MY FRIEND, ELISHA, AND I SHOT THIS CLIP after showing the rabbi stories we already collected and getting his thumbs-up to find more. I’m the Shlomo behind this book on the rabbi who, Praise the Lord, is not only with us, still, but in this same clip he flashes a quip when he takes me up on my offer, to wit: why wait for his obit and eulogies and the sweet solace of the grave to rewind the whirl of his life and only then see within the many sides of his soul?
So far I have four stories in all to which I’m sure the rabbi will respond with תורה talk to match the love and affection of authors like David Nekrutman who in his own tale lifts the curtain on a striking scene: 23 pastors are grabbing the rabbi’s jacket hem in Jerusalem and belting out a hymn from Prophet Zechariah like it was “God Bless America,” not to mention the sisterhood chorus of German nuns whose life’s mission to atone for the Sins of Their Fathers moves them to board Air Lufthansa and get off the bus in Efrat in full green habit breaking out into Isaiah’s, נחמו נחמו עמי, as if this were Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. “I’m not making this up, folks,” David says. “Neither is this a Mel Brooks sketch nor Rockettes in costume. Their Nazi fathers were rolling in their graves. Nebach. What agony.”
Among the other voices we’ve already heard from in our story search, Marc “Meir” Belzberg hits the sweet spot with his brisk and busy, “Follow the Money,” that begins when the rabbi replies to his young student’s quest for advice by asking, in return, “Is your father worth at least a million?” when Samuel B. by then pretty much ‘owned the mint.’ What new twist was the rabbi about to add to the holy duo of ‘Earning and Learning’ conceived, if you will, on his deathbed, by Father Jacob in Egypt?
And speaking of deathbeds, what can I say about Shuki Reich who relives the First Lebanon War, and I’m trying to talk calmly, here, when they all pegged him for a goner and gathered ’round to wait, a story that, when the rabbi reads it, makes him cry. And you can’t possibly enjoy a dramatic story more than when you cry, right? FYI, you’ll find everything told in both English and Hebrew including my own story, “How 35 Years Ago, the Rabbi’s Weekly Torah Column Almost Never Got Off the Ground.”
1984 WAS THE YEAR the brave new world didn’t arrive, the Mac cult took off like a rocket, Reagan joked about outlawing Russia — “we begin bombing in 5 minutes” — and Lincoln Square Synagogue’s Rabbi Riskin quits his plum job, leaves Manhattan and arrives in Israel with Vicky and their four children on עליה. Everyone knew it was coming, but his students and other ‘followers’ were clamoring to hear more from him—among them, Belda Lindenbaum, of blessed memory, a major donor who saw no national Torah column written anywhere, especially by a rabbi with a vigorous grasp of Judaism, a Brooklyn humor, and who was plugged into the growing desire of young urban professionals to learn life’s meaning beyond “tefillin dates,” a term the rabbi coined to mark a curious pattern among couples who otherwise loved and observed Shabbat and tradition. His Wednesday night lectures on love and sex were filled to the rafters with many, like me, on dates, tefillin or otherwise, and who, for the most part, were well-heeled singles who knew their way around a tennis court as well as a page of תנ”ך and especially drawn to this synagogue-in-the round on the new and edgy Upper West Side with its rock ‘n’ roll boutiques, two hundred fifty dollar cowboy boots and only a few subway stops to work. With groups renting out local hotel rooms to house all the visitors, thousands of them from across the city came for שמחת תורה, closing down Amsterdam Avenue and dancing in the street, hoping a future bride or groom on the side might sneak a peek and, כאילו, move to exchange particulars. How they would continue to learn from their rabbi was a larger question.
As I was the ghostwriter Mrs. Lindenbaum hired to help make her vision come true, I was honored that she picked me but told her ‘Belda, no guarantees. The name of the game is competition.” I explained that Torah commentaries have to compete like everything else in a newspaper where space is limited, attention span more so, even. I may have been a recent חוזר לתשובה and wet behind the ears when it came to the rules of what part of שבת lunch to return to the stove, but I was a writer and creative director trained in the art and science of advertising. For me to shape the rabbi’s words and compete for readers’ attention meant he had to agree to my terms.
But first I had to recruit more team members including Jacob Lampart, a truly gifted Commentary writer who’d taught me ‘dialogue’ and ‘voice’ when we worked for years on a post-Holocaust tragic-comedy called, “Borough Park,” or later, “Strictly Kosher,” and who would edit the first-draft of each column I wrote. Later he landed a big national fiction award for a book of zany short stories I loved reading later in life a second time around. I also hired illustrator Jennifer Skop to do a weekly drawing or cartoon — like for בראשית, she would draw a snake who looks Eve in the eye, and with a sensuous tongue that visually suggests it could have represented the husky voice of a Zsa Zsa Gabor, says, “Trust me.” Or the next week. we’d see an image of Old Noah parading by his Ark with a sign, saying, “Repent or don’t repent, what do I care?”
I DRILLED THE RABBI FOR CONTENT AND SUBSTANCE, wrote up six sample columns, got his edits, and named the column, “Shabbat Shalom.” Rule Number One was that you’ve got to have conflict which leads to questions. What’s the meaning behind all these domestic disputes in the Bible? Who wasn’t fighting? But even more so, if you already travel the terrain of Bible study and toggle the lanes of commentaries, you’re aware that narratives and wisdom-woven history alternate with laws and sacred statutes. Stories of personal and national mistakes provoke lists of how to fix them and avoid their recurrence. So if we’d write a column about any of these Torah ethics and laws, of course we’d pore over the tugs-of-war among rabbis and sages who match each other in strengths and skills. And then, Rule Number Two: we had to add another story —a מדרש, a Hasidic legend, a funny Rabbi Riskin airplane tale or a cholent of all three. What better way to whet an appetite than to offer, “do I have a story for you.” And last, Rule Number Three: we’d spice up the space each time with a “חידוש.” Rhymes with קידוש and also provides a high. It means, ‘Extra! Extra! You heard it here first!’
I sent the samples to editors all over the U.S. where, from Baltimore, we got a gratifying “we’ll take it” from Jewish Times editor Gary Rosenblatt, among other acceptances from L.A. and elsewhere, but in New York, The Jewish Week publisher said, “nice writing, Rabbi, really — but just not for us.” Not for us??? Whoa–ah! For Rabbi Riskin, a native New Yorker if there ever was one, this was the deal breaker — he told me. How could this come out across the land while invisible to his students in his hometown and city of his success? If he couldn’t play on Broadway, then close the show. I called the publisher, Phil Ritzenberg, the former U.S. Navy lieutenant whom I knew from the old days back when we were two Jews at The Daily News. He was then the design editor who put the giant 120-point שלום on the cover when Begin and Sadat made peace. Hebrew on The Front Page? Who woulda thought? Now I had to learn his objections and try to meet them head-on. He said to me, “A d’var Torah ain’t journalism. I run a paper not a shul.” That gave me an opening.
“Excuse me, Phil, but The News column Jimmy Breslin writes at his ‘watering-hole’ is journalism? You bet it is, but only because The News calls it that. If you and The Jewish Week call a D’var Torah journalism, who’s going to argue with you?! Tell me! So what else? Spill it, Phil. Don’t hold back.”
“He’s a rabbi, that’s what. They all send me their long and overwritten sermons Air Mail Registered Special Delivery Certified and think ‘Hashem’ kissed every word they wrote.”
“You’ll deal only with me. You know me! I was there the night you made שלום ‘the 120!'”
“Yeah? You remember I had to send out for the type?”
“So you’ll do it?”
“You swear to God you’ll cut when I say, ‘cut’?”
“Phil, sweetheart! Consider it cut already!”
“You think I’m joking. I don’t have time to argue.”
