I am a teacher, from a family of teachers. My mother was a teacher and school administrator all of her life; she taught college English until she was almost into her eighties. My sister taught science and math on the high school level. My father was an industrial chemist and amateur accountant; he would have taught, but he lacked the patience; he was a very good man, and a fine role model.
I myself was a fulltime pulpit rabbi for nearly thirty years, which is a long time. Having been educated largely by rabbis, I affirm the positive role models among them, and reject the negatives. Many of the bad rabbis I have met acted as God’s policemen; when I was a fulltime rabbi, I, too, had to be God’s policeman occasionally, but it was never a role I embraced or felt comfortable in. I am happy to be a teacher, now, and let people make their own choices. We Jews are not so much a chosen people as a choosy one, and, in America, we have a lot of choices. I remain, at this point in my life, a weekend rabbi, doing the best job I can, telling stories, advising people, and mostly listening to them.
My great love has always been English Literature, feeling most comfortable in the 17th Century, an epoch I entered by accident—no, that’s not correct: I undertook its study because that was an era when people took their faith seriously enough to be willing to die for it. Coming as I do from a religion famous for its martyrs, I entered the 17th Century with my eyes open. And meeting such heroes as John Donne, John Skelton, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others who entered ministry wholeheartedly but with mixed feelings, I am most comfortable in their company. It is not that I ever doubted God: it is that I wondered whether God would have me for His champion.
As a child and young boy, I grew up in a neighborhood where we Orthodox Jews kept our community psychologically, existentially, and spiritually walled off from others, as did the African-Americans and the Hispanics (the Vladeck House Projects), the Chinese (Chinatown), Italians (Little Italy), and the hippie-Bohemians (Greenwich Village). I learned early where it was safe for a young Jewish boy to walk; in those days, I wore my yarmulkeh-skullcap everywhere, and, during high school and college days on bus and subway, carried a can of Mace pepper spray, although I never once “fired a shot in anger”—and a good thing, too, because that stuff, once sprayed, would affect both sprayer and sprayee, equally; it was nasty stuff. Those were days of casual racist comments and barriers between people, long hot summers of urban rioting barely avoided (this will come out in my writing), and ugly faces; one never smiled at a stranger, or greeted them.
I have no time for hatred, now. Now, I teach in a university where my students are from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and we have much to learn from one another. For many years, I have believed in cross-pollination, in seeking and building bridges. The world is a small place, a narrow bridge, to paraphrase the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809), and the ikar zach, the essential thing, is to help one another travel safely across.