The published writings of Theodore Lewis (1915-2010) — the Dublin-born Orthodox rabbi who led Newport, Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue for 36 years, beginning in 1949 — include the book Sermons at Touro Synagogue (Brooklyn: Simcha-Graphic, 1980) and a companion volume, Bar Mitzvah Sermons at Touro Synagogue (Brooklyn: Simcha-Graphic, 1989).
Over four hundred young men were poring over books of Mussar, in which they were intensely engrossed
One of the second book’s notable features is an introductory autobiographical essay, “Reminiscences of Mir Yeshiva” (available online in a slightly altered form) in which Rabbi Lewis discusses his time at the celebrated Polish mussar academy of Mir from 1935 to 1939, as well as his subsequent return to Ireland with the outbreak of World War II. Here is Rabbi Lewis’s description of his first impression of the Mir Yeshiva (p. xv):
“It was at night, when all the students were engaged in the study of Mussar—personal ethics and piety. As I traversed the grounds of the Yeshiva, I heard a voice of yearning, a yearning towards spiritual uplifting, a voice sublime, which made all things material, recede in the distance. I can still hear that sound, its deep emotion ringing in my ears. It is one of the few experiences I will never forget. As I entered the glass doors, a most impressive scene met my eyes. Over four hundred young men were poring over books of Mussar, in which they were intensely engrossed. The sincerity of the sight, which I witnessed, moved me profoundly.”
Among other events in his storied life, Rabbi Lewis appeared as a guest on an episode of the popular American television game show To Tell the Truth. Sponsored by the cigarette manufacturer Marlboro and hosted by Bud Collyer, the episode aired on the evening of June 30, 1959.
In the first segment of the episode, its celebrity panel, comprised of Jayne Meadows, Don Ameche, Kitty Carlisle, and Tom Poston, was tasked with determining which of three guests was “the only Irish-born rabbi in the United States.”
Rabbi Lewis was tremendously proud of being Touro Synagogue’s rabbi, seizing any opportunity to promote awareness about its history. He also used his television appearance to inform viewers about its restoration program.
Below is a transcript I have prepared of this To Tell the Truth segment — there were two others that evening — which lasted nearly nine minutes. I thank Shelley Parness, a longtime Touro Synagogue member, for informing me that this episode is viewable online.
Announcer/Bern Bennett: One of these men is the only Irish-born rabbi in the United States [Music]. What is your name please?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: My name is Rabbi Theodore Lewis.
Announcer/Bern Bennett: What is your name please?
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: My name is Rabbi Theodore Lewis.
Announcer/Bern Bennett: What is your name please?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: My name is Rabbi Theodore Lewis.
Announcer/Bern Bennett: Two of these people are imposters. Only one is the real Rabbi Theodore Lewis and is the only one sworn to tell the truth. And here is our host, Bud Collyer [Applause].
I was formerly the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Ireland. I am now the rabbi of the oldest synagogue in the United States
Bud Collyer: Thank you very much. Good evening, and welcome once again to To Tell the Truth. Now, may I introduce our panel? First, smiling and lovely as always, Jayne Meadows. Next, smiling, but not lovely as always, Don Ameche. Third, smiling and lovely as always, Kitty Carlisle. And finally, smiling, handsome Tom Poston [Applause]. Now, may I ask you to follow along if you will, please, with your copies of this first affidavit? “I, Rabbi Theodore Lewis, was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. I was formerly the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Ireland. I am now the rabbi of the oldest synagogue in the United States: Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island. Our congregation was founded in 1658 and the present building was dedicated in 1763. George Washington visited Touro Synagogue in 1790, and President Eisenhower paid a visit last year. Touro Synagogue is designated a National Historic Site by the federal government. I originally came to this country to find out why so many Irishmen came to America. This month I became an American citizen.” Signed: Rabbi Theodore Lewis [Applause]. Now, panel, you’ve heard these gentlemen all claiming to be Rabbi Theodore Lewis, Irish rabbi. You all ready to play our game, gentlemen? Okay, let’s start this questioning with Don Ameche. Don?
Don Ameche: Thank you, Bud. Number two, what is the second book of the Bible?
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: Second book of the Bible is Exodus.
Don Ameche: Number one, what is the third book of the Bible?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Deuteronomy.
Don Ameche: Number three, what is the fifth commandment?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: “Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Don Ameche: Number one, what is the fourth commandment?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Fourth commandment is, “Thou shall have no other gods but me.”
Don Ameche: Number two, what is the fifth commandment?
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: The fifth commandment is, “Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Don Ameche: Number three, what does Black and Tan mean?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: Black and Tans were the British soldiers who fought against the Sinn Féin.
Don Ameche: Number one, what is— [Bell rings]
Kitty Carlisle: Ooh. Tell me what you were going to ask. Number one, it says that you came over here to find out why so many Irishmen came to this country. What is the answer?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: The answer is they came to improve themselves and also to see the country and some relatives, too.
Kitty Carlisle: And is that why you came?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Well I came—
Kitty Carlisle: Is that why you stayed?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: For other reasons, too.
Kitty Carlisle: Number two, who is Rabbi Finkelstein?
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: Rabbi Finkelstein is the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Kitty Carlisle: Number three, who is Israel’s foreign minister?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: It was Mr. Abba Eban until just recently [Bell rings].
Bud Collyer: Tom.
Tom Poston: Thank you, Bud. Ted Lewis. Any you boys play a clarinet? It just struck me that the name is Theodore Lewis. Number three, what does rav mean?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: It means “rabbi” and it is used usually in biblical circles, in yeshiva groups in Europe.
