George Kalinsky was seething inside.
A fervently Orthodox rabbi told him that he wasn’t a real Jew.
Never mind that Kalinsky’s parents were Jewish and that he put on tefillin every morning.
Kalinsky, the longtime photographer extraordinaire for Madison Square Garden, who captured the magic of the Willis Reed/Walt Frazier-era championship Knick teams and who took the last photo of John Lennon performing live, apparently wasn’t observing rituals to the Agudath Israel rabbi’s standards.
“It was very hurtful,” confided the soft-spoken, 59-year-old, award-winning shutterbug, who has been the official photographer for Madison Square Garden for 35 years, as well as special photographer for the New York Mets and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
“That rabbi felt that because that I was not as observant as I should be on Friday night and Saturday to observe Shabbat, that he didn’t consider me Jewish. And I felt I was Jewish. My mother was Jewish. My father was Jewish. I feel strongly about God and I put tefillin on every morning, and it bothered me.
“It turned out to be a very profound moment in my life. I was determined to prove the rabbi wrong. To assure myself that my way of observance was OK.”
From that painful encounter 10 years ago was born a mission — and an acclaimed new book.
In the book, titled “Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism” (Universal/Rizolli 2002), Kalinsky cajoled, lobbied and persevered to get 100 rabbis of all shapes, colors and — most significantly — denominations, to pose for full page color portraits and appear together in the same tome for the first time. Lesbians and Lubavitch. Haredi and Reconstructionist.
“My vision was one of rabbis of all kinds coexisting peacefully between the front and back covers of my book,” says Kalinsky. Born and bred in Hempstead, L.I., the son of Sam Kalinsky, who owned the popular Kalinsky’s juvenile furniture store. George, who considers himself a Conservative Jew, lived for many years in Port Washington.
“We need rabbis to be in the forefront of peace and harmony in this world; we need spiritual models who help provide direction and peace through unity,” he explained. “It is in the spirit of Jewish harmony that this book was born.”
Open the coffee table book, look at the rabbis, and you see what he means. They are bearded and clean-shaven. Men and women. Black, white and yellow.
There is the “surfer rabbi” Nachum Shifren riding the Pacific Ocean waves. “Karate Kid” Niles Elliott Goldstein, wears his black belt-tied gi standing on a city rooftop (with the Twin Towers eerily in the background). Isak Hazan, the director of Chabad in Rome grips a cell phone while straddling a red Suzuki motorcycle.
Music is also a strong theme.
New Mexico’s Reform Rabbi Joe Black strums his acoustic guitar dressed in full cowboy regalia, complete with boots, white Stetson and a horse guarding his tallit.
Not to be outdone, Lubavitch Rabbi Tuvia Bolton wears his tefillin and tallit while picking at his electric Gibson guitar.
Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the first Asian American woman rabbi and cantor, who works at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, sports an acoustic guitar.
Lynn Gottlieb, of Albuquerque, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement and one of the first ordained women, bangs a djembe.
All the leaders of the national movements cooperated: Jewish Renewal’s Arthur Waskow, Reconstructionist’s David Teutsch, Reform’s Eric Yoffie, Conservative’s Ismar Schorsch, Modern Orthodox’s Norman Lamm and Agudath Israel’s Avi Shafran.
Nearly half the rabbis are from the New York City area, including Brooklyn’s Alvin Kass, Conservative senior chaplain of the New York City Police Department, Riverdale’s Avi Weiss, and Rolando Matalon of Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun.
There are sister rabbis, fathers and daughters, and fathers and sons, including the separate photos of Rabbis Arthur and Marc Schneier.
Many are Lubavitch from around the world, perhaps a commentary on the state of 21st century Judaism.
Each rabbi contributed a short essay. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) wrote the introduction and Kirk Douglas the foreword.
Then there are those who didn’t appear.
Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau is absent because the film was stolen.
The only rabbi to outright refuse to appear was Jonathan Sachs, chief rabbi of England. “He said that he would not feel it’s appropriate to be in a book with Reform and Conservative rabbis,” Kalinsky said.
Contrarily, Crown Heights Lubavitch leader Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky strongly supported the project.
Knowing his assistance would be crucial, Kalinsky early on approached Rabbi Krinsky.
“I said, ‘Rabbi, I want to do a book showing all the denominations. I want to show the richness and diversity that makes up the fabric of the rabbinate.’ I figured I was going to get a real negative answer,” Kalinsky recalled. “He said, ‘I like your vision; I like your idea. This is going to spread Yiddishkeit. If you’re able to pull this off, I’m with you.’ ”
Towards the end of the project, instead of running after rabbis, they came knocking at Kalinsky’s door. The Jewish Center of the Hamptons is so miffed their rabbi was not included they won’t invite Kalinsky to speak, said the book’s publicist.
But at a Jewish Museum book signing last week, several diverse rabbis praised the project.
“One of the things I find most moving about the book is just the images of what Jews look like,” said Sharon Kleinbaum, celebrating her 10th year at Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village. “George really challenges what is a normative Jew. There simply isn’t a normative Jew, there is a range of what the rabbinic leadership looks like.”
“It’s imperative to have a book where rabbis of different denominations are in the same book,” said Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis and New York’s Fire chaplain. “We’re all in the same union — different locals — but the same union.”
Not so fast, says Agudah’s Rabbi Shafran.
“The subtitle of the book — ‘The Many Faces of Judaism’ troubles me. If the point is being made that everyone is getting together, no one here is getting together. We were asked to pose for photos as rabbis. We had no intention for them to be utilized to give legitimacy to forms of Judaism we don’t endorse.”
The book has a strong connection to Sept. 11, 2001.
Eerily, many photos were taken at the World Trade Center the day and night before the attacks.
Lubavitch Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chief chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, recalled he was scheduled to be photographed riding a tank in Staten Island on Sept. 11. After the terror attack, “I had the presence of mind to call [George] that day and tell him I don’t think it’s gonna come off.”
Instead, Rabbi Goldstein brought Kalinsky down to the carnage of Ground Zero, where the photo was shot.
“My dream is that the spirit of cooperation and coexistence transcends the book and embraces the world,” Kalinsky said. n
Photographs from the book will be exhibited from Oct. 9–Dec. 31st at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St. An opening reception will take place on Oct. 9 at 6 p.m., with a book signing to follow. The exhibition and opening reception are free and open to the public. For more information call (212) 294-8301.
A Shot Of Unity
George Kalinsky was seething inside.