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Jewish World Review August 12, 2002 / 4 Elul, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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TAKE MY RABBI PLEASE!

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | There is an old, rather gruesome joke that tells of a criminal who takes a rabbi, a cantor and the president of their synagogue hostage. The criminal threatens the trio with death, but offers each of them one final wish.

The rabbi asks to be allowed to preach his favorite Yom Kippur sermon one more time. In turn, the cantor says he wants to be given the opportunity to sing the Kol Nidre service again.

Their captor then turns to the shul president and inquires what his final request might be.

"Kill me first!" he replies.

This venerable jest illustrates the fact that disharmony in our synagogues is not exactly news.

American rabbis are routinely asked to do the impossible. One person is supposed to be, in one fell swoop, a great synagogue orator and entertainer, a teacher of both young and old alike, a social worker skilled in advising the troubled and the sick, a politician who can cope with the personalities of the synagogue board and lead the social life of the shul, and a fundraiser who can bring in the big bucks.

In other words, even the best of them are set up in advance to fall short of the unrealistic expectations of their congregants in at least some of those categories.

But while rabbis may come and go, the lay leaders of the synagogue must attempt to keep the enterprise going, irrespective of whether their religious leader is a superstar who can pack the pews or just an uninspired shlepper. Though the houses of worship of some other religious denominations are run by a centralized corporation, each synagogue is in business for itself.

While some synagogue-rabbi love affairs start with infatuation and blossom into mature love and long-term commitment, others are stormy, and eventually descend into painful divorces.

Each synagogue's history is filled with such stories. Those from our larger shuls could probably fill a book. And that is exactly what journalist Stephen Fried has done with the tale of the transition at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania (located on Philadelphia's fashionable and wealthy Mainline) from beloved Rabbi Gerald Wolpe to his popular young successor, Rabbi Jacob Herber, in "The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader, " due in bookstores on Aug. 20.

So here's the question: Who, for heaven's sake, would want to read such a book?

Fried, the former editor of Philadelphia magazine (where excerpts of the book have already been published), grew up in the Harrisburg congregation where Wolpe was a young star before leaving to go on to glory at the larger Har Zion 30 years ago. With the death of his father, Fried found himself coming back into regular contact with synagogue life and seized upon the book concept as a yahrtzeit project to honor his father's memory.

Using all of his considerable journalistic skills, Fried delves into every nook and cranny of the 1,400-plus family Har Zion Temple with the sort of obsessive thoroughness and persistence I wish more reporters would bring to their coverage of government institutions.

He worked his way into the good graces of the professional staff and also managed to develop a number of good sources within the macher class that keeps this mega-shul rolling along, including some chatty members of the search committee tasked with finding a replacement for Wolpe when he announced his retirement.

Notepad and tape recorder in hand (Fried loses Jewish brownie points and a lot of my respect by taking notes during Shabbat services, and even surreptitiously recording Herber's first High Holiday sermon), he found out everything there was to know about everyone who counted there.

NOT EXACTLY 'PEYTON PLACE'

But for those expecting this book to be a Jewish institutional version of Peyton Place, I have bad news. There is plenty of lashon hara ("gossip") here, as some of the players in the transition took Fried into their confidence and dished as much dirt as they could. But none of it is juicy enough to fill a script of even the tamest of television soap operas.

It is no slight to the members of Har Zion to relate that all of their blabbing to Fried creates a narrative that is less than scintillating. The life of their synagogue - and their rabbis - is just far too wholesome to justify this much investigation. And the work of the rabbinic-search committee and its conflict with the Conservative movement's Rabbinic Assembly is so intensely boring that it is almost fascinating to see how Fried puffs it all up into a 350-page book.

The author fills the empty spaces in between the gripping accounts of the "Bat Mitzvah gone bad," the "High Holiday seating chart" and the low-intensity drama of rabbinic job interviews with himself. In what turns out to be a book that is as much autobiography as it as an account of the lives of Wolpe and Herber, readers learn a lot more about Fried than any of us wanted or needed to know.

These passages are among the least compelling of a not terribly compelling volume filled with the author's relentless attempts to jazz up the proceedings. The phrase "summertime and the davening is easy" is perhaps the worst instance of this trait, but there are too many other examples to do justice to his pedestrian prose-style.

Even worse are Fried's digressions to explain things to his readers. This book is, after all, published by a major company (Bantam) and intended for a mass audience who presumably know little about Judaism and less about American Jewish institutions.

Fried chose to write the book as a triptych through the Jewish calendar, with just about every holiday accounted for. He also makes brief contact with virtually every relevant contemporary American Jewish issue - from day schools versus Hebrew schools to the impact of Jewish camping to the generational shift toward a desire for more spirituality among younger rabbis and their flocks.

But all these details require the author to periodically stop and explain what he is talking about. This slows the pace of the book from an amble to a crawl. And given the fact that the only people I can imagine choosing to crack open this book are those who are already knowledgeable about Jewish life, I wonder if these pedantic informational rest stops were more for the benefit of Fried's editor than anyone else.

WHO IS HIS AUDIENCE?

All of this leads me to wonder about who the audience for such an "inside baseball" account of one synagogue, albeit a famous one, might be.

I can imagine the members of Har Zion being intensely curious about what Fried wrote about them (though rather than buy the book, all they need to do is to go to the local bookstore and check the index for their own names).

I can also imagine rabbis being captivated by the nuts-and-bolts account of the rabbinic search and the politics of the Conservative movement's rules about which rabbis can serve in what synagogues.

And I suppose this book could become required reading in college sociology courses about American Jews. Being forced to read boring books is, of course, an integral part of all forms of higher education.

But for the rest of us, The New Rabbi is a literary delight that is best enjoyed by its avoidance.

Being a rabbi is an incredibly tough job, and all those who labor in this field - both veterans and youngsters - deserve a lot more tolerance and respect than most of us give them.

But after plowing my way through The New Rabbi, I'm inclined to think that "rabbi groupies" like Fried and some of the real-life characters in this book should perhaps find another hobby.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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