Mourning a wise friend and storyteller

Mourning a wise friend and storyteller

Among his other attributes, Rabbi Arthur Hertzburg was a good friend, and he was a funny man.

Although we belonged to his shul, Temple Emanu-El of Englewood, we did not move to Bergen County until a few years after he became its rabbi emeritus, so I did not meet the legendary man, about whom polarized opinion swarmed, until I was assigned the task of writing a feature story about him for The Jewish Standard to mark his 80th birthday.

Learning that my daughter, Shira, had died just a few months earlier, Rabbi Hertzberg decided to take me on as a project — an undertaking from which other rabbis more noted for their pastoral work than he had shied. Once he met my husband, Andrew Sherman, the friendship grew to include him as well.

Friendship with Rabbi Hertzberg meant phone calls that began "This is Yasser Arafat"; it meant being offered imaginary trips to Tahiti (if every woman he had offered that trip had shown up at the same time a large plane wouldn’t have held us all); it meant learning all the background on every current story involving Jews. It meant you were talking with someone who had known or was related to or had studied with everyone, and so it made you a link in that chain as well. Restaurant meals with him were an adventure — emotion made him raise his voice, and his vocabulary was broad and salty.

As he grew older, Rabbi Hertzberg grew more openly emotional, and he talked more and more about his belief that he would rejoin his parents and other people he loved after he died. He took great comfort in that belief.

Before we went to Israel in December, Rabbi Hertzberg made us promise that we would visit the tomb of the Belzer rebbe at Har HaMenuchot, outside Jerusalem. The rebbe’s entire family had been murdered by the Nazis, he told us, and the rebbe never mentioned them again; didn’t say kaddish, didn’t say yizkor, didn’t say anything. Instead, he moved to Israel and built and built and built. In fact, Rabbi Hertzberg added, the rebbe got out of Europe only because, Sydney Carton-like, a chasid who looked like him decoyed the Nazis and was killed by them in the rebbe’s stead.

Go to his grave, Rabbi Hertzberg told us, and you will find peace. Not right away, maybe not for a long time, but some day you will find it. I did, he said, and I did.

The cemetery is made of severe rectangular white tombs built on dun-colored hills, a monochrome abandoned city. The rebbe’s tomb, in the center of a community of tombs, was piled high with objects, things left by visitors, mainly but not entirely printed material. It had some color and much shape, a piece of folk art giving life to its abstract surroundings. The wind howled. There were candles, holders, and matches lying around. Andy lit a candle, and it flickered but stayed lit.

When we returned from the trip, I told Rabbi Hertzberg we had done as he had asked. He smiled, and then we both cried.

And then he told me more stories, story after story, until finally it was time for me to go home.

I loved him greatly, and I miss him already.

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