Thursday, July 15, 2010

When We All Wore Younger People's Clothes

This picture of Rabbi Avi Weiss brought on a wave of nostalgia for me when I discovered it in the latest issue of New York Magazine (hat tip to Eli Fischer). Besides the other focuses of the article (and the picture) I was hit by my own history. (This piece by Katie Green came to mind.)

The man pictured on the left was a presence in my life as a child and adolescent. In the seventies my aunt (SSLABW) and uncle (MHNHAA) got married and settled together in Riverdale. I would sometimes spend a Shabbos or a holiday with them (maybe just one holiday - Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah). At that time there was a big shul and a little shul in Riverdale. And even though today they boast of 850 families I will always remember and think of the HIR as a little shul. It was the smaller shul with the younger rabbi. I remember on Simchat Torah one of the early members of the funky Shul, Jonathan Dzik, doing Simchat Torah public schtick,referred to the other Rabbi Weiss, of the RJC ,as 'Lil Abner.

This was the shul in the house - the shul that was a house, with the young hippy style, anti-establishment, charismatic Jewish activist rabbi. I recall hearing from my youth group leader Yisrael Cohen about his running rallies with Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Kennith Hain, all young leaders, eager to sing and cry and chain themselves to buildings, willing to get arrested. I remember Rabbi Weiss, one Sunday morning asking my teenage brother (two and a half years older than me) if we we wanted to join him for a Sunday rally and get arrested. I remember him running such rallies together with Meir Kahane and seeing him talk smack to the cops and telling us that we needn't be afraid of them. At around that time my childhood friend, Jackie Goldstein, who was at Cooper Union and went to classes of Rabbi Kenny Hain. This friend was into activism and went to rallies and protests and told me that Rabbi Hain was involved in running these things with Rabbi Weiss but took a quieter role. The leader of my Shul's youth group at the time, Yisrael Cohen, was also involved. I called him on the phone once and he was really hoarse and he told me it was from spending the day with Avi Weiss (back then he was always Avi, it seemed, never with disrespect intended, quite the opposite, it was due to a sense of comfort and familiarity, which he encouraged) chained to the Russian mission screaming for justice.

I remember Shlomo Carlebach, when he was alive - and his career hadn't yet taken the upturn it took when he died - coming to lead davening and performing at the HIR on a regular basis. He and Rabbi Weiss were soul brothers it seemed; Reb Shlomo was a ben bayit in The Bayit. I recall being at a shiur Rabbi Weis gave when I was a teenager and asking a question. He replied that it was a good question and showed an ability to learn Gemorah. No-one had ever paid me a compliment like that and it has stayed with me for life in a similar way to the way that Reb Shlomo's commenting - as he hugged me at a wedding - that I looked "sharp" has stayed with me (as I've never been told that before or since).

In the eighties, which I spent mostly in Israel, I once went out with someone who grew up going to his shul. She told me that the new building was uncompleted for years because the funds kept being used for charity instead. During the years I lived in Israel I was mainly immersed in my studies. I reconnected with the outside world when I was accepted to be an advisor in a program, working with secular summer teen groups, called Madrichei Shabbat. In our intensive week of training we heard speakers, watched videos, learned how to do our jobs. We gathered at the end and were asked what touched us from the various educational activities we went through. I was touched by - and said so publicly - a clip of Rabbi Avi Weiss crouching down and explaining to young children a possible reason behind the prohibition of eating meat with milk. I was struck by what he said and how he said it.

There's something about the image and memory of the young Avi Weiss (he has said that he shaved his beard because he didn't want to look white bearded and old) that touches me to the core. Over the years I've crossed paths with Rabbi Weiss many times. In my experience he is always friendly and welcoming. And he is a great teacher and speaker. When I was completing Y.U. smichah twenty years ago Rabbi Weiss gave one of the Supplementary Rabbinics presentations. He said that whenever we teach as rabbis we should remember that what we are presenting is the Torah and not our personalities or selves. Like so many things that Avi Weiss has said and done, that teaching has always remained with me.

As I look it this picture it reminds me of something that Rabbi Meir Kahane - in many ways Rabbi Weiss' mentor - said in a speech in Y.U.'s Rubin Shul in 1980. He urged us to make the best of our lives because "it goes by like a dream." I once heard Rabbi Avi Weiss use the expression that he answers to a higher authority, and he added that his children told him the phrase was used by Hebrew National but that's not where he got it. May we all be blessed to be energetic and passionate, idealistic and genuine for as long as our dream lasts until one day we answer personally to the Higher Authority.


Anonymous Elie said...

Great post.
I'm just curious, what/how did Rabbi Weiss explain the prohibition of meat and milk to the child??

July 16, 2010 at 10:08 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Glad you asked.He said that milk represents compassion, as in a mother nursing an offspring. Meat represents physicality and the opposite compassion. We make a separation between these diametrically opposed ideas. He didn't use those words but - as I recall from the summer of '07 - that was the concept he presented.

July 16, 2010 at 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Elie said...

I really like that.
And that just shows such an effective way of exlaining such a concept to children in a way that makes sense, doesnt it?

July 16, 2010 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Yes, as I wrote about other things in this piece, it struck me at the time and stayed with me since. He is a charismatic person and a talented teacher.

July 16, 2010 at 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Minnesota Mamaleh said...

what an amazing tribute! i'm actually a bit teary eyed both at how amazing this man is and how strongly your respect shines through.

not to blog-eavsdrop, but i just read the milk and meat explanation that you wrote in the above comment and it's eloquent and understandable and *clearly* left its mark on you!

one word: amazing!

July 16, 2010 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks MM. Comments are open to the public, part of the blog. Thanks for reading, appreciating, commenting.

July 16, 2010 at 2:49 PM  
Blogger rr said...

Rabbi Weiss taught me Lech Lecha in College. It was a great Parsha to learn with him as he is so passionate about Israel. I remember his taking his shoes off and sitting on the desk as he lectured. He was so energenic and interesting. I remember the sister got arrested at one of them...and I remember Meir Kahana Ha-shem Yikom Damo..Thank you for this post. It brings me back to my youth...I also love the meat and milk explanation...thanks for sharing...

July 21, 2010 at 12:51 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks for the comment. Glad the post brought you back. Ah memories.

July 21, 2010 at 1:16 AM  

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