As my Dad was a Renaissance man, Mom — born in 1908, two years after Dad — was a Renaissance woman. Unlike most women of her age, she had an extensive Judaic education, attended a teachers’ training school in Hunter College, and obtained a teaching diploma. Among her siblings were community leaders and educators, including the world-renowned biblical scholar and historian Rabbi Dr. Sidney B. Hoenig and the well-known attorney Moses H. Hoenig, who organized Young Israel of America.
Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, who served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel Anshe Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, and as an instructor in hazanut, singing by cantor, and head of the Department of Music at the Bureau of Education, was the cousin of my Mom’s mother, Leba Hoenig. When Rabbi Goldfarb saw that the zemirot — the special Sabbath songs that are sung during the Sabbath meals — were bland and uninspiring, he composed new melodies for their texts. They are found in his 1920 and 1957 books Friday Evening Melodies for Synagogue, School and Home, and Song & Praise for Sabbath Eve. Today, virtually all Jewish families who sing zemirot use his melodies, such as Ya Ribon Olam and Shir Hamaalot.
Mom helped support her family during the Depression while her brothers and sisters attended school. She taught in a New York City public school each day from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M., and from 4 P.M. to 7 P.M. — including on Sundays — she taught in the English Department of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. She helped the youngsters in her public-school classes learn to read Hebrew by having the neighborhood synagogue open its doors for her during the evenings after 8 P.M. Mom charged ten cents a lesson, feeling, correctly, that the children would have an incentive to learn if they paid for it. She returned the money to them in the form of Purim and Chanukah gifts.
Due to the financial difficulties caused by the Depression, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath never paid Mom six months of her salary, which was sixty dollars per month. With interest, this debt still unpaid of more than a hundred years adds up to quite a sum.
Mom’s father, my grandfather Joseph Isaac Hoenig, also donated his services to the yeshiva as a leading member of its board of directors. The yeshiva noted his and Mom’s service by giving Mom a set of silver candlesticks as a wedding gift. Years later, Mom gave them to my wife Dina, who lights them every Sabbath eve.
Since Mom’s father died when I was only six weeks old, I do not remember him, but I remember his wife, my maternal grandmother. She had a marvelous sense of humor and was an articulate raconteur. I still remember a story that she told me about King Solomon.
Mom left teaching to marry Dad in 1933. She had an alert and practical mind and read several books a week until she died at ninety years of age. She advised me well when she suggested that I pursue a secular career in addition to Judaic studies.
Even at ninety, Mom stood erect, dressed well, and looked young for her age. She was offered several marriage proposals after Dad died in 1976, when she was sixty-eight years old. She refused them all, unable to imagine that another husband could possibly be as good as Dad. With her passing on December 26, 1988, which would have been her fifty-fifth wedding anniversary, my parents were reunited at last.
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My parents were heroes. As Abraham was willing to offer his beloved son, thinking this was God’s will, my parents devoted their lives to what they knew was right .
In the early days, after Mom and Dad came to Shaarei Tfiloh, where Dad served as rabbi, the synagogue was a very popular congregation. It was packed every Shabbat, and during the High Holidays all its 1500 seats were occupied. I had no seat during the High Holidays and had to sit with the choir even though I had no singing voice.
This began to change in the early 1950s. In those days, many white people did not want to live in a neighborhood with people who were black. When African-Americans began moving into the neighborhood in the early 1950s, the white people fled to the Baltimore suburbs. All the synagogues in the area for miles around followed suit — all, that is, but Shaarei Tfiloh. The board of Shaarei Tfiloh begged Dad to agree to allow the synagogue to move uptown, but Dad said it was wrong to do so; it was immoral and disrespectful. As a result, by the early 1960s, instead of 1500 congregants on the High Holidays, there were only about 500. Although Dad’s salary was severely reduced, he and Mom still refused to move.
When Dad retired from Shaarei Tfiloh in 1963, I took over as part-time rabbi for seven years for a meager yearly salary of $2,000. Dad worked for the Talmudical Academy High School for five years without any pay. Then, Dad and Mom moved to Israel where Dad became the Director in Jerusalem of Yad Harav Herzog, Mechon Lerefuah Veyahadut that dealt with medicine and Judaism. Both at Talmudical Academy and at the institution, Dad continued his goal to aid people, and Mom helped him.
There were rabbis in the early 1960s who joined the marches of the civil rights movement, and their actions were laudable. But what they did only took a few days and it cost them only air fare and a little time. What Mom and Dad did cost them a great deal of money. Dad also gave up being one of the most successful rabbis of Baltimore, with a huge congregation. He and Mom were heroes. I am proud of them.
Shaarei Tfiloh still stands where it stood in Dad’s day. Few people attend services. It has a part-time rabbi. When there were race riots in Baltimore and many buildings in the neighborhood were destroyed, the neighborhood’s African-American community remembered my parents, and no one touched the synagogue.