SO THAT’S HOW IT STARTED. Every week over the phone, long-distance, New York to Efrat, the rabbi and I would end up figuring out one thing you might need to live a better Jewish life, framing the idea like an ad, which shouldn’t surprise you given that I was the last of the MADMEN copywriters to run the New York ad world at the end of the glory days when my bosses could no longer fit into their sharkskin suits, had their fill of agency office romps, and half were already dying of lung cancer. Camels and Luckies were the cigarettes of choice.
We zoomed in on a problem you could be wrestling with and offered a solution taken from the weekly portion using whatever conflict, story and חידוש we could muster. That Rabbi Riskin was filled with creative insights from his own rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and that his mind was an archive of legends and stories I took for granted. It was when the conversation between us got more complicated, the rebbe in him would say to me, “Any more questions? You can’t be shy and learn, you know.” But if I wasn’t sure about what I was asking, he’d say, “Good question. How about if I sharpen it?” When I missed the mark? “Good point. Hold that thought.” Sometimes, in the heat of it all, he would make me laugh without my realizing I was learning. And I will always be grateful to the rabbi for giving me credit in his Bible series acknowledgments, “I am most appreciative to Sheldon Gewirtz, who originally urged me to begin writing a weekly commentary on the Torah portion…”
BUT DON’T GET ME WRONG. Not everything was hunky-dory. Although we were applauded by readers and editors all over the country, it seemed that at back at Lincoln Square, the oldest of the old-timers weren’t happy campers. ”You see the rabbi’s column this week?” “Yeah, so? Nu?” “Whaddaya think?” “…Times Change.” They, who’d been lucky enough to live all those years on a diet of rich and complex שעורים or lectures, regarded this quick-read that appeared to and for the masses as a near-mutation of the scholarship they’d come to receive and pore over. When the gabbai, Mr. Landau, told the rabbi, “I read what you write on the way to the train,” the rabbi ‘felt his pain.’ When a different old-timer who heard about Yours Truly through the grapevine told him to sack me, he called me and said, “I would like your name, too, on the column.” What? I argued back…
“So they’ll say now, ‘this sentence is the rabbi, while this other phrase is clearly not him, but what’s his name. The ghost.’ We want everyone to pick this apart?” I moved to close this issue for good. “But even more important than that, Rabbi Riskin, we sold this to editors and their readers as one-rabbi, one authority, one byline. It’s too late to change.” He listened, thought about it for a few seconds and when the tone of his ‘okay’ convinced me that something inside him had hoped to hear what I said, I knew it was the right way to go.
AND ONLY ONCE DID I GET A CALL FROM THE PUBLISHER four hours before press time. It was the column of Korach, the charismatic rebel who challenged Moses and Aaron for supremacy of leadership. “What is this word, ha-la-chac-racy?” he seemed to want to know ‘though I heard a half-gag. “Did you misspell halacha crazy?” I suppose I laughed since to me, at least, it was one of the rabbi’s signature notes. “Glad you caught that, Phil.” I think I began to explain, or tried to explain, that this was Judaism as an ordered system of government but not a government of the masses, like a democracy, or other forms like privileged kleptocracy, or a mobocrasy, or a theocracy, but a government of Torah laws that reigned supreme…
“Yeah, I got that, I’m not a moron, but what about this part where you write that the rabbi of a synagogue or Temple is the representative of that ha-la-chac-racy and therefore, the authority, the boss of the place? He calls the shots from soup to nuts. You did write that, yes?”
“More or less…”
“Right, and you guys think I’m going to print this and then fight off the lynch mob of Temple presidents screaming bloody murder how their rabbis are waving this ‘crap’ in their face with the implicit threat they’re gonna take over? You and your rabbi have got to be kidding, man. This column is killed. Dead-in-the-water. Fax another in four hours or we’ll say that the rabbi is on a little vacation this week…and will come back when he’s sober.”
