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What we missed most was his voice. Our rabbi could make the most stilted English translation of prayer sound like Shakespeare. His voice was muscular and musical, with an accent that sounded vaguely British at first, but later revealed itself to be all-American, with leftover "aahs" from Boston.
This was not like the voice of God. Rabbis do not aspire to divinity. They have jobs in an industry that has, like many others, shifted from manufacturing to service. Rabbis are employees, religion workers, with unions and contracts and job-related injuries. They have to negotiate dental with the very congregants they must inspire.
Still, while rabbis do not speak for God, some of them have God-given gifts. Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s gift was his voice.
My dad had a story he loved to tell about the day when Wolpe took the makeshift stage of a flatbed truck in the parking lot of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center. It was the summer of 1967, the height of the Six-Day War. And the rabbi brought home this crisis from halfway across the world with such eloquent urgency that my parents were inspired to pledge to Israel, then and there, every last cent they had saved for brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting. Anyone who ever saw the mud-gray shag they wanted to replace would have to agree this qualified as a miracle. And it was documented for posterity. There was a record album made of the speech. My parents bought that, too.
But then Rabbi Wolpe left us. And we never forgave him for taking the voice away.
I was eleven when he departed, so I remember him only vaguely as an image in confirmation class pictures along the wall--all sideburns and pageantry, dressed, as rabbis did back then, like a human Torah. I vaguely recall him telling us to stop running in the hall between Hebrew school classes at Beth El Temple, and to stop banging on the candy machine.
But I have been following Rabbi Wolpe’s lead in my head for de- cades. When I pray, I still pause where he paused, emote where he emoted. When I hear the Ashrei, David’s psalm of praise, recited in English, I laugh to myself when I reach the line about giving the hopeful their food “œin due season,” because I can hear Wolpe giving “due” an extra syllable--”d-yew.” The way he articulated “all the wicked . . . he will bring low” was enough to keep me from going astray.
One of my strongest memories of growing up Jewish is sitting at Friday night dinner listening to my parents, my Nana and Pop-pop, and my aunts and uncles go on about the politics of the day and Wolpe’s sermons. To them, he combined the wisdom of the ages with the morning headlines, name-dropping his way through history, religion and culture.
On the night of Kol Nidre, the prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur, the holiest twenty-four hours of the year, they would eat dinner earlier than usual and leave immediately afterward to attend a special service--for adults only. All they would tell us about this mysterious ceremony was, “Oh, you kids wouldn’t like it anyway, we have to stand for hours.” When the grown-ups returned, they had this strange look on their faces. I assumed they were exhausted from standing. Now I realize it was a kind of awe, the voice still resonating.
I would like to hear him again.
On an overcast Tuesday in mid-November, I drive out to the synagogue that stole Rabbi Wolpe away. I had seen a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, one that a peppier headline writer would have titled “Tuesday, the Rabbi Gave Notice.” Wolpe was calling it quits, announcing a rather elaborate plan of retirement in which he would give the synagogue two years to find a suitable replacement and make a smooth transition.
Why now? Judaism is a religion of mystical numbers, starting with “the Lord is One,” in its most important prayer, the Sh’ma. Wolpe told the newspaper that the numbers just seemed right. Not only would the long good-bye coincide with his seventieth birthday and his thirtieth year on this pulpit, it would be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of Har Zion. It would also be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the congregation’s controversial relocation from the city neighborhood of Wynnefield to the prosperous suburb of Penn Valley, the heart of what is now called the “Jewish Main Line.”
As I’m driving out there, the numbers seem right to me, too. I’m about to turn forty and I just lost my father. I have reached the point in life when all answers turn back into questions. After making the same professional journey that Wolpe did--Harrisburg to Philly, with occasional day trips to New York--I have been writing investigative articles and books from here for nearly two decades. Yet our paths have rarely crossed. I did call him once, in the mid-eighties, to get some quotes for a story I was doing. But we’ve never really talked.
For a guy whose voice is in my head, I should know him better.
My first glimpse of Har Zion is through a break in a row of evergreens in a typical McMansioned Main Line neighborhood. It’s a modern sprawl of a building, surrounded by rolling lawns, parking lots, even a fenced-in basketball court and playground. I use the side entrance, where the clergy and staff park their late-model cars while the moms idle in their SUVs, watching their preschoolers, and then me, dash up the steps.
I find Rabbi Wolpe in the largest of a suite of offices, sitting behind a utilitarian desk. He is surrounded by the overstuffed shelves of someone who has actually read the books. On a glass side table are the usual family photos and a bronze of his own head. Half-glasses balanced on his nose, phone to his ear, he waves me in.
Wolpe’s face has a certain cartoonish geometry--as if drawn using two perfect circles for cheekbones--and a fleshy ethnicity of uncertain origin. Mostly he looks like a man who works with his hands, dressed in his best suit and tie for a special occasion. Yet when he speaks, his face takes on new character and refinement, the rich charisma of the voice.
