The last rabbi

The last rabbi

It was a most unusual funeral, but then, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a world-class scholar and author who was respected even by those who resented his autocratic manner — and who was deeply loved by those who could see the passion for justice and Yiddishkeit beneath it — was a most unusual man.

The 84-year-old Hertzberg, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, formerly of Englewood and now in Closter, died on Monday. Because his funeral on Tuesday, at Temple Emanu-El, fell in the middle of Passover, eulogies were not permitted. Instead, family members spoke aloud, in a "conversation" with their father and brother that was intentionally overheard by several hundred mourners, many of whom were notable in the Jewish world. (The fact that it was erev yom tov kept many others away.)

Also, Hertzberg had left very firm word that only family members should speak about him.

Rabbi Mark Kiel, the religious leader of Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson, which Hertzberg’s daughter Susan Brody attends, conducted the funeral, explaining at the outset, to appreciative laughter, that Hertzberg had not wanted to be eulogized at all, "because, as we know, he was a modest man."

Nevertheless, Kiel broke with tradition and did in fact eulogize him at the graveside service at Beth El/Cedar Park Cemetery in Washington Township.

Kiel told a story that explained much about the Conservative rabbi’s idiosyncratic attachment to Orthodoxy and his lifelong quest for learning.

Hertzberg’s father, Kiel noted, "whom he loved beyond words, was a prominent chasidic rabbi of the old school." Perhaps "the greatest influence of [Hertzberg’s] life," and "knowing his son was beginning to stray from the straight path, his father called him over to the bookcase," where he "reached back behind the [holy] books and took out several issues of Di Tzukunft," at the time a radical socialist magazine whose Yiddish name means "The Future," and the works of Spinoza, in Yiddish.

"Handing the books and journals over to Arthur, he said, ‘You want to be an apikoros,’" a freethinker? "’Be an educated one.’"

Kiel said that some people, "maybe more than I know, behind his back, called [Hertzberg] King Arthur. Indeed, he had a regal bearing and was an awesome presence….

"If you had to pick the 10 most powerful Jews in America, he would be one of them, not because of money, but [because of his] mind. Arthur had great charisma…. But even charismatic personalities can be shallow. Arthur’s authority was based on deep learning and wisdom."

Kiel noted that Hertzberg had had his detractors. "But I think he was always respected … even by his adversaries."

"One thing that wowed some of his audiences and annoyed others," Kiel said, "was his name-dropping — the names of leading political figures. But in the first place, he did in fact know them well," saying, for instance, "When I was talking to Zbigniew [Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Carter] the other day…." And second, Kiel added, "he carefully measured their grip on power as it related to important issues of the day. He always used their views to ground his idealism in reality."

Hertzberg often came under attack for his outspoken criticism of Israeli policy vis-?-vis the Palestinians, but, said Kiel, that criticism "can in no way be construed as being anti-Zionist. His great and maybe lasting book ‘The Zionist Idea,’ was an expression of his love of Yiddishkeit and Zionism and the State of Israel…. When he was unhappy with Israel, it was because he had its best interests at heart. And when he criticized anything Jewish, he did so on the basis of Jewish sources, which he knew thoroughly. He was a talmid chochem, a learned scholar."

Hertzberg had been working on two books before he died, one on the Talmud and the other to be called "This I Believe."

"Arthur," said Kiel, "I thought you would finish those books. But then again, at whatever age you would have gone to join your parents, you would be in the middle of two books."

Carol Ivanovski, Hertzberg’s secretary and close friend of ‘5 years, was among the graveside mourners. She said that "This I Believe," which was to be published by HarperSanFrancisco, was half-finished, and she did not know what would become of it. "He and I had a great working relationship," she said. "We got angry at one another" from time to time, "but I loved the man."

Cantor Kurt Silbermann, Emanu-El’s cantor emeritus, voiced a similar pride in the "beautiful relationship" he had had with Hertzberg, who had engaged him. That relationship, said Silbermann, who sang at the funeral, as did the current cantor, Israel Singer, "was the envy of other cantors."

Also at the graveside was Merline Buddo, who had been the Hertzberg children’s nanny and had come back to be Hertzberg’s private nurse and the family’s housekeeper.

An African-American, she said that "he was a rabbi for all people, not just Jews. He was a human being for all people. He would go out of his way to help anyone. The Jewish people should be proud of him," she said. "He left a priceless legacy of books. He was the last rabbi."

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