Remembering Reb Arthur
Reb Arthur was pissed off. So what else was new? This time, he was annoyed at himself because he had two books to finish, and things like tripping on a throw rug had really done a number on him. He looked like he had gone three rounds with Ali in his prime and lost. Still, his brain was firing on all cylinders.
“Hey, Toots, I gave them a run for their money this week,” he greeted me. And it looked like once, again, he was going to defeat the odds.
I said, “You know what I told Irving Bernstein, z”l, to keep him going?” (Irving, dying of pancreatic cancer at the time I was editing his book, was head of the national UJA/Fed from the ’70s-’80s and always said there was no Jewish leadership without Jewish education. Reb Arthur never savaged him like he did so many others.)
Reb Arthur gave me a look, “Whaddya tell him?”
“’You’ve got a book to finish.’ I made him proofread six dozen times. He didn’t go until after his book party.”
He retorted, “Well, I’ve got two!”
We traded one of our “looks,” “So, nu?”
For more than two years, he and Carol had been playing beat the clock to get these books done…one of them was going to be his ethical will, his “Tzvoah,” that he wanted to leave for his granddaughters and for those who needed his gadfly’s guidance.
The first time I met Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg we both were sitting at the meetings of the Goldberg Commission to examine the role of American Jews during the Holocaust in ’84-’85. Of course, he never remembered anyone as insignificant as moi, but it was fascinating to watch him verbally fence with Rabbi Moishe Sherer, president of the World Agudath Israel and my dad’s best friend. Here were these two giants having a field day with a sarcastic collegiality, bombast and humor that was very, very funny to watch. It turned out that the two of them knew each other as kids in Baltimore and were closely connected.
Fast forward decades later to Bergen County, and I am brought to the little blue house in Englewood to meet Reb Arthur. I sit across the desk and he starts with, “Did you know that I am an einekel of the Dinever Rebbe?”
First of all, what would a suburban journalista know about the Dinever Rebbe? Here was the eminence grise of the Conservative movement introducing himself via his rebbishe yichus…and I wasn’t supposed to understand THAT tradition either, sitting there in my stone-washed jeans and v-necked shirt. To top it all off, I’m a blonde (okay, a bleached one). The assumption was I didn’t know from such things.
And he was off on the
“You are. Yichus Shmichus. I was talking to the Dinever just last week.”
“YOU were talking to the Dinver Rebbe?,” he blurted incredulously What did you tell him?”
So I related what I had told the rebbe, which involves a not nice word because the rebbe, my first cousin, and I were discussing a pederast who had just been dumped into his congregation by a major Rosh Yeshiva in Brooklyn.
You might say that after that, in some strange way, we bonded. My nickname was “Toots.” Reb Arthur loved going to the kosher deli in Foster Village, where his brother gave the hashgacha, and munch on good stuff as he held forth on the moral bankruptcy of secular, religious, and political leadership of our world. Nothing was taboo, not even his fantasy of one day taking a powder and escaping to Tahiti. But that was just a fantasy, to be able to go to a remote island to forget about the world and its travails. Tahiti was a state of mind foreign to him, because there was nothing he could let go in his quest for righteousness. There were no such vacations for a Jeremiah like Reb Arthur. No matter where he was, he was always chasing justice.
In our discussions he always justified the rage of the reformers and idealists. “I can say what I want,” he would tell me, “I can afford it. I’ve got f*ck you money, you can’t, but keep at it.” He also would rant about the Holocaust Judaism we created in America, how it was exploited by fundraisers.
He demolished the “Moshiachists” with a one-liner: “If Moshiach didn’t come during the Holocaust,” he yelled, “what the hell makes you think he’s going to show up now?”
Reb Arthur, who was also a Talmudic scholar as well as a top-notch historian and leader, could not embrace the ultra-orthodoxy of his parents. Yet deep in his heart, as radical as he was, as his kid brother described at the funeral, he was always that chassidishe einekel who came to the Goldeneh Medina at the age of 5 and appreciated every moment of that. Most of all, there was the respect and love, the devotion he had for his sainted mother. I believe in my heart that it was she who shaped him, encouraging him always to take the morally high road by being an extraordinary role model…as much as that cost him in rage. His parents were not bystanders during the terrible years as they watched the destruction of Europe’s Jews from America. Those years were years when Reb Arthur’s character was hammered on the anvil of history.
His life partner, his wife Phyllis, and he were a team. She was the perfect foil for him, a strong woman with clarity of thought and purpose that kept him on a steady course—and showed the world, with grace, what a rabbi’s wife could be. I never heard him utter anything but kind and loving words of respect for her.
For us there were a couple of mornings with bagels and lox in the breakfast nook in their kitchen, a couple of lunches in the deli and services on the High Holy Days with his “congregation” on Fifth Avenue with the Bronfman family. He provided a host of experiences and lessons that were exceptional, inspirational, and sometimes infuriating. But that was always Reb Arthur. He never pretended to be something other than he was.
It happened that on that last visit with Reb Arthur I had brought him a little gift. A mutual friend called and said that Reb Arthur had asked about me, and had also mentioned Tahiti. So I went to the net and downloaded a bunch of photos of this incredibly beautiful place, one that was created by God, and made him a scrapbook that I titled, “Reb Arthur’s Trip to Tahiti.” He sat up in bed and looked at it, with a smile on his face. “I love it. Thank you,” he said.
He was smart, he was sharp, he was irascible, rude and outrageous—and many thought him obnoxious—but he was grand, a brilliant mind, with the fire and passion for righteous Judaism burning within him.
One of the Jewish lights that brightened the world has gone out. ‘Tis a pity, that in the wimpy world we live in, there’s no one to replace him. Ciao, Reb Arthur, we need you as a melitz yasher up there because the world is in deep, deep, trouble.