music for children: Shabbat, Chanukah, and Pesach, and one on ecology.  She leads worship and performs for adults as well, and is in demand as a Jewish educator in NYC and around the country and indeed the world.

My career is sharing what I have learned about memorable Jewish experiences. I still look for ways to make the most of childhood, of intellectual development, of family and community, of worship, and of healing from the painful blows we all receive. Pleasure, comfort, and fun are essential to the practice of Judaism. Jews know all too well the problems of being who we are. We are entitled to the good stuff as well.

No comments: