A rabbi divided

A rabbi divided

The many wonderful sides of Gerald Friedman

Dora and Gerald Friedman both love to dance.

Satmar. Sharkskin suits. Z’miros. Brooklyn College. Gainsville Gators. Shlomo Carlebach. Butcher shop. Tito Puente. Torah Vodaas. Mambo.

Trying to come up with a paragraph that would string all these nouns together would be more difficult than, say, playing a round of Mad Libs. But put them together, add some verbs – dance, sing, manage, organize, teach, object, digress, laugh – and some adjectives – passionate, funny, Yiddish-inflected, musical, Jewish, Jewish, and (yes) Jewish – and you might begin to approximate Rabbi Gerald Friedman.

Add in the narrative arc of insider/outsider – insider feels like outsider, moves outside, finds himself inside again, feels like outsider – and you’re in business.

Friedman, who last month retired as rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge and is now that shul’s rabbi emeritus, was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1941. He had yichus. His father’s grandfather was the Satmarer’s shochet and mohel – ritual slaughterer and ritual circumciser – and he was also a menagen, someone who wrote chasidic songs and sang them.

“We still sing his songs at the Shabbes table,” Friedman said. “And to this day, my family is in the meat business.”

In fact, he continued, men in his family were expected to chose among the two family businesses, meat or funerals. He was earmarked for the funeral side, but he had other ideas.

Despite the yichus (Yiddish for street cred), Friedman did not grow up a Satmar chasid. He was the product of a mixed marriage – his mother was “a Young Israel girl, who grew up on the Lower East Side. She was a shomer Shabbes lady, but she read literature and she wanted me to read.” He was the first boy on his father’s side of the family to go to high school, “but my mother’s side, they were American Jews.”

And even Satmar, he points out, wasn’t then what it is now, not only insular but actively hostile to the outside world. The Jewish world “wasn’t so striated then,” he said. “I spoke Yiddish and went to a yeshivah. Marty Birnbaum, my upstairs neighbor, went to public school and spoke English. We’d meet on Bedford Avenue, and go to the same place to buy herring. We walked the streets together on Shabbes. Our parents talked. We shared common ground.”

School days

The Williamsburg of his childhood “was the model of Jewish community that I’ve introduced every place I’ve worked,” Friedman said.

His yeshivah was the non-chasidic Torah Vodaas. It was an iconic institution, founded in 1917, staffed by some of the period’s best Torah scholars, most neither Satmar nor chasidic, and then not as closed off to the outside world as it later became. “It was extraordinary,” Friedman said. He and his friends from Torah Vodaas still talk about “the glory of studying there, in Williamsburg, of listening to the gedoilim” – the great rabbis. “We talk about the z’miros” – the songs – they would sing on Shabbat. The school, he says now, meant everything for its students “growing up as human beings, growing into adult Jews.”

As much as Friedman loved the school and the world it represented, however, it was not enough for him. After he graduated high school, he continued at Torah Vodaas’ fulltime beis medrash -its house of Talmud study. In the evening, however, he went to Brooklyn College, where he majored in comparative literature. After class, often he and some friends would go to Greenwich Village “to see Miles or Mongo Santamaria, or Miriam Makeba. And I saw all the comics in the late ’50s and early ’60s – Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Bill Cosby.

“I didn’t sleep,” he said. “I was a wreck. I was so hungry for everything.”

Basketball also was a passion for him; he loved all sports, but he lived for basketball. He was both a participant and an ardent fan.

During the summers, Friedman worked as a waiter in the Catskills. “We worked in the glatt kosher hotels, and hung out with basketball players,” he said. “I loved sneaking into the Concord. It had those big Latin bands. We saw Machito and Tito Puento. I loved Latin dancers and singers.”

Eventually, the double life became one life too many. He was too tired, and too many people knew his not-so-secret other side. Friedman left the fulltime study hall and graduated from Brooklyn College.

New model needed

Friedman spent time on the Lower East Side, where he studied part-time with rabbis; one of them, the dean of Kol Yakov Me’or Torah in Brooklyn, let him study with them. This was the 1960s, during the war in Vietnam; the rabbis kept him safe from the draft.

It was a hard decision. “The yeshivah world had such power. There’s nothing that has ever equaled a chasidic s’udah sh’lishit, 300 voices, pounding on tables, the power of the music, my heart soaring with joy, filled with Jewishness, filled with the glory of our tradition.” It was not for him, however, at least not in that form. “But I have sought out that kind of singing everywhere I go,” he said.

In 1965, Friedman was ordained from Kol Yakov Me’or Torah, both as an expression of his very real connection to Jewish life and as a safeguard from the draft.

He began working as a part-time youth director in a few synagogues – West Side Institutional and Spanish-Portuguese, both big Manhattan Orthodox shuls, and the smaller Beth Shalom in Flatlands in Brooklyn.

During this period, Friedman held many jobs. He was an English teacher, a dance teacher, and a ping-pong hustler. When he danced, he wore a sharkskin suit, and the points on his boots could have skewered small rodents. He earned a master’s degree in social work.

In 1967 he married Dora Geld, a dancer who always did – and still does surround herself in swirls of vivid color, who was – and still is – the love of his life, but he consumed a decade of his life in search of his path.

His lifeline back to Judaism was the musician, storyteller, and charismatic performer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “I started hanging out with him, and it saved my Jewish life,” Friedman said. “I was one of his earliest groupies. He helped introduce me to a new kind of soulfulness. I knew I had to make an amalgam.”

