Friday, December 26, 2008

Celebrating Rabbi Feldman

A tribute to the late Rabbi Mendel Feldman.

Kenneth Lasson
Special to the Jewish Times

By almost any measure that truly counts, Rabbi Mendel Feldman — who died on Dec. 13 in Sydney, Australia, at the age of 93 — was a remarkable man.

The details of his upbringing do not presage what he meant to those of us who knew him well. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., studied at Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim under the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, went to Mesivta Torah Vodaas, and assumed his first pulpit in Jacksonville, Fla.

In 1958, when the revered Rabbi Simon Schwab left Baltimore’s Shearith Israel Congregation (locally known as “the Glen Avenue Shul”) for a similarly prestigious post in the German-Jewish community of Washington Heights, N.Y., Rabbi Feldman was chosen to succeed him.

On paper, the two rabbis could hardly have stood in starker contrast. Rabbi Schwab, classically trained and erudite but speaking barely a word of English, had fled Frankfurt, Germany, at the beginning of the Holocaust; Rabbi Feldman, a staunch Lubavitcher and American, a handball player and New York Giants fan, a talmudic scholar, was ebullient and plain-spoken.

But both were exceptionally charismatic, each able to establish a lasting and loving rapport with most of their congregants.

Rabbi Feldman enjoyed an even longer tenure at Shearith Israel, almost a quarter-century, before establishing a new shul, Ahavas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek (aka “Rabbi Feldman’s Shul”), farther up Park Heights Avenue. He retired after his wife, Rochel, passed away, and immigrated to Australia to be near his son, now Rav Pinchas Feldman, chief Chabad rabbi of New South Wales.

But none of those facts reflect the essential character and humanity of Rabbi Mendel Feldman.

An Abiding Faith

Rabbi Feldman cultivated friendships like flowers, with a quiet sensitivity, and they became permanent by mutual affection.

My friendship with Rabbi Feldman began when I was a teenager, with private classes for me and my friend, Jerry Zuriff, held in the small room behind the main sanctuary at Shearith Israel. Those sessions, punctuated by college and graduate school, continued in different permutations for many years.

Most recently, they were in my home, where every Thursday afternoon, Steve Grossman and I would meet with Rabbi Feldman to learn for an hour.

We had our own rituals of choice. Rabbi Feldman would hold forth over his favorite scotch and a bowlful of nuts. Steve drank beer, I had iced tea, and the three of us analyzed and debated a variety of texts and commentaries, including Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Mishlei (Proverbs).

More often than not, the conversations devolved into a passionate discussion of faith and the existence of God.

Rabbi Feldman’s faith was abiding, but intellectual as well. He had no explanation for the Holocaust, but he could not bring himself to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In this regard, too, he was simple but profound: You can’t be a true believer, he said, unless you have doubts.

His knowledge of Talmud was encyclopedic. The rabbi respected all points of view, but defended both Orthodoxy and minhagim (customs) with equal fervor, meticulous in his own observance but unusually tolerant of those less so. He constantly preached achdus (togetherness), disdaining communal divisions of all kinds. But he disliked hypocrisy, especially when it came to kashrut.

He loved nature, coming every spring to my backyard to recite the blessing over new fruit blossoms, and once laughing with delight as he planted seeds in the garden himself. He liked to read National Geographic, which nurtured his belief that all creatures and human beings are made by God.

Thus, he had a kind word for everyone, making a point of saying hello to all who passed in the street on his daily walks to and from shul, including — if not especially — postal workers and other non-Jews.

He celebrated the yomin tovim with the gusto one might expect from a Lubavitcher Chasid. On Chanukah, he handed out silver dollars to children in shul. On Purim, he held court at his dining room table. With the steady parade of friends and disciples, there was really no difference between them for him, as they stopped by for a drink and words of wisdom.

Every fall, he made the long walk to our sukkah so he could make Kiddush from a large wine cup reserved exclusively for him.

Through it all, over a half-century in Baltimore, his over-arching qualities were genuine humility and essential kindness.

In all those years, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. I doubt others did either.

May his memory be a blessing.

Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore and an occasional writer for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES

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