My wife likes to joke with me that I collect old guys.
Well, everyone needs a hobby.
But it’s true. For some reason, I connect with older gentlemen on a personal, visceral level, much more so than with guys my own age and of my own generation. Maybe I’m an ancient soul, or perhaps I’m just in training for my own geriatric years.
I just find I can learn so much more from older folks than those who’ve lived through the same fairly dull times as myself.
Last week, I lost one of my old guys, Morris Martick. Morris was the owner, operator, chef and head bottle-washer at Martick’s Restaurant Francais, a French bistro on Mulberry Street that would’ve never existed if not for the sheer force of personality, innovativeness and quirky determination of this irascible, idiosyncratic man. To call him a true Baltimore character of the highest order would be a colossal understatement.
I’ve lost a few other great old guys in my time whom I still miss. One was Harry Zweback, a Toms River, New Jersey, chicken farmer who originally came from Poland. I met Harry when he and his ailing wife, Bella, lived downstairs from me and my wife at Pickwick Apartments. Harry had a thick East European accent, and even though he was a small man, he had the muscular arms and shoulders of a guy who had worked with his hands all of his life. He used to call me and say, “Come on, lemme take ya to the Suboibian sometime,” alluding to the Suburban House restaurant. He loved deli.
Then, there was my old Yiddish teacher, Dr. Solomon Manischewitz. Back when we first got married, my wife and I decided to get in touch with our roots and learn the mamaloshen. But what we learned early on while taking evening classes at Baltimore Hebrew University with Dr. Manischewitz was that Dr. M didn’t fool around. He didn’t look at Yiddish as this cute little language in which to tell corny, outdated jokes. He took Yiddish quite seriously and academically – conjugated verbs, past participles, you name it – and he expected the same commitment to the language from his students.
Naturally, I started trying to cut his classes, because I wasn’t prepared at all, but my wife forced me to go, especially when it became quite clear that Dr. M took a particular shine to me. (My wife called me the teacher’s pet.) He used to smile at me and cup my face in his hand, saying, “Ah, he’s a good boy.” (Of course, I was in my early 30s at the time, and not so good in reality.)
Frankly, my strong hunch is that he liked me because I work at the Jewish Times. Anyway, I could do no wrong in that class in Dr. M’s eyes, and here was my wife pulling me by the ear into the classroom. Let’s just say she wasn’t too pleased. I still hear about it on occasion.
The last time I saw Dr. M was in the supermarket a few years after taking his class. He was very friendly but had just lost his beloved wife, and he said to me, “Everything I went through during the war and in the [concentration] camps, nothing compares to what I’ve been through with my wife.” His eyes were full of pain, sorrow and fear. I’ll never forget it.
And then there was the one and only Sol Milgrome, the Torah reader at my old shul, Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue by Druid Hill Park. I still can’t drive by Shaarei Tfiloh without thinking of Reverend Sol. I could hear his voice chanting Torah on Shabbos morning and feel like I was being transported back to the Polish shtetl, hearing it all done the authentic way of my ancestors. This former student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had a tireless love for his shul and for people in general. He used to walk all over Baltimore, just to schmooze with people and shed a little of his unique light upon them. He liked to be a street philosopher and dispense his life’s wisdom, whether you were interested or not. Yes, he could sometimes drive you a little meshugah after a while with all of his preaching and jabbering, but you always knew Reverend Sol was good people.
He was a real mentsch, he wanted to make the world a better place, not by writing checks or sitting on committees but simply by talking to people and enlightening them, maybe just giving them a chuckle. And when someone didn’t come to shul, he’d always take it personally and yell, “What? He wants to sleep?! There’s always time to sleep when you’re dead!”
These guys are all gone now. They were among a vanishing, rare breed. I know it sounds trite, but they can’t be replaced. They had something – I don’t know what you call it, character, a zest, moxie, a generosity of spirit, an aversion to B.S., a humility, a je ne sais quoi as they say in Yiddish (I told you I was a rotten Yiddish student) – that precious few of us have. Certainly not those of us born after World War II. They were byproducts of their time and places, perhaps emblematic of their era. Maybe as my father used to say, they were graduates of the College of Hard Knocks. Maybe that’s what made them so special.
Hopefully, for those of us who enjoyed their company, sat at their feet and learned from them, they still live in a part of our hearts and spirits. I know they’ll always bring a smile to my face.
In the tight-knit Jewish world, sometimes the weirdest, quirkiest stories get the most attention. Especially if they involve a Jewish celebrity.
This week, the biggest story in the Jewish realm by far was the sudden news that Matisyahu – the Chasidic hip-hop artist formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller and raised in Westchester County (despite his Jamaican accent while rapping) – shaved off his beard.
Stop the presses! A grown man shaved off his beard! I can’t tell you how many people emailed me links to this story.
Of course, this wasn’t just any man but arguably the most famous Orthodox Jew on the planet. No one can deny that Matisyahu has become an icon of sorts, for Jews and non-Jews. Besides transcending conventional wisdom about Orthodox Jews and Jews in general with his rhymes and beats, he has brought a certain type of spiritual fervor and awareness to his listeners that goes well beyond labels and boundaries.
There was always something a bit New Agey about Matis, despite his peyos and tzitzit. You always felt that if he didn’t fall into the frum lifestyle, he could’ve just as easily immersed himself in another spiritual or religious discipline, like Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity or something else. (By the way, that’s not putting him down.)