He knew that Jewishness defined him, but he did not know how to express it. The model that he had learned as a child no longer worked for him, but he had no model for any kind of Jewish life that was less all-encompassing, that had room for anything else. He wanted to have Shabbat, but “I thought that if you carried one thing, then goodbye Shabbes. I knew what a secular Jew was, but not a Reform or Conservative Jew. Because I didn’t know how to be Jewish, I thought I had to leave it. It hurt me, but I had to leave it.”

Ambivalence aside                                                   

That was the start of his professional career. In 1964, through a series of small bits of chance and luck, Friedman became the teen supervisor of the YM-YWHA in East New York, Brooklyn, and in the mid 1960s he was instrumental in opening the Y in Northfield, which became the MetroWest JCC.

In the late 1960s he earned a master’s degree in social work from New York University. He stayed in that field until 1977, moving further and further up the executive ladder. NYU had trained him in community organizing, and he used that skill throughout his tenure in the YM-YWHA network, as in fact he has used it in every job he has held since then.

In his social work, as in everything he has done since he left home, “I’ve tried to create or re-create Williamsburg in some way,” he said. He wants to “help develop an interactive and engaging Jewish community, one that engages skilled, ardent, interesting, interested Jews.” His experience has taught him that if its members do not have the skills it needs to coalesce, a community will wither. Skills cannot be outsourced to a professional. The more ability each community member has to forward the work of the whole, the healthier that community will be. Such is the lesson of Willamsburg.

As the complete insider, he was starting to yearn to get out. “I got bored,” he said. “I got further and further removed from the real work, and it didn’t feel right. I was beginning to see the Y not as the solution, but the problem. When I tried to introduce something Jewish, it was like pulling teeth.”

After 13 years with the Y, Friedman’s not-very-Jewish phase (not-very-Jewish being entirely relative) was coming to an end.

The rabbi within emerges

The Friedman family – which now included two children, Shira and Akiva – moved to Gainesville, Fla., where Gerald Friedman became the Hillel rabbi at the University of Florida. Although much of the job called for skills that Friedman could exercise in his sleep – budgeting, organizing, managing – it also demanded skills he had not used. It was time for him to become the rabbi he already was. He started his job in August, “and I had to organize services for the high holy days.”

It was all new to him. “There were two services, and I led both of them. There were about 960 people at the Conservative service. The Reform service also was huge.” There was no Orthodox service; Gainesville was considered a party school, no place for Orthodox families to send their children.

“I was all white when I stood at the bimah,” he said. “There was no spit in my mouth when I tried to talk. But you should have heard me daven!”

Friedman was able to satisfy his lifelong love of basketball; the school’s team, the Gators, were vastly successful and popular. At times he was able to play on the school’s outdoor court with college players.

When he talks about his tenure at Gainesville, Friedman, who is always expressive, becomes even more animated. He poured love and energy and commitment into Hillel, and the students and faculty returned it. The chapter won awards from Hillel’s international organization; one year, it won four. It did social action work long before such work was popular elsewhere. For years, it published a weekly newspaper. It held occasional post-Shabbat formal midnight dances. Because the university backed them, he was able to bring big-name entertainment there – Achinoam Nini, as the Israel singer now known throughout the world as Noa, was then called – played there at the beginning of her career. Klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman played there, as did the Klezmatics. Elie Weisel spoke there. Hillel was an established presence on campus.

Friedman was at Gainesville for 22 years.

By the end of that time, Hillel life had changed, becoming more centralized, and Friedman was beginning to feel as if he was no longer as engrossed in it as he knew he should be. It was time for the next chapter.

Welcome to New Jersey

That was Beth Sholom.

Friedman chose a Conservative shul because by then that was the movement in which he felt most comfortable. He is steeped in tradition, and does not willingly give it up, but he is so comfortable with it that he does not feel awed by it into accepting strictures that he believes to be unnecessarily restrictive. Although no movement is exactly right for him, the Conservative movement in theory has the balance between tradition and change for which he constantly yearns.

He was both rabbi and cantor at the shul, which suits him perfectly. “I’ve been a baal t’filah and a baal koreh forever,” he said.

The 14 years he spent there have been good ones. “The shul presented me with so many opportunities to be who I am,” he said “It was a privilege and honor to work with families and kids.”

In June, the congregation honored him with weeks of celebrations. “The most significant goodbye was the last Shabbes service, where the community came together and I could feel the love they had for each other,” he said. About 12 people read Torah. I didn’t have to do a thing. They could share something because they have something,” he said.

“I don’t believe in the power of community as magic. It needs individual people who inform and color it. They need mastery of skills. If I would collect a bunch of non-basketball players and put them together, they wouldn’t be a team.

“Adults need mastery. It doesn’t just come into your head. It needs time and work. You can’t just dance a mambo. A person who loves music can’t stop moving to it, but you have to learn how to move. You have to learn the patterns.

“That’s the way I understand life. Why exempt Judaism from that? In God’s eyes, everything is yachid. Everything is unified. It’s we who must make distinctions. Details count. Skills count. The Jewish community that dismisses that is going to be third-rate.”

Friedman is a consummate storyteller. His default voice is modern New York-inflected English, but he slips in and out of Yiddish, yeshivish, and old-fashioned ripe Ashkenazi English at will.

“My favorite saying is from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” he says; Kook was the iconoclastic first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the Yishuv – the Jewish settlement in Palestine. “It is, ‘The old shall be made new. The new shall be made holy.'”

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