The Eulogizer: ‘Polar Bear Rabbi’ Abraham Novitsky and a celebration of mogul Sidney Harman


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here

Abraham Novitsky, 77, ‘Polar Bear rabbi’

Abraham Novitsky, a rabbi whose “synagogue” was Brooklyn’s Coney Island Beach and boardwalk, and who formed a breakaway group of ice swimmers after being kicked out of the “official” Polar Bear Club, died May 18 at 77.

Along with swimming at freezing beaches, Novitsky’s interests included skydiving, walking on hot coals and “twisting his mustache into four curlicues.” (See photo of him in full white beard and mustaches with a large Magen David on a deeply muscled bare chest).

At Novitsky’s funeral, nephew Martin Novitsky called his uncle “such an unusual character. So many people you could cut out of a cookie. They go to school. They go to work. They get married. Their life is over. Everything about his life was eccentric.”

Novitsky, also known as Rabbi Abraham Abraham, was King Neptune at Coney Island’s campy Mermaid Parade in 1999 and “did his best to flout the rules," said parade organizer Dick Zigun. “He wouldn’t pay the fee and he wouldn’t show up to the assembly site. A car would ignore police detours and come down the street in the opposite direction and make a U-turn in front of the parade. It would be Rabbi Abraham. He would jump out of the car and do a one-handed push-up.”

The New York Times said Novitsky’s rabbinical credentials were difficult to confirm.

“Friends said he had documents showing that he had been ordained, and he performed funerals for Jewish members of his swim club, but no one knew where he had attended rabbinical school and people just seemed to take him at his word,” the newspaper said.

Novitsky formed a group of winter swimmers after a dispute with the Polar Bear Club. Click here for a video of Rabbi Abraham exhorting people to join him in the frigid surf.

Mogul Sidney Harman feted after his shloshim

About five weeks after his death on April 11 at 92, mogul Sidney Harman was lauded as an “entrepreneur, arts patron, philanthropist, raconteur, and orator (OK, a bit of a showoff: He recited everything from memory)” in a celebration at Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington by the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Harman “himself” was there in a video he recorded last year that was played at the event.

“I tell you, somewhat immodestly, I am my own invention,” he said. 

Among Washington A-listers on hand were former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

“He never forgot what mattered and, for all his great gifts, he never forgot the aspiration, the love of family and the dreams that he shared with all others, including the humblest of those who worked for him,” Clinton said.

Along with Yo Yo Ma, performers at the hall named for Harman after he donated $20 million toward its completion included the Washington Ballet. Actor Avery Brooks recited Harman’s favorite passages from Shakespeare; Harman Hall houses Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

A Washington Post columnist at the event said the evening’s highlight was “Sidney on Sidney,” a sampling of interviews with him. Here’s one quote: “I get up every morning determined to change the world — also to have a hell of a good time. Sometimes that makes planning the day a little difficult.”


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