During the High Holidays, a beloved rabbi nearing retirement and an author chronicling the search for his replacement mourn and remember their fathers. 

By Stephen Fried | Illustration by Kris Hargis
Sidebar | Fathers and Sons, an interview with Stephen Fried

As I walk into Har Zion on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, services have already begun and Rabbi Wolpe is at his lectern talking about what a small town Judaism is. Today, he says, even Jews in isolated enclaves in Spain know what their fellow Jews are thinking in Russia and America.

Yet there is nothing about the High Holiday scene at Har Zion that brings to mind a small town. Some 3,000 people are trying to sit quietly, doing whatever passes for whispering at their age, grimacing, albeit politely, when fellow congregants climb over them to their seats, tugging at ties and pantyhose, retrieving yarmulkes that keep falling off, and riffling through their prayer books looking for the Torah reading, which can be found on page 168.

I can hear Rabbi Wolpe perfectly, but I can barely see him. If not for his elaborate white robes, he would be indistinguishable from the others on the bimah. What I can see clearly is the secular phenomenon Har Zionites refer to as “the fashion show.” It’s like a Chanel showroom, with the trendier women going either supershort with their skirts or full-on maxi. Under their tallises, the men wear Polo or Armani. Yet nobody seems terribly overdressed or ostentatious. It’s more that they’ve been maximized.

I know almost nobody here. There is something unnerving about being a stranger amidst so much familiarity: most of these people have known each other going back three generations. I feel like a guy crashing a family reunion of perfect strangers just because he came to hear the band.

Thank God for Ralph Snyder, a tax lawyer and Harrisburg native (he’d known my father and grandfather) who was the one who first brought Wolpe to Har Zion’s attention—and helped the synagogue poach him from Temple Beth El in Harrisburg—in the late 1960s. He always welcomes me with a firm handshake and one of those little “made you look” tricks like anybody’s grandfather. He takes a poke at my tie, I look, he laughs. I say I can’t believe I fall for it every time. Today, Ralph is also wistful. It is difficult to believe that this is the last time his close friend will also be his rabbi for High Holiday services.

No sooner do I take my seat in far-flung section II than we are asked to rise. The Ark is opened, slowly, dramatically, and two Torahs are taken from it. The cantor gets one and Lew Grafman, the synagogue president, gets the other because the rabbi will need his hands free for the obstacle course they are about to navigate. The choir is cued: four professional singers, sitting in the front row. And the processional begins, with the cantor leading the rabbi and the synagogue’s leaders—officers, board members—down off the bimah.

Why do they take the Torahs out for a walk? Because everyone is equally entitled to honor the handwritten sacred scrolls by touching them. This is never done directly, but by reaching out with a prayer book or tallis, touching the Torah with it, and then kissing the place it made contact. In Judaism, belief in God is optional, something you may wrestle with your entire life. But respect for and fascination with the Torah, the first record of men and women’s struggles with belief in God, is not optional. And the Torahs themselves are both holy and wholly accessible. There are endless rules about how to dress, undress, unroll and read them, but they are meant to be read and studied, not worshipped. A Torah is meant to be honored as a living presence, not an icon.

As an author, I’m especially fascinated by the Torah processional for what it represents: people paying homage to a book, which for 5,000 years has been copied over by hand, clothed in velvet and jewels, crowned in silver and perpetually read and interpreted. From the most cosmic concept to a single letter, everything in the Torah is open to interpretation and debate. Very early in the morning minyan—often before most people get there, actually—one of the first prayers recited is actually not a prayer at all. It’s the 13 rules for literary interpretation of the Torah, starting with: “An inference may be drawn from a minor to a major premise or a major to a minor premise.” There is also a special version of the Kaddish recited after studying Torah.

But the Torah processional has another purpose. It is Judaism’s great “meet and greet,” an opportunity for the rabbi and synagogue officers to press the flesh with hundreds of congregants as they go up and down the aisles. Wolpe himself kisses hundreds of women, and shakes hands with hundreds of men. He pats cheeks, shares knowing smiles, offers brief condolences. His ability to recall personal information about so many people, pulling out names and particulars effortlessly, one after another, is astounding. How is … your sick spouse’s name here? I was so sorry to hear about your late relative’s name here. Isn’t that wonderful news about your child or grandchild’s name here.Mazel tov on your special event here.

