So why did Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of Englewood, who died in April, give his parents’ library to Chabad? On the surface it seems so unlikely.
Hertzberg, who for almost 30 years was the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, then in Englewood, was famously liberal, a fervent Zionist but dovish on Israel, born Orthodox but ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, egalitarian, democratic, and Democratic, at least in theory, even if occasionally autocratic in practice.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky speaks at Sunday’s dedication of the library.
But on Sunday, about 100 people many bearded men in black hats, white shirts, black pants, others in standard business suits; some women, most in skirts of varying lengths, some brightly colored, some wearing wigs, some wearing hats, some bareheaded sat at tables in a large sunlit room at the Jewish Children’s Museum near Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, eating sushi and stuffed cabbage, as the gift, the library, and the giver all were honored.
Arthur Hertzberg was an enormously complicated man; the top layer, the one most people knew, was true but not the only truth about him. He was truly liberal, and a contrarian as well; he was a passionately progressive Jew. But his family had been chasidic, descended from Elimelech of Lizhansk and Zvi Elimelech of Dinov and closely connected to the court of the Belzer rebbe. In his heart, he used to say, and in his bones, it was clear, beneath his cleanly shaved face and satin-yarmulked head, he was a chasid too. And not a newfangled New Age neo-chasid either, but the old-style real thing.
Hertzberg, a peerless storyteller who could always fit a tale to an occasion, often talked about his father’s books. His father, an Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, made very little money; a large part of the pittance he earned went for books. His library grew to almost 4,000 volumes; when both he and his wife died the books, known as the Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech and Nechama Shifra Herzberg Collection, went to their children. In the months before his death, Arthur Hertzberg and his siblings had decided to give those books, whose acquisition had been such a central feature of their childhoods, to the Central Lubavitch Library.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who has run Chabad-Lubavitch ever since the last Lubavitcher rebbe died more than a decade ago, told me that the library holds about 300,000 books, along with manuscripts, incunabula (very early printed texts), and other precious and priceless objects.
"My father and his siblings had two clear wishes," said Susan Hertzberg of Haworth, Arthur Hertzberg’s younger daughter. "One was that the collection be kept together, and the other that it be open and accessible to scholars and historians." Both those conditions will be met, she said.
Arthur Hertzberg’s connection to the Lubavitch world began about 10 years ago, when his older daughter, Linda, who lives in Fresno, Calif. which is not a very Jewish place developed a friendship with the shaliach there, who later prepared her son for his bar mitzvah. Eventually, Arthur Hertzberg and Krinsky met and became friends. It was a friendship that Hertzberg valued greatly, he often told his friends; as it turns out Krinsky shared that feeling.
"We were very fond of each other," Krinsky said. "I was considerably younger than he was, but we really spent a lot of time together, both in person and on the phone. It became a very intense and valuable relationship. We would speak very frequently about a whole kaleidoscope of matters. There was a side to him that most people did not know. He studied Talmud, the commentaries, the responsa it was a pleasure to talk to him."
Hertzberg was deeply immersed in the Talmud; he began studying as a child and never stopped until he died. His last book, planned in his mind but never committed to paper, was to have been about the Talmud. It was to have been written primarily for well-educated non-Orthodox Jews; Hertzberg wanted to help them appreciate the Talmud’s glories. He would have been very pleased to have heard Krinsky say, as he did at the dinner in Brooklyn, that his friend was deeply learned in Talmud.
Of course, Hertzberg and Krinsky did not share all their beliefs, or even most of them.
"We argued a lot, but it was very pleasurable," Krinsky said. "We didn’t agree on a lot of things, both major things and little things, but whatever he believed in he believed in passionately."