At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years. In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.
Fifty Years and a lot has happened… “I am closer to death today than I was to puberty as an infant. What a chilling thought for one with a couple of diseases knocking on the door.”
“Hamishim Shana, Uchmo shenohagim lomar: Ken Mashehu Kara beintayim ba’olam.” Lea Goldberg wrote lines like this about lovers re-meeting after “twenty years.” Yes, something has happened in the meantime.
Fifty years is longer than Goldberg’s lovers’ hiatus, but I experience the same astonishment about time’s way of confounding us. I entered College just after Brown vs. the Board of Education, which occurred shortly after Campy and Jackie Robinson were allowed to stay at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis as long as they didn’t swim in the hotel pool. I went to a fancy college “un-prepped” (both literally and figuratively) and—since there weren’t any “preparatory” schools for seminary, I entered HUC with little thought about getting ready. My main motive, I think, not cultural-ethnic, to be a kind of Jewish Unitarian, but I left with deep ties to Israeli life and Hebrew culture. I began to serve my “Unitarian” self some years after ordination when a surprise illness drove me into self-care and attention to people who needed attention as they entered their own worlds of illness. Just as apparently good things sometimes have unintended problem consequence, so may the bad things that happen yield fresh life and important achievement.
And that became the two sides of my rabbinate: vigorous, I hope “progressive” attachments to the Jewish nation (my parents called them “pinko”) and a dedication to the problems people experience as they go through their journeys into the world of illness. So I retired from HUC (a partial retirement, I hasten to add) as a teacher of Hebrew literature and as a trainer of hospital chaplains. The Kalsman Institute, established by our friends the Levy – Kalsmans, urged me on in the pastoral direction, hard work, and (frankly) batting a little over my head, led me to a life of scholarship about matters Hebraic and literary. I have enjoyed my scholarship, although living in Hollywood has made me aware that more people read a stray blog in one day than have read all of my hundreds of essays over 50 years. Along the way I helped HUC California grow with a school of education, a school of Jewish studies, and a museum education program that flourished and grew many heads. A full rabbinical school emerged with a special spirit that maybe I have helped create.
But back to what happened in fifty and more years: The Civil Rights Movement, our changing relationships with women, The Six Day War, new freedom to Russian Jews, the digital revolution which continues to give me the finger as I try to navigate all the gadgetry that makes life easier and busier. As with people, progress seems paradoxical, and when I think of Israel’s management of the territory that a few wild eyed dreamers made part of Jewish history, I cry for all we should or might have done as Jews. But Agnon won a Nobel Prize, and there has been more Jewish American creativity (much of it clumsy but all of it interesting) than I ever imagined when I thought I owned all the creativity that was available. And the culture that comes out of Israel—good grief, it is amazing, created by geniuses, who are my friends; and scoundrels, most of whom are my opponents (I hope.)
In fact, what I have learned in fifty years is how deceptive people can be in the midst of their goodness; and how many great victories are won at a huge cost to others. Some of the good people: My first rabbis as a rabbi, Leonard Beerman (z’l), and Sandy Ragins, my first boss (with whom I had a problematic relationship, but who was a major and gracious mentor) Alfred Gotschalk (z’l), the funky but wonderful Ezra Spicehandler, and complex Gene Mihaly (both separated out to death), and many others including my own unruly, gutsy and generous father.
A couple of years ago Hara Person asked me to reflect on my retirement for a little squib in the Newsletter. I look back at what I wrote then and realize that I was too sanguine. I retired voluntarily, and enjoyed some great years on account of that; but had I known how well I would manage cancer, heart disease, and a tendency to broken bones, and how I would deal with those unmentionable deep dark things of the soul, how much energy I have, and how attached I was to the institution that made my professional life possible, I would not have taken the deal. Anyone want to hire a near 80 year old?
Is everything built out of contradictions? I don’t know, but sometimes I think so. I am a kosher man (a la Yehuda Amichai, another mentor); I am a kosher man whose soul is cleft and because my soul is parted I seem to be better able to stand. Chewing the cud is like regret — that other part of Kashrut. It’s not the best part of my game, but it works for me.
But who would dare regret American efforts at civil equality for minorities and a different consciousness about women; who can regret the multiplicity of Jewish voices that one would not even have dreamt of 50 years ago (although it too has been mixed with some issues) who can regret the privilege during those fifty years to serve people, to teach young students aspiring to be old (some day) just like us? And who would ever regret a life of friendships, a marriage that finds me looking forward to seeing my partner every morning! And who would hesitate for one moment to smile as my wonderful son and colleague daughter in law send pictures of the (belatedly wonderful) little boy who bears my father’s name.
I do “regret” (but it’s the wrong word) that my father and mother could not live to see that little boy, but—as the sunset and the sunrise never actually meet (that phrase is plagiarized) so it is God’s way that each generation has new interpreters—interpreters whom the old timers aren’t really comfortable with. I hope little Kobi (Jacob, that is) and the Kobi cognates (my students) will interpret my life as contributing to the great citizens and Jews he and they will become.