As the Torah processional continues—five minutes, 10 minutes—the volume level increases. Many of these people haven’t seen each other for months. Some have been down at the shore all summer and just got back. Others have not been here all year, because they live primarily in Florida now and come back only for the High Holidays, some just to hear Wolpe’s sermons. People with great tans hug and backslap and swap wallet photos until the choir can no longer be heard above the din. When the rabbi returns to the bimah, he has a major shushing task on his hands. But he finally gets everyone quiet, and the Torah reading proceeds.

When the sermon finally comes it shows signs of having been written at the last minute. It is, of course, provocatively delivered, gently stirring. But Wolpe can do that reading a menu aloud. His best salvos today are aimed at an easy target: country clubs. After announcing that his comments are offered with “the security of knowing it is too late to fire me,” he is sardonic about the Bala Golf Club, where “they have given us the privilege of saving them from bankruptcy” by reversing their policy of barring Jews from membership. “We can only pray that soon we can do the same thing for the Merion Cricket Club … Who needs the Messiah? We are now really part of the Main Line. All glory be to Heaven!”

During my long drive back home, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. I skipped being with my own wife and family in shul to hear that sermon, and it was not Wolpe’s best work.

If the Rosh Hashanah sermon is only a B, he will have to make it up on Yom Kippur. After all, the Kol Nidre sermon is the one that really matters, the one that is supposed to change lives.

Changing lives is the theme of the entire High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the new year and its possibilities; it signals the beginning of a period of taking emotional, personal, and theological inventory. The major metaphor of the High Holidays, the “Book of Life”—which says who will live and who will die in the coming year—is merely opened on Rosh Hashanah. There are still 10 “days of awe” before one’s fate is actually inscribed. Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, solemn fasting, introspection and immersion in past misdeeds, is when the book is closed for the year. It’s the April 15th of Judaism. And, like a tax day for the soul, it is spent doing last-second calculations of self-worth, all without the benefit of food or water.

From the first, Wolpe is mesmerizing. This is the sermon he spent all summer writing, and an entire career imagining. He begins by talking about the building we’re sitting in, and how he chose the words that would serve as its theme: shamor and zachor, observe and remember, from the Fourth Commandment. The words, inscribed on the Ark curtains behind him, represent the “maaahr-velous blend” that has defined Har Zion, a congregation that has always seen itself as part of history but still translates that remembrance into religious action.

On Yom Kippur, congregants are supposed to stay in synagogue all day, fasting and praying. Yet at about 12:30 p.m., when the Yizkor service is announced, half the congregation gets up and walks out. Yizkor is the memorial prayer for the dead, and many leave because of an old Jewish superstition that it is bad luck to sit through Yizkor if you haven’t lost both parents. Others leave because it’s a good excuse to cut out after two or three hours of prayer. Then, when Yizkor is over there’s often another stampede to the exits, leaving only a few hundred people dotting the 3,000 seats.

Wolpe confesses that he has always secretly desired to reschedule Yizkor for six o’clock in the evening so nobody would leave. “I have endured difficult moments in the rabbinate,” he says, “by imaging the looks of bewilderment and panic that would spread over the faces of the congregation … vainly waiting through the strange machinations of an aging rabbi: ‘Did he forget? Should we send an usher? Why doesn’t the president say something to him?’”

As he speaks, his head moves slowly back and forth, as if driven by an oscillating mechanism beneath his tallis. In this owlish way, he gives the impression of making eye contact with every congregant.

Next he flies off to Barcelona. Rabbi and his wife Elaine recently visited there, and the city, he says, “quickly became one of our favorites.” One of the unexpected delights of Barcelona, he recounts, was the Picasso museum—unexpected because he has never been a “devotee of Picasso,” and the art-history student in him requires him to say so. But this museum included only Picasso’s very early work—his portraits of family and friends, planning cartoons and studies for what was to come—as well as a series of copperplate prints he had done near the end of his life. The prints recalled the influences in his career, a tribute to his visual masters. “The Germans, as always, have a word for it,” says Wolpe, and the word vergangheitzbewattigung rolls off his tongue as if it comes up in conversation often.

