Many of us have seen the iconic image of a line of be-leied marchers, centered on three men — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., young, mustachioed, resolute, then Dr. Ralph Bunche, square-jawed, handsome, and less well-known than the other two, despite being a Pulitzer Prize winner, and then Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wild-haired, wild-bearded, bespectacled, bereted.
It’s a picture of the march on Selma, Alabama, in 1964, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and a time when blacks and Jews could link arms, as they did there, and move forward together.
Gerald Zelizer, rabbi emeritus of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, was a young man then. He was not at the march in Selma, but Rabbi Heschel was among his teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained, and Dr. King spoke at that ordination.
Rabbi Zelizer heard Dr. King speak again, at a Rabbinical Assembly convention at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake in the Catskills, in 1968. Dr. King was there, as he had been at the ordination at JTS, at the behest of his friend Rabbi Heschel.
Ten days later, Dr. King was assassinated.
Rabbi Zelizer will talk about his memories of both men, and about the radical content of Dr. King’s talk, to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Day at Temple Emanu-El of Closter. (See box.)
Rabbi Zelizer will talk about the relationships between the two men, and about its implications, he said. First, he’ll explore why Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel bonded. “They were an odd couple,” he said. “They were different in background, in religion, in ethnicity, in age. So what did they bond on?
“They both faced resistance from within their own religious communities. Why? And what was that resistance about?
“And what are the practical implications of their common legacy for us, in synagogues, in 2018? What are the risks?”
There is another connection between Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel. Dr. King was murdered when he was 39; the national holiday that marks his birth on January 15, 1929, is set for the third Monday in January. Rabbi Heschel was born on January 11, 1907, and died on December 23, 1972, at 65. His yarzheit often falls in early to mid-January, right around MLK Day. Synagogues around the country often mark the two days and remember the two men together.
Dr. King spoke to the Conservative rabbis and leaders to honor Rabbi Heschel, Rabbi Zelizer said, but what he said was “controversial — far more controversial than we remember in retrospect.” It was couched in a style that was both mesmerizing and profoundly unfamiliar to them — rabbinic homiletics, a subject that Rabbi Zelizer taught at the seminary for about seven years — does not resemble black Baptist teaching (and in fact rarely is called mesmerizing). But even beyond the style, Dr. King, “who called himself a Negro, who was in his own words a Negro, coming to speak to Jews, to rabbis, in a time of tension between the two communities — he didn’t come to talk about the tension, he came to honor Rabbi Heschel, but the way he addressed the Jewish/black conflict, he leapfrogged across the particular black civil rights message in that speech,” to make it more universal, Rabbi Zelizer said.
“His speech at the RA convention transcended black issues and went to a different place, and we were all scooped into it,” he added.
“Before that, I had never heard a black Baptist minister speak,” he said. “He sounded exactly as he sounds on all the recordings, so you all know what he sounds like now — but we didn’t know that then.
“We all sat with our mouths agape.”
Given the young rabbis’ fascination with Dr. King’s style, and given that they all were still trying out their own styles, did any of them try to imitate Dr. King’s? “No,” Rabbi Zelizer said firmly. “If we’d tried, it would have been…” He hesitated, searching for the right word. “Nerdy,” he said. “It would have been nerdy.”
Rabbi Zelizer, who retired from Neve Shalom in 2015 after 45 years as its spiritual leader, came to the Conservative bimah naturally. His father, Nathan Zelizer, another Conservative rabbi, headed a synagogue in Bexley, in suburban Columbus, Ohio, for 40 years. “Together, we’ve been Conservative rabbis for more than 100 years,” Gerald Zelizer said. He was president of the Rabbinical Association from 1992 to 1994, and international president of its then huge and booming youth movement, USY, in the mid 1950s.
(His Ohio background is clear in Rabbi Zelizer’s voice; when he talks about Southern Baptists, they become Babtist, in true Southern Babtist style. “That’s how they say ‘Baptist’ in Ohio,” he explained.)
After he was ordained, Rabbi Zelizer found himself faced with a dilemma. “The requirement in 1964, when I graduated, was that if you passed the physical exam — and this was true for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis — you had had to be a chaplain in the armed forces,” he said. It was the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the draft was in effect.
“I passed the physical, and I was assigned to become a prison chaplain in Japan,” he said. “I was single, the prison was 150 miles from Tokyo, it was a military prison, and there were 1,000 prisoners. Twenty of them were Jews.”
To understate, he was not pleased. (And his being single was relevant because it was not a state in which he planned to continue. He wanted to meet someone and get married.)
He despaired, but “The seminary said, ‘Listen, Zelizer, we know this is not what you want to do. So learn Spanish, and we will send you to Argentina.’”
The job was to be the assistant to Rabbi Marshall Meyer, the Conservative rabbi who had gone to Buenos Aires to build up the Jewish community there in 1958, and who had succeeded hugely. Rabbi Meyer founded Comunidad Bet El, became a bulwark for democracy and the fight for freedom when the junta took over Argentina, and left the country, his work completed, in 1984, to oversee the revitalization of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
When he got to Argentina, two weeks after he got the assignment, Rabbi Zelizer certainly was not fluent in Spanish, but he used that two weeks to study the grammar intensively. He knew many verbs because he knew how to conjugate them. “I knew I could learn the vocabulary once I got there,” he said.
He met Viviana Rotman there; the granddaughter of Parisian Jews, fluent in many languages, she was his simultaneous translator. Soon, they fell in love. Now she’s Dr. Viviana Rotman Zelizer, the Lloyd Cotsen Professor of Sociology at Princeton, where she focuses on “the cultural implications of money,” Rabbi Zelizer said. She is a sociologist, not an economist, but she works with economics on the margin where the two fields come together.
They have one son, the historian Dr. Julian Zelizer, the Malcolm Forbes professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, a frequent commentator who talks about current events on many television shows.
The Drs. Zelizer, mother and son, are the only such tenured pair in Princeton’s centuries-long history.
But back to Argentina, for Rabbi Zelizer — whose dependence on his then-fiancée’s interpretation soon lessened as he learned Spanish — was Rabbi Meyer’s aide, working less on social justice work in general and more on interfaith relations. That’s an interest that still drives him.
Now that he’s retired from the bimah, he has been able to continue to study — he’s learning Yiddish at YIVO and about Islam at Princeton — and he writes op eds for such publications as USA today. He also teaches frequently in the tristate area; recently he’s talked about “Why are the monotheistic religions violent, why are some of the visions from inside each religion able to read the same sources in a nonviolent way, and what can we do about it today?”
And on a lighter note, he also talks about rabbinic bloopers. “Once,” he said, “before I knew Spanish very well, I spoke in a large interfaith plenum of Catholics and Jews in Argentina. I wrote out my speech, and my wife translated it.
“But at one point, I veered off script, and I identified the pope as La Papa. I noticed some squirming in the audience.
“Later, someone told me that I had called the pope ‘the potato.’ El Papa is the right way to say it.”
His mistake made the newspapers in Buenos Aires, he added.
Who: Rabbi Gerald Zelizer
What: Will be scholar in residence
Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter, 180 Piermont Road
When: At Shabbat morning services on January 13, beginning at 9:30
Why: To talk about the legacies of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel
For more information: Call (201) 750-9972 or
go to templeemanu-el.com