The man in the mask
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The man in the mask

Meet Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer

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Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer in his study. Courtesy Shammai Engelmayer

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer has done many things during his nearly seven decades of life.

His weekly commentaries, which have appeared nearly continuously in the Jewish Standard since the mid-1990s, have made him at times one of the most controversial figures in northern New Jersey.

But when he stood in front a room full of students at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Oct. 15, it was as a teacher, the role he relishes most of all. That night, he began his 20th year as an instructor in the Hebrew University’s Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Although definitive records are hard to come by, he also most likely became the longest serving Melton instructor in North America – perhaps in the world.

Yet the man whom radio personality Barry Farber used to call “The Big Shahm” (he appeared on the show over 300 times “a lifetime ago”) is an even more complicated mix than you’d guess. A rabbi, journalist, author, lecturer, and teacher – and reportedly a great cook and challah baker – he often has described himself as something of the Lone Ranger. He is forever the man in the mask, out to make the world a better place, but always keeping a part of himself hidden. It is hard to know who he is at any given time.

Even his name is up for grabs. He has written eight books and many scores of newspaper articles and won several prestigious journalism awards under the name Sheldon David Engelmayer. His parents called him “SHA-mee,” his teachers in yeshivah called him “Shammai,” and when he was called to the Torah at his bar mitzvah, he discovered that his name was Shamshon Dovid (“not Shimshon, please”). Everyone else calls him Shammai.

He may be a hard man to know, but at 6’3″ and broad-shouldered, Engelmayer is a hard man to miss.

Looking dapper in the white linen suit he enjoys wearing well beyond Labor Day, topped with a straw hat, he looms less like the Lone Ranger and more like a cross between Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor.

Engelmayer, an only child, was born on the Lower East Side in 1945 to parents who emigrated from Galicia.

“I spoke Yiddish until I was five years old, although I can’t speak a lick of it now,” Engelmayer said. “When my parents didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, they spoke in Polish.”

He began school at a local yeshivah, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, but in third grade he transferred to Yeshivah Rabbi Jacob Joseph; he stayed there through high school.

“RJJ was a very important yeshivah, and it was very important to me, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time,” Engelmayer said. “It tolerated thought.”

“They allowed an idiot kid” – that would be him – “to go up to the rabbi” – his teacher – “at the beginning of every year and ask him something like ‘I accept the fact that God created everything, but who created God?’ If the rabbi told me, ‘You’re an idiot, sit down and shut up,’ I’d tune him out for the year. But if he said something like ‘maybe you’ll come up with an answer if you study hard enough,’ I could listen to him. They allowed me to do that.”

After high school, Engelmayer went to Yeshiva University for a year, but it was not a good match. “I didn’t thrive there, my grades were lousy, and we mutually parted company.”

The summer after YU, he got a temporary job as a law librarian at a Park Avenue law firm.

“I loved it,” he said. “It was so much fun.” The firm liked him enough to ask him to stay on permanently. He agreed; he even began thinking about going to law school. “And then came erev Yom Kippur,” he said. He asked the office manager for permission to leave early that day. It was a Friday, the office was lawyer-less, and so the man said yes. On Monday, Engelmayer was fired. The firm did not hire Jews, he was told; at least, not his kind of Jew.

“That’s when I knew what my profession was going to be. I was going to be a journalist. I was going to use the power of the pen to change the world.”

Because flat feet and bad eyesight kept him out of the war in Vietnam, Engelmayer was able to register in Brooklyn College and at the same time attend what he calls a “draft-dodger yeshivah,” where he actually studied and which gave him his s’michah in 1967.

He was a rabbi – but no one was supposed to know that.

Enter the man in the mask.

“I was told from the time I was a tot by my father that I would be a rabbi, that I was born to be a rabbi,” he said. “There were rabbis in the family for many generations and I was next. I was determined to make absolutely certain that would never happen.”