It is the process of “coming to terms with one’s own past.” It is what Wolpe has been doing to prepare for this sermon and for this year, when there will be a last time for everything he has known as a pulpit rabbi.

He talks about looking at pictures of himself as a child, and notes that there is nobody left alive who knew him then: his last boyhood friend recently died, and he officiated at his funeral. And there is, he says, one Picasso-esque vignette that repeats itself over and over in his mind. He is a youngster, sitting on a large windowsill in the third-floor apartment where he and his mother lived in Roxbury. From there, he can look south over the rooftops all the way to Dorchester Bay. The apartment was once part of a house that had been built by a clipper-ship captain, and this very window overlooked the outdoor platform where the captain’s wife kept watch for his ship. It was called “the widow’s walk.” And he recalls sitting on that windowsill and reading and listening, nothing escaping him; novels and poetry, philosophy and plays, and sounds classical and modern, Shakespeare and Browning, Mozart and Cole Porter. He gulped Tennyson’s King Arthur and the Dixieland jazz of Pee Wee Russell, along with sages Rashi and Sholom Aleichem. It was exciting and strangely comforting to think that these important voices “were talking to me, trying to comfort me.” Occasionally he would look up from his book, trying to see the masts of the ships in Dorchester Bay. He knew his father would never return, but he would never stop waiting and searching for him.

He segues into a diatribe against the new spiritualism in Judaism—which he says parallels trends in Christianity as well. He believes some of it is heartening and admirable, but “so much of it has a frightening, simplistic quality about it. It is seductive but avoids the hard questions.” And, to him, that isn’t what Judaism is supposed to be about. “I have discovered,” he says, “that life is volatile and the Torah only makes sense when it is used as a brutal guideline to living in a world that does not always match up to expectations.”

He pauses for effect, steps back a bit and rechecks his typed script. It is as if he is taking in air for his last solo. His head starts to sway, and he’s ready …

I will accept God only if I can confront God. Not benign acceptance, but the eternal wrestling of the soul. Jacob wrestled with You and he came forth limping from the arena. I am damaged as well, and I understand completely the Yiddish lament, “Oh, Lord, You help complete strangers, why won’t You help me?”

There’s a Midrash where this question is asked with the addition of a poignant cry, “God, it is such a difficult world, why don’t you send someone who can change it?” and God answered, “I did send someone. I sent you.”

So on this day when so much comes to an end in my life’s commitment and there is still so much left to be desired, I have my answer. The world and I clashed many years ago and I felt that God wanted me to help change it. The first time God talks to a Jew, He speaks to Abraham, He tells him to journey to a different place. “Lech Lecha—go from here.” God is the Lord of journeys and that should be the destiny of every Jew and it has been mine. It is not going from one place to another; it is the journey of the soul and the journey of the spirit.

God tested me every step of my journey. He tested me in ways that I could never imagine. He beat at my soul, my stamina and my faith. He demanded things from me when my own personal needs screamed for my attention, and I was torn between need and duty.

Yet, I kept one personal vow. I never allowed myself to accept the easy answers; I wanted to struggle with each one even when they tore at my heart, mind, and soul. I would never compromise with my own spiritual standards. I can only pray that by the honesty of that vow, I made a difference in the lives of other human beings even in the moments when I rebelled and agonized over the inexplicable in His rulings.

And I can only hope that those of you who have listened to me have realized how lonely were the long and brutally demanding hours so necessary to make all the words sound as if they came so easily.

Almighty God, I pray that I have challenged them, Your children, and that I have challenged You with the very justice You proclaimed to the world. Each day I lifted the tears of my soul and have begged that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart might be acceptable to them, and to You.

