A Rabbi's Life



Editor's note: Arthur Hertzberg will accept the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience at the awards ceremony on Thursday, December 11th. The ceremony will be held at the Center for Jewish History, at 15 West 16th Street in New York City at 7:30pm, and will be open to the public.


My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity
By Arthur Hertzberg
480 pages. HarperSanFrancisco. $29.95.

For many American Jews, memory begins with the long lines of Ellis Island or the squeaky pushcarts and kosher pickles of the Lower East Side. But the patterns of the prominent rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s life and thought start thousands of miles away from the sensory overload of New York City. Hertzberg’s prizewinning memoir, A Jew in America, describes the long-gone Chassidic courts of Poland, the country he lived in until age five. His father, grandfather, and many of his relatives were prominent Chassidic thinkers, and his grandfather and his four brothers were known as the “chumash” of Dinov—each pious enough to represent one of the five books of Moses.

Growing up in Baltimore in the twenties and thirties, Hertzberg kept hearing that he was related to these illustrious scholars. Although he is not a Chassid today, he maintains a deep respect for Chassidic teachings. The Talmud he learned with his father, he claims, has been the major text of his life.

According to Hertzberg, text matters most to all American Jews, no matter what their family history. Throughout the memoir, and in this interview, Hertzberg makes a case for Jewish texts as the core of Jewish identity. He thinks this should be true in today’s America, just as it was in previous Diasporas.

For those who are used to reading Hertzberg’s often-controversial editorials on Israel, or who think of him as the leader of the American Jewish Congress, or the major editor of Encyclopedia Judaica, this book offers a chance to understand how all those roles fit together, and how the history of the man affects his thinking. It’s also a meditation on what twentieth-century American Jewry was all about.

Hertzberg records his impressions of Martin Luther King, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, among other luminaries, and he offers an insider’s view on recent history—from the end of the Holocaust to civil rights to the current situation in Israel. The eighty-three-year-old Rabbi Hertzberg recently shared his thoughts on the book and the public and intellectual life described in it.

Q: I was struck by your frequent references to your Chassidic relatives—the rabbis of Poland. Why did you emphasize your Chassidic ancestors so much in this book?

A: I think of them every day. My purpose is to have American Jews look away from the success story with which they’ve cheered themselves up, and to have them remember the classical tradition, whatever it is.

The decision I had to make as I wrote the book—and I took a two-year break in the middle, in which I asked myself this—was: You are writing a book which increases the distance between your life and that of most American Jews. Most American Jews came from the lower middle classes, and therefore they brought with them not a lot of Jewish culture. The American Jewish story starts with Ellis Island, and the candy store in the Bronx.

I wrote this to actually represent my experience, which I say bluntly, is different from that of most American Jews.

Q: Your memoir openly discusses religious doubt, starting with your father’s comment to you on your Bar-Mitzvah, that he knew you were “on your way to heresy.” Well, how can a rabbi walk around with doubt?

A: How can a rabbi not live with doubt? The Bible itself is a book of doubt. Lamentations starts with the line, “eichah yashva badad”—how have you been allowed to sit alone, you widow Zion. If you read Lamentations, especially the second chapter, it’s a straight-out questioning of how God allowed this to happen.

The Bible is never about certainty. And a rabbi who has no doubt is not a rabbi. My next book, in fact, is about the Talmud—how to read the Talmud correctly. In it, I argue that the Talmud is about the constant struggle to understand.

Q: Let’s turn to current events. What do you think is the biggest problem now facing American Jews?

A: It’s not anti-Semitism, and it’s not the memory of the Holocaust. The biggest problem is the one that I pose in this book—what are you going to do to preserve a tradition that is the peculiar and unique culture that Judaism inculcates?

The American Jewish community is not going to survive by lining up against its common enemy. No culture survives by battling its enemies. The only way a culture survives is by asserting its positives.

On campuses, and when I speak to the younger intelligentsia, I am getting a hunger for the text—the authentic text for Jewish knowledge.

Q: You don’t think anti-Semitism in America is a big problem?

A: It’s not entirely mythic, but it’s greatly exaggerated. I have asked repeated classes of students—is there anything you feel has been closed to you because you are Jewish? And for the past 25 years, the answer has been no. We are living in an America in which an Orthodox Jew was the ambassador to Cairo and kept a kosher home. America now, on Yom Kippur, semi-shuts down, including government, because so many of the administrative assistants are Jewish.

I think anti-Semitism is the meal ticket of the organizations that fight it.

Q: Looking back at your public life, as you did writing this book, what surprised you most?

A: In mid-career, I was at one and the same time the rabbi of a major congregation, writing books, and teaching at Columbia. I didn’t spend enough time with my children, and I didn’t give them the chance to educate me. Fifteen years ago, when the grandchildren began to arrive, I decided to rectify that. Now, when I get an all-important call, I sometimes say that I’m having lunch with my granddaughter. And I do not apologize!

Bien sur, je regrette rien. [A quote of the French singer Edith Piaf; Hertzberg laughs heartily.] I did what I felt I needed to do and what I thought was right. I regret the fact that so much of this shortchanged my own children.

But you don’t see that until you are old enough to understand. My daughters are both the first readers of all my manuscripts—and they are brilliant young middle-aged women. I’m breaking in my granddaughters who are fifteen and fourteen to read my manuscripts.

Q: So is this book for them?

A: That’s who this book was written for. I write to tell my grandchildren where they come from, and what their grandparents were up to, and I hope they will in their own way continue.

I invite anyone else to listen in.