He asks--actually, he “aahsks”--how my mother is holding up. Fine, thanks, but that’s not why I’m here.
I ask him how he is. It’s a simple enough question, but I can see it’s not one he hears very often. Usually, when people come to visit him, it is to unburden themselves. He pauses, removes his glasses and leans back in his desk chair.
Instead of answering right away, he makes a joke about what it’s like to be slipping into his “anecdotage,” when new research is mostly dusting memories. He is preparing to give a speech in a few days to the synagogue Men’s Club, reflections on the end of his rabbinate. This could be a good opportunity to try out some of his material.
An only child of working-class Eastern European immigrant parents in the Roxbury section of Boston, Wolpe was raised by the Jewish community based at the synagogue Mishkan Tefila. It was a lively congregation, where one of his Hebrew school teachers was moonlighting political historian Theodore H. White, and one of the older kids in shul was young Leonard Bernstein, who played piano at the dinner after Wolpe’s bar mitzvah.
Benjamin Wolpe, his father, was a vaudeville singer, part of a “song, dance and fancy patter outfit” on the popular Keith Circuit of theaters. His mother, Sally, worked in the family kosher catering business, which was run by her older sister, Bessie, and Bessie’s husband, David. “The family was like a sponge,” he tells me. “It absorbed anybody who came into its orbit.” There was always a lot of food and, on a moment’s notice, forty people could show up for dinner. “It was a happy, supportive, riotous kind of place. From my uncles, I learned you can kiss strong men and not be considered a weakling.”
Benny Wolpe died suddenly when his son was only eleven. “I still remember my father laughing,” he says. “He was a very funny man, always with a cigar.” His mother came home one day and found him dead. Probably a heart attack or a stroke.
“That was the pivotal moment in my life,” he says. “In a sense, I’ve been living in that moment ever since.”
I interrupt him. How is it that I don’t recall hearing this story when I was a kid? It was not part of the Wolpe canon in Harrisburg or, later, the Wolpe mythology. He says I’m remembering correctly: he did not start speaking so publicly about his father’s death until several years after he left Harrisburg. When he reached his mid-forties, and was about to pass the age his father was when he died, Wolpe became more open about such things, mostly because he was so fearful that he too would die young. By the time he underwent open-heart surgery at the age of sixty-three, his father’s death had become a central metaphor of his sermonizing.
After being widowed, Wolpe’s mother began working full-time in the catering business as head waitress. They lived in an apartment above the home of his mother’s sister. She and her husband didn’t have any children of their own, so they functioned as Jerry’s surrogate parents. To some degree, they were parents to his mother as well. Sally Wolpe was never quite the same after the day she took her eleven-year-old son in her arms and told him his father was gone.
He was also taken in by the shammash, the sexton, of his synagogue, an elderly immigrant named Mr. Einstein. Even though he was not technically old enough to say the mourner’s prayer for his father--those responsibilities don’t kick in until age thirteen--Jerry Wolpe still wanted to do it. Mr. Einstein walked him to shul every day before school, and guided him through the traditional mourning process. He taught Wolpe how to recite the mourner’s Kaddish.
“Ritual can be amazingly effective in allowing you to do something, anything, whether it makes sense or not,” Wolpe continues. “To be able to say a prayer and be in the company of people sharing the same pain . . . well, that was a saving experience. Mr. Einstein taught me how to daven, to pray. He’d sit next to me during the service, and say, “˜You know, everybody goes very fast. Don’t you go fast. Go as slow as you want.’ He was a very short man, with a teaching humor. If I mispronounced something, he’d say, “˜What’s the matter, did you have a schnapps this morning?’ He made me feel incredibly comfortable in a strange surrounding.”
But the Kaddish did not relieve the pain. It simply provided him with words to scream at God. His father’s death was the genesis of what Wolpe calls his “theology based on anger.” His proof of God’s existence, he says, is that in order for him to remain that angry at something, it must exist. It is a view of God that is intellectually provocative and deeply egocentric, just like Wolpe himself. And it is a view of religion driven not primarily by spirituality or joy, but by a time-honored mechanism of coping, a way to process disappointment and loss. As if locked in Jacob’s dream, he is forever wrestling with God.
He tells me that the decision to devote his life to professional wrestling was ensured by another incident when he was a teen. One day he returned from school to find his mother banging her head against the kitchen table and wailing. In her hand was a letter from Israel, from a nephew passing on the horrific news that everyone else in her family--forty-two people, including the brother she had begged to leave and come to America with her--had been murdered by the Nazis in Poland. Wolpe had grown accustomed to hearing his widowed mother cry through the night. But never like this.
“Hitler made my mother cry,” he recalls. “How else do you fight back? You become a rabbi.”