At the collegiate Brandeis Camp Institute outside Los Angeles, in the summer of 1970, Arthur Hertzberg marched up to me and said without introduction, “I was told you were a troublemaker and to stay away from you. Come for a walk and tell me what you did.” He had just arrived as a guest lecturer.
After an hour’s stroll he said, “I’m leaving for Jerusalem next week to teach at the Hebrew University. For agreeing to do so, they owe me a favor. You shall be that favor. I shall get you into the Junior Year Abroad Program. What makes more sense, four years rioting at Berkeley or three years rioting and one in Jerusalem? I give you until tomorrow morning to decide. After breakfast, I withdraw the offer.” He was a rabbi from New Jersey and having grown up in a showman synagogue, I did not then hold rabbis in much esteem. I would learn later that he was probably the preeminent Jewish scholar of his generation and the author of the classic The Zionist Idea.
Thirty-six years later, I returned home from Big Sur with my son to a machine message from Hertzberg’s secretary — at 84, the rabbi had died. I was shaken and more than a little afraid of living in a world where I could not phone Arthur.
I explained to my 13-year-old son that in the realm of right and wrong, Hertzberg never compromised and as such, won far more battles than he lost. He was the first Jewish leader to visit King Hussein’s Royal Palace where he and his wife spent the night. A central figure in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, author of a major work on the French Enlightenment, his essays regularly appeared in The New York Review of Books and New York Times.
I fondly recall an afternoon at the King David Hotel, where a number of tall, finely dressed women vied for seats at our café table. A short, rotund man, Hertzberg never rode upstairs with any of them but needed to know he could. Though he served as president of the American Jewish Congress, Hertzberg was disliked by much of the Jewish establishment, both for his independence and his arrogance. I often thought, that unlike many pompous people I’d met, he had something to brag about. Though his cousin and closest friend, Wolfe Kelman, longtime head of the Rabbinical Assembly, felt that with humility, Arthur would have achieved even more.
Hertzberg gave his time to so many people, that there is hardly a scholarly work of his era where he is not thanked in the acknowledgements. Our calls always began with his affectionate insults, then he rapidly dispatched the heart of the matter and bolted with a quick “ciao ciao.” I keep the three inch file of our correspondence, his letters always dictated to his secretary. An example, two days after the immense Northridge earthquake he began:
I hope that your good wife and the baby are all right. About you, I do not worry because, as is well known, only the good die young.
Arthur name-dropped about visits to the White House, his New Jersey neighbor Zbigniew Brzezinski dropping by or how he introduced Senator Bill Bradley and his wife to Henry Kissinger over Shabbat dinner in his home all in yarmulkes. Nothing was exaggerated and during the 2000 presidential race when people began to whisper that Bradley’s wife, Ernestine, a scholar and the daughter of a Luftwaffe pilot, was the offspring of Nazis, Hertzberg bellowed in Newsweek:
Anyone who wants to get anywhere near her on this issue will do it over my dead body. I know what a Nazi is. I owe the tragedy of my life to the Nazis. Ernestine is not a Nazi. She’s one of us.
I met Arthur when I was 20 and he was 49. I did not know why he offered to take me to Jerusalem until years later when he wrote by hand from vacation in Vermont:
I think you ought to know that we met each other at a turning in my life, too, when I was moving from the role of intellectual iconoclast and analyst to try and express my affirmations. Your picking up the challenge that day helped not only you and me but some others since. Please do come and stay with us this fall for the holidays. There is room for you and you would be very welcome. Love, Arthur.
The rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin studied under Hertzberg at Columbia University and once said to me:
While most people turn out to be less than they appear, Hertzberg turns out to be far more.