Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 33: The great rabbi’s (inadvertent) legacy
Mordecai Kaplan’s friends, and mine
My grandfather, Marc Rottenberg of New York, was a devoted congregant, admirer, and friend of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism. Kaplan’s heresy— for which he was drummed out of the Orthodox rabbinate in 1922— lay in his contention that Judaism was more than a religion: It’s a civilization, he said, that has been continuously reconstructed over the past 4,000 years through a trial-and-error process conducted among thinking individuals.
Kaplan and his followers studied the Torah and the Hebrew sages not as holy writ but for insight into how our ancestors understood the universe at any given time. His ideas subsequently influenced the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism but certainly not the Orthodox.
“The past has a vote, not a veto,” was Kaplan’s mantra— a line I find myself repeating whenever one of the so-called Originalists on the U.S. Supreme Court declares that their sole purpose is to discover and carry out the wishes of America’s Founding Fathers.
After my grandparents moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan in 1941, Marc attended a service at Kaplan’s synagogue, where he heard Kaplan tell the congregation, “Now, you know that Moses wasn’t up in heaven for 40 days and 40 nights. It isn’t humanly possible. And you know that the Torah was not given to the Jews on Mount Sinai. The Torah was given by Ezra, seven or eight hundred years later.” Marc was astonished to hear the very thoughts he had long harbored but never dared to express. “That’s my man!” Marc told himself.
Marc’s audacious proposal
As fate would have it, Grandpa Marc and Rabbi Kaplan both lost their wives within the same week in May of 1958. At the time, Marc was 64 and living in a large apartment on Central Park West, within walking distance of the synagogue; Kaplan was 77 and living in a small apartment several miles to the north in Riverdale. The subsequent month of mutual mourning inevitably brought them even closer together. When the mourning period ended, Marc approached Kaplan with a proposition.
“Dr. Kaplan,” Marc said, as he later related it to me, “you live all alone, and I live all alone. You have a very crowded home there with books and so on, and I have a lot of empty space. Why don’t you come over and live at my house? I can get all your books and bring them over to my house, so you can work from there, and I can be sort of an experimental person that can answer some of the questions that you have from people of my age or my type.” With a melodramatic flourish, Marc added: “I want to sit at your feet and absorb your wisdom.”
To Marc’s astonishment, Kaplan said, “Fine,” without another word. But Kaplan had a summer commitment as rabbi-in-residence at a Jewish camp. ““As soon as I get back from the camp, I will come to live with you,” he assured Marc.
Well, summer passed and September arrived, with no word from Kaplan. Grandpa called the great rabbi: “Dr. Kaplan, you were supposed to come here as soon as your vacation was over.”
That evening, Kaplan came over to Marc’s apartment and explained his hesitation. “I would love to come and stay with you,” he said. “But it’s impossible. I put my library together in a certain way, and I don’t think I could ever be able to re-do the whole thing. These books in my library are my friends, and if I disturb them, I’m lost completely. I’m sorry— I just can’t move.”
The great apostle of Reconstructionism apparently couldn’t bear the prospect of reconstructing his own library.
Marc, who like me was an incurable optimist, refused to dwell on his disappointment. Within a few months, he fell in love with a fellow congregant: Reba Isaacson Kan, an artist and musician who was 18 years his junior. Less than a year after my grandmother died, Marc and Reba were married. And confounding the expectations of all who knew them, their May-December romance lasted more than 33 years, ending only with Marc’s death in 1992, just short of his 99th birthday.
Meanwhile, Marc found a new way to serve his mentor. Since Kaplan didn’t drive, Marc and Reba began chauffeuring him to his various lectures. On one such outing, with Reba behind the wheel and the two men in the back seat, Kaplan whispered, “Marc, I have some information which may be very shocking to you.”
“What’s that?” Marc asked.