Engelmayer was very involved in Reform Democratic politics on the Lower East Side when he was a teenager and into his early twenties. In 1965, he worked with Bobby Kennedy to help reform the Surrogate’s Court system in New York City, and “was all geared up in June 1968 to work for him in the presidential primary when Sirhan Sirhan did what he did. That was my last day in politics. I just couldn’t do it any more.”

Engelmayer had already begun his journalism career in 1967 at the Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper headquartered in Coney Island. He was married by then; soon, his daughter Malki was born. Sons Juda and Jay followed in quick succession.

Recalling his experience at the law firm, Engelmayer began a weekly feature with the very unsexy title of “Jobs Discrimination Desk,” which soon became the equally unsexy “Legislative Desk.” Boring title aside, the column packed a punch. Because of it, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller introduced “and went to the mat for” a bill forbidding job discrimination in the public sector. “We called it ‘The Jewish Press Bill,'” Engelmayer said. “I have a pen somewhere from the signing ceremony. And a photo.”

In mid-1968, Engelmayer moved to the North American Newspaper Alliance-Bell McClure Syndicate. NANA, a supplementary news service, “had a star-studded history,” he said. “Ernest Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War for it. John Pershing’s memoirs were syndicated through it. Sheila Graham wrote for us, and so did Joyce Brothers. Drew Pearson was one of our owners at the time, as well as America’s most-read columnist.” These are names that might not have much resonance today, but they were stellar back then. “And here I was, at 23, the assistant editor.” Two years later, he became NANA’s editor.

“It was very heady,” he said. “I was 25, and now the youngest syndicate editor in the country. There was a lot of pressure, but also a lot of attention. I suddenly was at these great cocktail parties and soirees, the type straight out of ‘Annie Hall.’ I became a Tony voter and a first-nighter. I got into a major motion picture.” The film was “Rollercoaster”; he wound up on the cutting-room floor, with one still photograph to show for it.

At 26, he added the task of being Jack Anderson’s editor to his list of responsibilities. Anderson was Pearson’s successor and a very powerful columnist, who sometimes fell victim to the kind of deadline pressure that allow factual errors to slip by. It was Engelmayer’s job to try to restrain him when necessary. It was not an easy task, “but I was hanging out on the cusp of all the big stories of the day – the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, the Yom Kippur War – and I loved every moment of it.”

He also became friends with former Supreme Court Justice and United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who tried to convince Engelmayer to move to Alaska to help Goldberg’s son start a newspaper there. He declined “respectfully.”

Engelmayer still lived on the Lower East Side, “and I was still Orthodox in my practice,” he said. And he still told no one that he was a rabbi. When his Italian secretary figured it out and then so did his Jewish boss, “I started dumbing down” the depth of his Jewish knowledge. “Sometimes, I think I did that too well.”

Engelmayer also tried his hand at investigative journalism.

After the Yom Kippur War, for example, there was a natural gas shortage in the United States; the official reason was that there were not enough rigs available to pump the gas. Engelmayer and his writing partner, Bob Wagman, “got on the telephone and called every oil and gas equipment company in the country.” They learned that many rigs were available. They wrote a story that NANA submitted to the Pulizer Prize committee. They did not win a Pulitzer.

“Then I got a call from Britt Hume” – another famous reporter and the future Fox News anchor – “who says ‘Congratulations! You just won the [Washington Journalism Center’s Thomas L.] Stokes award for national reporting!’

“I said, ‘We didn’t submit anything for the award.’ He said, ‘You really won the Pulitzer, but the board of governors took it away from you because they were sick of the investigative stuff. We didn’t think that was fair, so we gave you this award instead.'”

Between their newspaper writing and several books, Wagman and Engelmayer exposed the dangers of the birth control device called the Dalkon Shield; did some of the earliest reporting on the dangers of asbestos; outdid Detroit newspapers in covering the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance; and laid the foundation for a criminal case in Elkhart, Ind., against the Ford Pinto, which had a tendency to explode when it was rear-ended. They also produced a film about the making of “Lion of the Desert,” a film about Libya during World War II. It starred Rod Steiger, Oliver Reed, and Anthony Quinn.