Tom Poston: I guess Jackie Leonard isn’t strictly— strictly— accurate when he calls Georgie Jessel rav, huh? It’s always something else he had in mind. Number two, where was the prior location of Tem— Temple Emanu-El, in New York City.
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: In New York proper.
Tom Poston: Yeah.
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: In New York proper. City of New York.
Tom Poston: Thank you. Number one, when did the Irish rebellion begin?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: 1921 [Bell rings].
Bud Collyer: Jayne Meadows.
Jayne Meadows: Number two, where is Fall River, Massachusetts?
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: Fall River is about twenty miles from Newport.
Jayne Meadows: And number one, where is Tiverton, Rhode Island?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Tiverton, Rhode Island would be about twenty miles from Providence.
Jayne Meadows: And near Newport, then.
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Of course.
Jayne Meadows: Number three, what is the name of the famous beach in Newport?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: The most famous of the beaches, the social beaches, of course: Bailey’s Beach [Bell rings multiple times].
Bud Collyer: That’s it. Time to vote, panel. So without consultation, please mark your ballots, and in so doing, of course, vote for number one, number two, or number three. All set, panel? Everybody marked? Jayne, for whom did you vote?
He has the rosy glow to his cheeks that looked like he might have lived in the Irish Sea— for a while
Jayne Meadows: I voted for number two, Bud, not only because he knew where Fall River, Massachusetts [Bell rings] was, but because he has the rosy glow to his cheeks that looked like he might have lived in the Irish Sea— for a while.
Bud Collyer: I should have said, of course, that the challengers will receive $250, as usual, for every incorrect vote. With that hanging over you, Don, what did you vote?
Don Ameche: I voted for number two. I— I kind of thought that was the only [Bell rings] legitimate Irish accent of the— in the group.
Bud Collyer: Kitty, what about you?
Kitty Carlisle: I voted for number two [Bell rings]. I didn’t think that number three knew who— who the foreign minister was. I think it’s Mrs. Golda Meir. And number two knew about Rabbi Finkelstein. And number one seemed to have an English accent.
Bud Collyer: And your choice, Tom.
Tom Poston: I voted for number two [Bell rings]. I don’t know whether everybody’s in agreement out there, but we’re all in agreement up here. I thought the accent was a little more legitimate, although you really couldn’t tell too much. And I don’t think the third book of the Bible is Deuteronomy.
Jayne Meadows: No. It’s Leviticus. Isn’t it?
Don Ameche: That’s right. Leviticus. Yes.
Bud Collyer: Okay. There you have it, now, the way we voted. And see how you voted at home, and maybe you out here in our studio audience, too, as we discover which one of these gentlemen is the Irish rabbi. So will the real Rabbi Theodore Lewis please stand up? [Rabbi Lewis stands up. Applause.] Well, you did well on that one, panel. Thank you very much, sir. Number one, would you tell us your real name and what you really do, sir?
Guest number one/Philip Colleck: Yeah. My name is Philip Colleck. I’m a dealer in antiques on 57th Street in New York City, and our gallery is Philip Colleck.
Bud Collyer: Thank you, sir. And number three, what about you, sir?
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: My name is Sidney Gross. I’m an all-night disc jockey on a New York radio station. Many people— [Applause]
Bud Collyer: There was something more you wanted to say, Sidney.
Guest number three/Sidney Gross: Many people know me as “The Voice in the Night,” because I tell horror and suspense stories.
Bud Collyer: So now you know. Well, there you have it. And as we see this score is really going along rather nicely here. And checking it over, we find it was unanimous by— for the panel. That means, of course, there are no incorrect votes. However, Marlboro gives $150. It will be divided among you, three ways, of course. I do understand that your winnings, Rabbi, will be donated to the Touro Synagogue restoration fund. Would you mind telling us something about that?
Well, the Touro Synagogue is one of the finest examples of classical colonial architecture
Guest number two/Theodore Lewis: Well, the Touro Synagogue is one of the finest examples of classical colonial architecture. Currently, we are embarking on a restoration program, and we hope to finish the restoration of the synagogue in October. We are— our aim is to have $300,000, and this will be by public donation and subscription.
Bud Collyer: I see. Well, I’m sorry the panel was so smart. A little good money might have gone to a very good cause here, but good fortune attend you in your— in your fundraising. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us. Hope you had fun. On your way out, you’ll find a carton of Marlboro cigarettes for each of you. Good night and God bless you.
I first visited Dublin in April 2017. In August 2018, sponsored by a grant to my Providence synagogue — Congregation Beth Sholom — I visited Dublin, Limerick, Cork, and Belfast with my brother, Amir Afsai. Over the past year and a half, I have been writing about Jews and Irish literature, as well as about Rabbi Theodore Lewis, about whom I spoke last month with Salve Regina University’s Sean O’Callaghan, Ph.D. and John Quinn, Ph.D. at the Museum of Newport Irish History. I intend to continue working in this area and to reflect on my experiences in Ireland and Northern Ireland. For now, see these articles:
“When the Rabbi Told the Truth,” Tablet Magazine, June 29, 2018.
“Humor in the Midst of Strife,” New English Review, October 2018.
“Jewtown: Simon Lewis’s Poems of the Rise and Decline of Cork’s Jewish Community,” New English Review, May 2019.
“A Persistent Interest in the Other: Gerry Mc Donnell’s Writings on Irish Jews,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 108, Autumn 2019, pp. 298-312.