What more was there for me to say? What should I do? In Israel, it was three in the morning...’God, I pray to You. Please. Please. Make this call go through…’
… … …
“…Vicky! Hi! This is Sheldon Gewirtz. I’m sorry to disturb you but I need to speak to the rabbi. It’s crunch time.”
“It’s three in the morning, I know…”
“Are you here in Israel?”
“No, I’m in New York. They killed Korach.”
“Oh, my God. Baruch Dayan Emess….who is Korach?”
“The Jewish Week killed the Korach column. I need a new one from the rabbi or else they’ll say he’s on vacation.”
“But he’s not on vacation. He’s sleeping right here.”
“Please, Vicky, please wake him up.”
“Hi, Rabbi, we need to talk.”
“What time is it?”
“I think it’s three o’clock your time.”
“Are you in Israel?”
“No, I’m in New York. The Jewish Week killed the Korach column and we need to come up with something to replace it.”
“Was I the one who made up that word??”
“They don’t like the ramifications. Especially the part where ‘the rabbi is the boss.'”
“But he is. What’s wrong with that?”
Thank God we came up with something else over the next few minutes, and I faxed it over to Phil, God bless him. He’s 88 now and should live and be well. But after two years of collaborating and over 100 columns together, Shabbat Shalom became The Sabbath Week, the column opened to hundreds of other rabbis, teachers and writers and I, myself, went back to Madison Avenue where I continued to make my mark in the business world and, following Rabbi Riskin’s footsteps when he changed his name from Steven, changed my name to Shlomo, ‘though I keep forgetting to ask him if he paid a court fee like I did as well as advertise the change in the Irish Echo, which charged the cheapest rates, to make it all legal.
It was only when I was back in the private sector that I learned from reading the words of Nobel Economics Prize winner Friedrich Hayek how competition is a discovery process for prospectors who explore the market to find new and unknown or overlooked facts; and with them, unused and sometimes unbelievable opportunities. So I thought back to 1984 and Belda. She had that spark, Belda did. The lessons we learned about how to compete for your attention bore fruit, I’d like to think. After 35 years, maybe at least one of the hundreds of Torah columns Rabbi Riskin by-lined has shaped the way you look at conflicts or cope with struggles or appreciate the world around us and connect more with our Maker and His People, us Jews. Yet another reason to celebrate life as we know it today. Blessed Art Thou, O, Lord, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to busy ourselves with Torah study. Kiddush, anyone?! •
SO, NOW, as I approach this new project you’re reading about with the same kind enthusiasm I had for the column way back when, again, I’m honored that the rabbi would like to see how it goes. Do you, too, have a Rabbi Riskin story you’d like to tell? Do you think you might want to buy this book when it comes out? Pending the rabbi’s approval, I’d like to publish it in honor of his 80th birthday coming up on the 20th of Iyar 5780, corresponding to May 14, 2020. Certainly I’d like a lot of copies to go audiences for whom the rabbi needs no introduction, and you may be among them. Of course, I take it for granted that a book to you is more than “second to a rubber duck as the ideal bathtub companion — held in the hand without causing muscular fatigue or nerve strain, neatly balanced in back of the faucets, and read through before the water has cooled, and if it slips down the drain pipe, all right, it slips down the drain pipe.” For sure, I love this early Dorothy Parker take on books, but all kidding aside, I hope you favor her later view and that this book “will pique your own interest enough to take out a pencil, underscore the lines and set down, ‘how true,’ followed by several carefully executed exclamation points in the margin.” Can a succession of quietly played, simply written scenes — largely unrelated — from the life of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin do the trick? And, maybe, even, get readers who would never read a book about a rabbi to read one now?
Write to me at GotARabbiRiskinStory@gmail.com. Or leave a comment here on this page. Got a title for this book, maybe? Let me hear it. And to Rabbi Riskin, מורנו ורבנו, I offer here תפילתנו — may this turn out to be a deserved tribute to your lifetime of service לאחינו כל בית ישראל. Love, שלמה