“You married Reba,” Kaplan explained, “and you seem to be very very happy with her. I have a lady who’s doing my portrait. She is from Israel, and I made up my mind that I’m going to do what you did. Since you seem to be happy at your age with a new wife, I’m going to do the same thing. I’m going to marry this artist.”
Which he did. Like Marc, Kaplan still had many years left: He died in 1983 at the age of 102. You could say that marriage was Marc’s inadvertent gift to Kaplan.
But would Grandpa Marc and Rabbi Kaplan have lived so long and fruitfully had they moved in together in 1958, as Marc proposed? I doubt it. Men of their generation knew nothing about running a household. They didn’t even know how to hire a cook or a housekeeper. All that stuff was left to the women. I don’t think Marc or Kaplan knew how to make a bed or put out the trash or mix a can of frozen orange juice. Marooned in Grandpa Marc’s apartment, these two visionary thinkers might well have degenerated into grouchy variations of Walter Matthau and Art Carney in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
When my guidebook to Jewish genealogy, Finding Our Fathers, was published in 1977, the National Museum of American Jewish History invited me to sit on a panel discussing “What Makes a Jewish Home?” I can’t recall what I said that evening, but if I had it to do over I would recount this story of Marc and Rabbi Kaplan, which to my mind reveals two essential elements of a Jewish home: books, and women.
But why am I telling you this story?
Secrets of my office
Seventeen years ago, I furnished my modest two-room free-lance office in the century-old Philadelphia Building without advice from any interior decorator. Befitting a man-cave, its contents are strictly functional: a computer, a printer, a desk in each room, a sofa, ten filing cabinets, a cork bulletin board, bookcases, bookshelves, and a small refrigerator. The sole feminine touch is a single small plant, a gift from my protégé, the writer Diane Rubin, which I’ve watered faithfully once a week since her untimely death from lung cancer in 1989. Like many of my gender, I’ve been less diligent about dusting and vacuuming, and it shows.
Most of my office space is consumed by books I accumulated during my past careers as a financial writer, media critic, and chronicler of the superrich: corporate histories, newspaper histories, dynastic histories, encyclopedias, biographies of gazillionaires. These relics of the pre-Internet age, whose contents could probably fit on a hard drive, gobble up not only every available inch of shelf space but desks, chairs, cabinet tops, you name it. Their ludicrously redundant titles —The Rich and the Super Rich; The Very Rich; The Very Rich Book; The Very, Very Rich and How They Got That Way; Pity the Poor Rich; Superwealth; The Rich Who Own Sports; History of the Great American Fortunes; The Founding Fortunes; The Landed Gentry; Lords of the Land; The Proud Possessors; A Saga of Wealth; The New Money Masters; The Master Bankers; A Hundred Million Dollars a Day; The Takeover Game; The New Gatsbys; The Super Americans; Merchant Princes; Power Inc.— now serve me more as sources of amusement than information.
And yet, it’s a funny thing: When I confront this cluttered heap every morning, I always feel good. Visitors say the same. They can’t quite say why, but inevitably they agree with my analysis: It’s the books.
And the explanation is….
In most offices these days, you just don’t see books, or more than a dozen or two. Even law firms can now fulfill their needs online. Even libraries are recasting themselves as “community resource centers” while removing their actual physical books to remote facilities.
So, books that once served me as reference tools now serve a new but essential function for any creative business: Their quaint presence uniquely humanizes my workspace.
I’ve tried to weed them out. But these books have followed me through four office moves since I launched my Philadelphia free-lance career in 1975. As Rabbi Kaplan put it, they’re my friends. And they continue to serve me— just not the way I (or Kaplan) might have imagined when I first acquired them.
“The blossom cannot tell what becomes of its aroma,” said the 19th century minister Henry Ward Beecher, “and no man can tell what becomes of his influence.” Decades later, the English social reformer Havelock Ellis observed, “The by-product is sometimes more valuable than the product.” Those are probably the best explanations as to why the benevolently radical spirit of Mordecai Kaplan pervades my office today.
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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