Every night of my life, after I recite the Sh’ma Yisrael, I have closed my eyes to recite a prayer that my father taught me when I was a child. It is a simple and almost childish prayer but it is comforting. It has allowed me the connective serenity of a long silent touch to my father so I could journey with you in your lives to think, to dream, to cry, to hope, to accept and, yes, even to shout to the very gates of Heaven. Each night I have said words left to me by Benjamin Wolpe and have some blessed moments in the task I have chosen.

Lately, however, as I have grown older something remarkable has happened. When at night, as sleep begins to overwhelm me, in the child’s eye that still remains I climb once again on that window sill and I look over the surrounding roofs. And I can see it. I can really see it. I can see my father’s ship enter Dorchester Bay.

For those of you who were part of my journey, thank you, God bless you, Shalom.

His sermon made me cry. I would be embarrassed except that everyone around me is crying, too. But as I wipe my tears, and my wife, who came with me to Har Zion this time, rubs my back, the cantor begins to chant the next prayer. And I am reminded that we are gathered here for something much bigger than this sermon. We are here to pray for ourselves, for our lives.

Only five days after Yom Kippur there is another Jewish holiday, the harvest festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which lasts seven days. On day one, I attend Sukkot services for probably the first time in 25 years. Upon arriving at 9:15, I see that the risers have been taken down and the synagogue is scaled back to its normal size. There are 22 people here to worship.

As more people shuffle in, I notice a table in the back stacked with the apparatus of Sukkot: javelin-length constructions of woven palm, willow and myrtle branches, wrapped in clear plastic like expensive cut flowers, and small white rectangular boxes, each holding a delicately cushioned citron, which looks like a lemon on steroids. These are lulavs and esrogs, which are held aloft and shaken during certain Sukkot prayers, in fulfillment of the Biblical command to “take the product of goodly trees” and rejoice. It’s nearly impossible to share lulavs and esrogs—although I’ve been at services where they are passed around so everyone gets a shake or two—so the synagogue arranges for congregants to order their own: they run about $50 a set, and since they’re living plants, they have to be replaced each year.

Frankly, I’m privately relieved to be without a set because I can’t remember what to do with them. Watching the others pray, I am fascinated and humbled by those who actually know what they’re doing.

After services, we all proceed outside to the sukkah, which is attached to a brick wall near the side entrance. It is large and fragrant from pine needles. The last angry yellowjackets of the season are buzzing around glasses of wine awaiting kiddush. I haven’t built a sukkah since I was a teenager. Like most Jewish-American families, we stopped celebrating Sukkot when the kids were old enough to opt out of it and it became clear that my parents and grandparents were only celebrating it for us. As I stand in the Har Zion sukkah, I recall the last one we built in the buggy backyard of our split-level house in Harrisburg in the mid-70s. There are pictures I treasure of my Nana and Pop-pop sitting in that sukkah, looking youthful, happy, prosperous and utterly suburban. Given my father’s negligible abilities with power tools, it is something of a miracle that his sukkah remained standing long enough for the photographs to be taken.

Six days later, I look at the calendar and see—oh, dear God—another holiday, and I find myself spending yet another morning in synagogue for Shemini Atzeret. This is the holiday that seems unable to decide if it is the end of Sukkot—it does include the annual prayer for rain—or the beginning of Simhat Torah, the raucous celebration of the ending and restarting of the Torah, which is read Genesis to Deuteronomy each year. With Simhat Torah tomorrow, seven of the last 17 work days will have been spent in synagogue rather than at the office.

On Shemini Atzeret, it is the Yizkor prayer that captures my thoughts. Besides Yom Kippur, Yizkor is said three other times during the year: today, and then twice again in the spring. The whole point of Yizkor, as far as I can tell, is to make people cry on purpose, to give them time and license every once in a while to just admit how painful losses are. The same is true for yahrzeit—the annual acknowledgment of the death of a loved one, marked at home by lighting a 24-hour candle and in synagogue by rising to say Kaddish. Some people find all these rituals morbid, and use them as evidence of Judaism’s tendency to be death-obsessed. Personally, I find Yizkor one of the most brilliant aspects of the religion, because it provides an opportunity for contained catharsis, an emotional underground nuclear test. All of us, now and then, burst into tears for what appears to be no good reason, and the reason is often the deaths in our lives, which can never be completely processed. The prayer reminds me of that scene in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer suggests that he and his new love interest have their first-date kiss on the way to dinner so they can get it over with and digest their food better. After Yizkor, I digest the rest of my life better.