“I was doing wonderful things, but the weird thing was that throughout all of these things, I kept being drawn back into the Jewish world, no matter how hard I tried to stay out of it.”

In the mid-1980s, Engelmayer became managing editor of the New York Jewish Week (he would become its executive editor), and was back in the Jewish world, this time for good. His rabbinic juices began to show, even through the mask.

“I realized that I had the world’s greatest pulpit,” he said. “I was delivering sermons every week to an audience of 100,000 people, and I didn’t have to worry about anything else that pulpit rabbis worry about.”

He won awards from the American Jewish Press Association for his editorials year after year.

After about five years, Engelmayer left the Jewish Week and soon joined the Jewish Theological Seminary as its communications director.

By then, he was married to his second wife, Marilyn Henry, a journalist who would go on to specialize in Nazi-era restitution, particularly of art plundered during the Shoah. They stayed married for 23 years, until she died on March 1, 2011.

Engelmayer was talked into teaching by a friend. The JCC on the Palisades had a problem – the teacher set to lead an eight-week summer course on Maimonides had pulled out a week before it was to begin, without having done as much as compiled a syllabus. Engelmayer compiled his own within a few days and submitted it to Vivian Kanig, then the director of adult education at the Tenafly JCC. She hired him based on the syllabus.

“The first week I taught it, it was awful,” Engelmayer recalled having told Henry. “I couldn’t connect with anybody.”

“‘Look at yourself,’ she told me. ‘You’re 6 foot 3, you weigh 250 pounds, and you’re wearing a suit and a tie. You’re overpowering everybody in the room. You’re not going to connect with anyone.’

“The next week, I came home and changed into jeans and a sport shirt before I went to the JCC. She was so right! The class and I connected.”

Engelmayer was hooked. (And his wardrobe was set, too. That’s why he wears the ice-cream suit and the straw hat – and jeans, he has lots of jeans. It’s less intimidating, he thinks.)

Before the summer session ended, Kanig recruited him for what was then known as the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, which was being run locally at the time by the JCC on the Palisades.

“There is something so amazing about teaching Judaism to adults who want to be in that room,” he said. “I love watching their faces for what I call the wow factor.

“I learn as much from my students as they get from me.”

In 1998, after a stint as rabbi in Hopatcong, Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park hired him. He’s been there ever since.

One of Engelmayer’s most salient characteristics – his inability to be small-o orthodox about anything – surfaced very early in his life, and led to his struggles with large-O Orthodoxy, as well. “I am unorthodox, but am I non-Orthodox?

“From the philosophical standpoint, I identify with the Orthodox. I believe the Torah of Moses was the Torah God dictated to Moses. I just believe that the Torah we have is full of accretions that Moshe had nothing to do with.

“I don’t belong anywhere. I’m no longer comfortable in the Orthodox world that I grew up in and that trained me, and I’m also uncomfortable in the Conservative world that I don’t think has lived up to its promise. I think the Conservative movement went too far in accommodating the laity, and not far enough in accommodating modernity.”

So now, “I want to create the world’s first Conservative egalitarian chasidische shtieble.”

With the help of an extraordinary membership, he said, that is what Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael is becoming, “if it’s not already there. It’s very relaxed, and it’s entirely Torah-driven.”

So now, at 67, he has a multitude of jobs. He’s still at the Jewish Standard, where, he said, ‘I’m grateful to still to have my hand in the paper, but also grateful that I’m no longer the editor. The day-to-day editing of a paper is not me anymore.

“Teaching Torah is who I am. I love teaching Torah more than anything else.”

Unmasked at last.

Now if only he can get his name straight.

For more information about the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, go to www.jfnnj.org, or call the Melton office at federation, 201-820-3900.

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