I had the rare privilege yesterday of having lunch with Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the retired and revered spiritual leader of what was then the only Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta. He served that community for four decades, expanding it greatly, often bringing lapsed Jews back into the fold.
His son Ilan took over the pulpit from him when he moved to Israel, quite a few years ago now, so that the Broadway Café, a kosher restaurant a pleasant walk from his old shul, was full of people only some of whom recognized him. When I introduced him to the waitress, he said, “You blew my cover!”
I also waved to Rabbi Ilan, who hadn’t seen us, and Rabbi Emanuel told me about the time his father (the seventh generation of rabbis in his family, Emanuel being the eighth, Ilan the ninth) came to visit Atlanta from their original home in Baltimore. A congregant came up to the older visitor and asked in a friendly way who he was. “I’m his father,” said the visitor, pointing at Rabbi Emanuel on the pulpit. “Are you also a rabbi?” the congregant wanted to know. “No,” came the answer. “I’m the rabbi. He is also a rabbi.”
Humor runs in this family along with rabbinical gifts. When Ilan extricated himself from some unavoidable pastoral chat and came over to say hello, I told him I’d just heard the “also a rabbi” story. “No doubt you’re familiar with it.” Ilan nodded and said with a wry smile, “It’s number 23.”
That’s what it’s like with Rabbi Emanuel, one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re discussing the Shoah, or the Jewish people weeping by the rivers of Babylon. I wanted to know what he thought about the seeming contradiction between Psalm 137, which ends, “O daughter of Babylon, soon to be laid waste . . . Happy is he who will grasp and dash your little ones against the rock,” and the advice of Jeremiah during the same captivity, “Seek the peace of the city wherein I have caused you to be taken captive.”
“Contradictions are part of the story,” he said. “Why shouldn’t there be contradictions?”
Why indeed? Life is so full of joy and pain we sometimes don’t know which one to embrace first, and we usually don’t have the choice. You would think that the Rav and I have very little in common. Okay, I was raised Orthodox, but he knows I am not observant. He never tries to persuade me to be anything other than what I am.
And when you come down to it, we do have a lot in common. Both of us are trying to figure out the human place in this crazy world, both of us laugh on the verge of tears, both of us think long and hard and yet know there are many things we’ll never understand.
And neither of us can be happy for very long without scribbling something. I brought along a copy of my latest, The Jewish Body, as well as the copies of three of his recent books he had sent me from Israel. He had brought along a fourth, and he has another on the way in a few months time.
So there was his stack of recent books and my puny little one. Not that many people make me feel lazy, and I have to either love him or hate him, so I love him.
I’ve written before in this space about his first book, a stunning diary of the Six Day War as experienced by his family, living there at the time and refusing all advice to leave. We’ve also had an interesting exchange of views about the role of women. But I’m approaching this stack of his books with relish.
The Shul Without a Clock, the one he just gave me, is a collection of essays (Tales Out of Shul was his previous one) about the whole experience of Jewishness as lived by an Orthodox rabbi. The title essay yearns meditatively for a synagogue where worldly time is irrelevant.
In “The German Soldier,” which brought tears to my eyes, he sits on an El Al plane stopping over in Munich and has vivid “hallucinations”—would that they were only that—of the dreadful details of the Shoah, while gazing out the window at the young, blond German in uniform who is protecting this Jewish plane with his automatic rifle.
“Brave young German soldier, protecting me so diligently out there in the snow and wind, forgive me…my mind wanders. I know that you were not there in 1944…forgive me my hallucinations, you who are my present guardian and protector.” Yet he cannot bring himself to leave the plane and breathe the Munich air.
“Of Pennants and Penitents” is a classic essay on the intersection of Yiddishkeit in the highest sense and the American Jewish boy’s–even the boy who has grown up to be an Orthodox rabbi–love of baseball. During one of Rabbi Emanuel’s visits to Atlanta, “The Enticer” comes to him in the form of a congregant with World Series tickets (behind third base!) and he succumbs.
So he’s rooting for the Braves along with sixty thousand other fans, except he has a black yarmulke and a big grey beard. Temptation draws him into the spirit of the game and then, lo and behold, a pop fly is hanging in the air over his head.
“Suddenly I am eighteen years old again…I leap from the ground, reach backward for the ball, and feel the satisfying slap into my outstretched palm. I clutch it and tumble down into the row of seats behind me, where a dozen hands and arms break my fall.” He is berating himself when he hears the cheers, “Great, Rabbi…Attaboy…Sign him up.” This is America, where a good catch is a good catch, and can even be good for the Jews, but he dreads facing his former congregants back at the shul.
Of course, they have seen it on TV, and the Rav is the hero of Orthodox Atlanta. But there is still Orthodox Jerusalem to return to. Oy. He takes comfort in the belief that they won’t know. They do, and some of them are impressed, but snide too. How can this revered man, the descendant of rabbis, be an “athlete”—something “between barbarian and lout”? He promises himself he will resist temptation on his next Atlanta visit.
“But if perchance the Enticer works his cunning on me once again and I fail the test and somehow find myself at the game, I humbly pray for two things: (1) that no balls, fair or foul, come my way; and (2) if one does happen to come my way and I instinctively leap for it, that I have the good sense at the very least to drop the ball.”
After lunch, I pulled out my iPhone and found the Birkhat ha’mazon—the grace after meals—on my i-Siddur. Even the Rav was impressed with that, although he of course needed no text. So many threads of conversation during that lunch, so much that I learned. The highlight yesterday was probably when he was talking about the prayer, Mi chamokha that ends, “osay feleh”—“Doing wonders.”
“You know,” he said, “feleh in Hebrew is Aleph spelled backwards. So the very first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, when you turn it around, spells wonder. This teaches us that the first thing in Judaism, and Jewish life, is wonder.”
As I walked the Rav back to his old shul, now his son’s, through the lovely autumn day, he said, “I’m eighty-two, and I’m still vertical.” I dearly hope he will remain vertical and funny and wise for a good long time to come. And should I see him catch a ball on TV, I will be the first to stand up and cheer.
Wonder, after all, is wonder.