During the service, I am approached by a woman who asks if I’d like a Torah honor. I’m taken aback, because I feel a bit underdressed for the Har Zion bimah. I’m wearing black jeans, a blazer, and a collarless sweater. At my own synagogue in town, where many people pray more casually in shirtsleeves and slacks, my outfit would be unexceptional. At Har Zion, however, men usually wear suits, and everyone but me has a tie.

But being called to the Torah is an honor I never refuse. At my morning minyan, the rabbi or cantor doles out the aliyahs just minutes before the Torah is taken out, near the end of the silent Amidah, and I often find myself looking up from my prayers to make eye contact: “pick me, pick me.” It is partly because when you get an aliyah, you are called to the Torah by your Hebrew name, which they ask you for and then chant back at you. The full Hebrew name includes the name of your father—and, in egalitarian synagogues, your mother, too—and I like hearing my lineage announced in the synagogue. I especially like the idea of hearing my father’s name spoken from the Har Zion bimah on the day of Yizkor.

I get over my sartorial embarrassment and accept the Torah honor, appearing on the bimah in black jeans. My dad, who hated dressing up for any occasion, would have appreciated it. My mother, of course, would be mortified.

The next day, I’m back in synagogue for Simhat Torah, which is as crazed as Shemini Atzeret is somber. The end of a Torah-reading cycle and the beginning of a new one is cause for a huge celebration for the whole family, an evening service where every sacred scroll the congregation owns—whether full-sized or miniature—is paraded around the synagogue in revelry. It’s a wild night.

By late in the evening, the kids are so wound up that they are running up and down the aisles screaming, with parents in red-faced pursuit. In the midst of all this cacophony, Rabbi Wolpe and his old pal, Ralph Snyder, come down off the bimah to relax in the seats abandoned by congregants. They sit, dazed, staring at each other with tired grins, arms around each other’s shoulders. They have just survived their last holiday season together as religious leader and congregant, the rabbi and his consigliere. They chat about the end of an era like a couple of Neil Simon characters, laughing, kidding, occasionally bringing their heads close together to share what would have been a whisper, but must be yelled to be heard over the din.

From The New Rabbi, by Stephen Fried. Copyright©2002 by Stephen Marc Fried. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Investigative journalist Stephen Fried C’79 is nothing if not eclectic in his choice of subjects. Besides dozens of articles and essays in publications like Vanity Fair, GQ, Glamour, and Philadelphia magazine, where he says he “grew up as a journalist” and which he briefly edited, Fried has written three books: the first about the rise and self-destruction of a “supermodel,” Thing of Beauty; next, an exposé of the prescription drug industry, Bitter Pillls [“Off the Shelf,” June 1998]; and the just-published The New Rabbi, excerpted above.

Subtitled A Congregation Searches for Its Leader, the book tells the surprisingly dramatic tale—early reviews have generally reached for the “reads like a novel” comparison—of how Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia’s Main Line went about hiring a replacement for Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, its spiritual leader of 30 years, after he announced his plans to retire in the late 1990s.

Har Zion, described as “one of the most powerful and influential congregations in the world,” includes many Penn alumni and faculty, Fried says. “Some Har Zion bar mitzvahs are like mini Penn reunions.” The connections go back decades, to when Har Zion was located in the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia. Its move to the suburbs in the early 1970s was led by the then-newly hired Wolpe and some Penn people—and fiercely opposed by others. Three decades after the battle (recounted in the book), Fried says, “I still speak to people who are bitterly divided by it.”

In the following interview with Gazette editor John Prendergast, Fried describes how The New Rabbi grew over the four years he spent researching and writing it to become a portrait of “what American religion looks like today,” and how the loss of his father to colon cancer and his own return to religion became interwoven with that story.

How did the book get started? You connect it in the prologue to the death of your father as you were turning 40. 