His “gimmick” was always the frum thing, the sight of a guy in a fedora and a long gabardine coat, who looked like a diamond trader from Williamsburg, rapping and moving around like Jay-Z. But unlike us old people, the kids always knew it wasn’t a gimmick or an act, that Matis was being authentic and sincere in his approach, in his kavanah (intention) and creative muse. (Admission: I say this as someone who is not a big fan of his music or that musical genre, but respects the feeling and depth he brings to his work.)
And that’s why Matis never went away after making it big several years ago, like so many other musical fads and one-off poseurs. And in the process, he inspired many of his fans to be more receptive to contemplating their own spiritual lives, including young Christians who just happened to like his tunes and thought he was cool, not to mention all of the young Jewish seekers out there who are sick of the trappings and restrictions of conventional Judaism.
In his big announcement to the world that he’d shaved off his whiskers, Matis sent a photo and wrote, “No more Chasidic reggae superstar. … When I started becoming religious 10 years ago, it was a very natural and organic process. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
This “reclaiming,” the shedding of the beard, might make headlines for a couple of days and good water cooler fodder at Jewish agency offices. But there’s nothing seismic or cataclysmic going on here, it’s not a major indication of the changing times we’re living in. It should just be viewed as part of Matis’s spiritual evolution. (That or his face was getting scratchy.)
When he first broke into the big time in ‘04, Matis was affiliated with the Chabad movement. But throughout the process, he announced that he was no longer involved with Chabad – while never putting down that movement – but was simply an observant Jew, without all of the labels and such.
“I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews,” Matis said, “I don’t want to exclude myself.” He said he was “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”
Now, it seems that Matis has come to the conclusion that one doesn’t have to sport a beard – or a mustache or a Van Dyke, for that matter – to be a good Jew (or a good person). Some people are already questioning his intentions (Publicity? Gone Hollywood?) and criticizing this move (Is it bad for the Jews? For the frummies?).
Only in the Jewish community could people get worked up about a guy shaving off his beard. I can’t imagine Methodist mayhem over a mustache.
Like Bob Dylan, Matis’s spiritual journey is obviously not based on a herd mentality or a sense of complacency but a healthy restlessness and undying desire to understand his place in the cosmos.
Thirty years ago, while trying to sort out his infamous, much criticized “Gospel Period” and his reemergence as a Jew, Dylan wrote, “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”
Matis, with or without beard, is on that same journey, that fury of the moment, to find God’s presence in every grain of sand, every speck of dust, every gust of wind. And you have to respect him for taking that walk into the lonesome valley, no matter whom he annoys, angers and amuses with his actions and words. That’s the mark of a true artist and seeker.
So much of the time, those of us who belong to synagogues – particularly those of us who belong to mega-shuls – find ourselves kvetching a lot about what we don’t like about our congregations. We don’t generally do anything to improve what we view as the synagogue’s problems or flaws, we just seem to like to complain.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to me to meet someone like Marshall Kohen. Marshall is the choir director at Temple Isaiah, the Reform congregation in the southern Howard County hamlet of Fulton. This past year, Isaiah – led by Rabbi Mark J. Panoff for 27 years – has celebrated its 40th anniversary. Of course, 40 years has a special place in Jewish hearts, since the Children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness to reach the Promised Land.
Last week, I went out to Fulton, to interview Marshall, and I must say, it is the Promised Land. A lovely rural community that is now booming with new housing developments and shopping centers, Fulton is going through a great deal of change. So is Isaiah, which moved to Fulton in 2004 (after 33 years of adhering to Columbia’s interfaith centers concept) into its own sprawling, gorgeous facility.
Like the Children of Israel after the 40-year mark, Isaiah congregants are facing a big leadership change, with Rabbi Panoff retiring in June and a new spiritual leader expected to be hired by next month. And like almost every shul these days, they’re confronted with the challenges of how to maintain membership numbers, keeping the veterans happy and attracting young families, all in a tough economy.
But with congregants like Marshall, I’m confident that Isaiah will be in good, solid shape. Over a year ago, Marshall decided to do something special for the culmination event of Isaiah’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration.
So he spent a good chunk of his weekends, weeknights and spare time while on business travels laboring on a grand choral work chronicling Isaiah’s history. The four-movement piece, titled “From Then To Tomorrow” and performed by the Shir Isaiah Choir (conducted by Marshall), will premiere tomorrow night, Dec. 3, at Isaiah’s “From Then To Tomorrow: A Musical Celebration Of Temple Isaiah’s 40 Years” gala.
When you’re a busy professional and a married dad of two, writing a choral work in your “spare time” is no easy feat. I have not yet heard the piece, but I can tell you that I’m highly impressed with Marshall’s dedication and tenacity. His love and commitment to his shul is nothing short of inspiring.
Of course, in every synagogue and temple, you’ll find people who quietly, earnestly and diligently do things – large and small – for their congregations, only out of love and fellowship. Not all of them write epic musical pieces, but they all help keep the places running and humming. We’re lucky to have them and should appreciate them more.
They’re the folks that carry the rest of us kvetchers on their coattails. We could certainly stand to learn a thing or two from them.
A hearty yasher koach to Marshall, Rabbi Panoff and the rest of the folks at Temple Isaiah on their milestone and simchah. They greatly contribute to the tapestry that is Howard County’s Jewish community.