The Rabbi on Forty Seventh Street is a book by Ann Birstein. An enthralling story of Ann’s father, Bernard Birstein; a turn-of-the-century immigrant from the Russian-Polish border town of Brest Litovsk. In the late 20’s and early 30’s he was hired as the Rabbi of The Actor’s Temple in Manhattan’s historical Hell’s Kitchen. The temple was not your run-of-the mill beit knesset; it was frequented and sponsored by the likes of Sophie Tucker, a young Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor; and other Jewish Broadway showbiz persona. Filled with typical Jewish antidotes, the book opens a window into immigrant Jewish life in New York City at the turn of the century through the 50’s. But “the rest of the story” is not about 47th Street; but about a Rosh Hashanah “homily” that Rabbi Birstein gave when the world was on the brink of World War II. Celebrating “the world’s birthday”, Rabbi Birstein made the one most significant observation of his time and possibly of all our times: ” …we celebrated the world’s birthday. A marvelous event by any standards. But what kind of a world? you might ask.”
Rabbi Birstein was referring to the systematic persecution of Jews in Europe. But he also hit hard at the America that he grew to love so much. Living in Hell’s Kitchen was no picnic. Hell’s Kitchen was a close knit ethnic diverse neighborhood that left nothing to the imagination. Tenements often housing two or more families in four rooms; lined the narrow sunless streets and crossed wide avenues. On that Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Birstein sounded more like FDR than a Rabbi…:”one third of a nation is ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed..” and America was on the precipice of war. “Is this the world God created?” asked Rabbi Birstein. Rabbi Birstein answered his own question quoting a biblical conversation between God and Adam. “Don’t corrupt and desolate My world” said God, “…for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”
According to the pragmatic and good Rabbi; “…we went ahead and did it anyhow.” (Corrupt it; that is.) The Rabbi’s words are still relevant. We have screwed it up. Spiritually, organically, and politically. Western society’s undisputable “tolerant social equality” banished God to the back of the class leaving a secular intellectual arrogance that created a spiritual deficient society without prayer or hope. 17 years ago we were united in prayer as we watched the Twin Towers agonizingly crumble to the ground. But that spiritual unity lasted only a “New York minute” and quickly vanished in a cloud of mundane political and partisan rhetoric. We tried to “set it right”, but we failed miserably. 17 years later, and we still cannot agree on how to protect America or the rest of the world.
What have we done to keep God’s world “Right”? Not much. We have trashed the planet. Euphemisms like climate change or global warming do very little to tell people to quit dumping trash in the oceans, forests, neighborhoods, and our backyards. Political rhetoric and partisan lobbying is as bad as doing nothing. Common sense should dictate that protecting the environment is good business. You would think? As we “speak”, aquarium fish are indiscriminately thrown into the South Florida waters causing extreme damage to the fragile ecosystem in the region. The predator Lion fish is a good example of indiscriminate dumping. Its venomous spikes kill other species. Despite its danger, it remains a favorite of aquarium aficionados who realize its killing potential much too late. The Reef Environmental and Education Foundation (REEF) has found approximately 37 species that are not native to Florida. A small example of man’s penchant to “corrupt and desolate” God’s world. The good news is that REEF is bringing awareness to these South Florida communities and encouraging them to report any fish not indigenous to the region. However, don’t bother looking up this ecological dilemma in any mainstream media reporting; it does not carry enough “end-of-the-world” headline material to make it worthwhile.
Most of us fondly opine about the past but fail to admit that it was the past that brought us to where we find ourselves today. Two world wars have not taught us much about tolerance, freedom, or brotherly love. The Holocaust has become a once-a-year rallying cry of “never again” until the next Jewish cemetery is vandalized, the next Jew is attacked, and the next temple is defaced with Nazi swastikas. We all talk a good talk but very few walk the walk. The United Nations (UN) has a Holocaust dedicated area on the “tolerance” wall. On a recent visit to the UN, the irony of this “wall” did not escape me. Because as I listened to the tour’s rehearsed talking points on tolerance and the Holocaust, I knew that the International Court of Justice in The Hague was adamant in putting Israel “on the stand” for alleged human rights violations in the Gaza Strip. One would think that Hamas, Syria, and Iran would make better candidates for a hearing on human rights or lack there of; not a chance.
God was right: “there is no one to set it right”. Anti Israeli rhetoric is rampant on Ivy League campuses, in major political parties, the EU, and the UN. Linda Sarsour; prominent socialist Islamist activist is very vocal about her hatred of Israel and Zionists calling them “creepy”. Yet she was the organizer of the January 2017 women’s march on Washington. This is a woman who openly encourages American Muslims to channel their anger in a jihad against the US government. She also champions Sharia Law; a perverted Islamic judicial legislation targeting primarily women; stripping them from any personal freedoms and human dignity. I guess the Women’s March organizers missed that little insidious detail. Who is setting this right? Linda Sarsour is a self-declared social democrat currently demonstrating against Supreme Court Justice nominee Kavanaugh, because she and her “pink” pinhead friends are defending women’s rights! Stupid takes on a new meaning. But back to God: Is this the world He created?
As an immigrant, Rabbi Bernard Birstein’s life was simple but rich in wisdom. He was unassuming but innovative; which is why he became popular with the Broadway crowd and remained 47th Street’s spiritual leader until his death in the 50’s. He kept his faith intact realizing that his heritage was the beacon that guided him through life. But he was also pragmatic. His Rosh Hashanah summation was relevant at a time when Nazism and Fascism were on the rise. His words were as resonant then as they are now. What have we done to make the world a better place? Watching the brazen marches of the far right and left makes me wonder if we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes of 75 years ago. Why are humans so bent on destroying that which God created so perfectly? Why has freedom carried us toward self-annihilation rather than preservation? Why have we taken creation’s perks and turned them into victimization?
My mother who as a child was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, was also a mother to seven children. She worked from dawn till dusk. I do not remember her complaining of boredom. She was a whirlwind of activity. It pains me to hear young mothers bemoaning their boredom and lack of freedom. Motherhood or the ability to be mothers is women’s most exclusive “club” on earth. We have the unique privilege of bringing life into the world; nurture it, guide it, and turn it into someone who might one day save us all. Nothing should compare to that. That is feminism at its core. We hold the power of creation. Downplaying this role diminishes our identity as women. Unfortunately, most women have been brainwashed to think that motherhood is equivalent to joblessness and equally useless. This thinking makes having children inconsequential and without substance. We have reduced children and child bearing to a commodity. How torrid! We are not doing well by our children. We do not parent any longer; technology does it for us. Third World countries use kids as a war resource. On her NGO trips to Cambodia; my daughter describes child poverty as literally having nothing. Sharing a chair or a pair of shoes between siblings is common. Having a roof over one’s head is luck. These are the children we are expecting to make it right after us. How can they? We have not made it right for them.
An unknown immigrant from Eastern Europe made more sense than any politician I have ever know past or present. Whether religious, agnostic, or atheist; one has to agree with Rabbi Birstein’s argument that as humans, we have not been great custodians to our earth. Rabbi Birstein had no answers for his congregation, only questions. May be it is in the question that eventually someone will find the answer. In the meantime I ask: if you corrupt it who is going to make it right after you?