I originally had the idea to follow a rabbi search and the life of a synagogue in the late 1980s, but it didn’t seem like the right time. As I look back, I think this book probably first started in my mind in the fall of 1996, when my 62-year-old dad was dying of colon cancer and I was shuttling back and forth between my home in Philly and my parents’ home in Harrisburg to help take care of him. After my father died, I found—much to the surprise of my family and friends (and myself)—that going to minyan and saying Kaddish for him each day was the only way of dealing with the loss. At minyan, you can’t say the mourner’s Kaddish unless 10 people show up, so you quickly become a student of the sociology of religious services.

And then, in the middle of my year of mourning, Rabbi Wolpe announced his retirement at Har Zion after 30 years on that pulpit. Wolpe had been my rabbi at Temple Beth El when I was a kid—Har Zion had stolen him from our synagogue. I knew him fairly well, and also knew his family: I knew two of his four sons—Paul [Root Wolpe C’78, director of informed consent at Penn’s Center for Bioethics] and David [J. Wolpe C’81, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles]—from boyhood, but they were also both at Penn with me during the late 1970s. I told Rabbi Wolpe about my book idea, and he agreed to participate.

I came to see The New Rabbi as the story of three dramatic searches: the synagogue’s search for a new leader for the new millennium, Rabbi Wolpe’s search for the meaning of his life and his rabbinate, and my personal search for meaning and comfort after the loss of my father. I think these three searches mirror what is going on all over the country for communities, clergy members, and spiritually curious Americans like me.

Father-son relationships seem to be a running theme: you and your father, Wolpe and his father, Wolpe and his sons, even Wolpe and the young rabbi chosen to succeed him. How much of that did you see ahead of time and how did it develop as the book was written? 

From the time my dad first got sick—and he died only six months after complaining about what he thought was a stomach ache—I started really observing father-son relationships. It’s not a new thing; almost all my major journalistic work has brought a sort of family-therapy approach to stories. But, as my wife would tell you, after my dad died, my interest in fathers and sons was becoming almost obsessive. In my line of work, however, obsessions can be put to good use. 

As far as Wolpe goes, I didn’t really know that his father had died when he was 11 and that the loss of his father had become a central theme of his sermonizing and his life appraisal. When he was my rabbi in the ’60s, it was during the politically charged time of wars in Vietnam and Israel, and my recollection of him was highlighted by the speech he gave during the Six-Day War—which caused my parents to donate the money they had been saving for new carpeting to Israel. He started talking more about his own father, who had died in his forties, when he managed to outlive him, and by the time I started interviewing him, the subject of fathers and sons was heavily on his mind—because of the loss, and also because his son David had become a star in the rabbinate and so the discussions and differences between the two of them were more of a topic of conversation.

So, I guess the answer is that I always knew the book project was being fueled by my father’s death and our relationship, but I wasn’t fully prepared for how the father-son theme would play out in every aspect of synagogue life.

The book ends on Yom Kippur of a year ago. That’s obviously just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and there is a passage about that. But the very end is a personal one, and very moving: you and Wolpe in synagogue praying for your fathers. Can you say what you learned from talking about and observing the life of this congregation and its leaders about the role of religion in matters both global and personal?

I suppose the biggest thing I learned is how much religion and community matter, on a day-to-day basis, in our lives. Whether you’re an active member of a synagogue or church, or someone who has fled organized religion, it’s still there on the days that matter most.

This book is about the behind-the-scenes life of a peculiarly American form of religion, and it is as much about this country as it is about Jews. Since 9/11, many people have reconsidered their religious beliefs and their ties to local houses of worship. In many ways this book is about what they will find when they return, because it’s about what I found—as a Jew, an American, and a journalist—when I came back to mourn for a parent.

I wanted to give people a glimpse of what American religion looks like today without forcing them to wrestle with the question that always hangs people up: what do you BELIEVE? If the issue can be shifted from “Do you believe in God?” to “Do you believe in creating and sustaining local communities?” I suspect my peers will better understand what is at stake.

And I guess the reason the book ends on such a personal note is because, ultimately, communities are made up of people in their own personal searches. Houses of worship are the original, and still the best places where such searching is encouraged and nurtured.

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