Almost exactly 10 years ago — on April 16, 2006, and also chol hamoed Pesach, 19 Nisan, 5776 — Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of Englewood died.
The world misses him. I care about that in the abstract. But also I miss him, and I care about that in the specific.
Even in his later years, when I got to know him, Rabbi Hertzberg was a formidable presence. When I try to picture him now, I see a short, fire-hydrant-shaped-man with energy visibly emanating from him, huge bright thunderbolts, piercing through anyone he considered unworthy, illuminating the world in great fiery flashes for the lucky (if a bit cowed) rest of us.
Rabbi Hertzberg was a genuine intellectual, a man who lived among ideas as if they had physical presence. It’s not as if he didn’t notice the physical world. He did. He loved to eat; by the time I knew him his diet was constrained and monitored, and he took great pleasure in evading those restrictions. He listened, too, although by then his hearing was partially gone. I remember once going to his house and hearing cantorial music screeching out to the sidewalk in lachrymose bellows. I do not like cantorial music at all, and Rabbi Hertzberg was not particularly musical. But he put the music on as loud as it could go because he was bedridden upstairs and it was downstairs, and because it reminded him of home. Not Baltimore, where he grew up, but Poland, where he was born, and which he left when he was a small boy.
I sat with him and he explained what he was hearing, and the magic of his memories and the words he used to describe them let me hear it too. For that short time, the sounds that I confess I usually hear as unappealing whines and shouts and nasal whimpers became intimate and majestic and soul-touching and the way into a world I had not known existed.
And then, of course, it ended, and I went home, and I never was able to hear it again. But Rabbi Hertzberg could.
And the ideas — they were real for him, tangible, physical things, and he moved among them, building with them, moving them around, assessing and including new ones, tossing out discredited old ones. It was extraordinary — and extraordinarily exciting — to watch Rabbi Hertzberg think.
He would be able to take ideas that seemed to have nothing to do with each other — alternate realities, existing in parallel never-touching worlds — and bring them together. He was immensely creative, and what he created was ideas, made of other ideas that had changed and come together in the furnace of his mind.
He used that skill to describe the Middle East and the ever-worsening situation between Israel and its neighbors. Both Israel’s reality and the Palestinians’ were real, he said; their directly conflicting narratives both held truth. He was a proud Jew, and his loyalty was with his people, and he was absolutely clear and eternally unyielding about that, but that did not blind him to the reality of other realities or loyalties.
When something happened in Israel, he’d call; unless it was something really terrible he’d open the call by saying “This is Yasser Arafat.” Then he would explain what happened, in a way that always made sense, and that I had not been able to see before.
I still long for the phone to ring, both because I miss him and because I miss his explanations, his syntheses, and his clarity.
Ten years after his death, we can say with some confidence that Arthur Hertzberg’s memory is a blessing to all of us.