Shul Politics, The Novel


Around the time he was 80, Raphael D. Silver sat down to write his first novel. A few years earlier, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, his first climb. He’s a man who, after much success as a real estate developer, began producing and directing films.

“He wasn’t afraid to fail,” his wife, the filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, says in an interview in her Park Avenue apartment, explaining his ability to keep trying altogether new things. “It’s a wonderful quality to have.”

She just helped to publish, “Congregation” (Author House), Raphael’s first novel, posthumously. He had finished it and was beginning to show it to publishers when he died in a skiing accident in Salt Lake City. This week marks the second anniversary of his death.

The author, son of the prominent Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver who led the Cleveland congregation known as The Temple for 46 years, sets his novel in a Cleveland synagogue, where the longstanding rabbi faces the end of his career and the board of directors begins to make plans for his succession.

The fast-paced narrative shifts between several strands of the story, a mix of shul politics and a major business takeover, with sharks in both arenas. Silver’s characters are memorable if not morally exemplary — from the aging talk show host trying to preserve her looks and her job to the assistant rabbi who’d like to move up — serving themselves as they serve the community through their various involvements.

The connections between synagogue members seem to form a web hovering over the city of Cleveland and its suburbs, with every member only one business deal, family relation, school chum or romantic affair away from another. Throughout the novel, the characters surprise readers.

“Ray wanted to write a book about congregational life,” Micklin Silver says, “but this book has nothing to do with his father’s congregation.” She says that he grew up with congregational talk as dinner conversation — they talked about politics, world affairs, spiritual matters and what was happening in the shul. “All that talk must have stimulated his imagination.”

Raphael Silver was not a rabbi but his late brother Daniel was. Rabbi Daniel Silver succeeded their father at The Temple, serving 26 years until his death in 1989.

In the novel, Rabbi Eli Stone has only one son, Josh, who works in finance. Having served his congregation for 40 years, Rabbi Stone has a national reputation for impassioned oratory — he was jailed for protesting with civil rights activists in the South, and he protested the war in Vietnam. He is descended from a line of Orthodox rabbis and is the son of an Orthodox rabbi, but he “wanted to practice his faith in a way that would let him participate in the world around him,” which created a rift with his father.

Rabbi Stone is tall and regal, with a full mane of white hair at age 65, when the novel opens. During Rosh HaShanah services, dressed in his signature clerical robe, he announces to the congregation — a full house, with 2200 seats — that he has ALS, and wishes to continue serving as rabbi, at least for the immediate future.

Against Rabbi Stone’s wishes, the shul president, the wife of a wealthy businessman, wants to elevate the assistant rabbi. The younger rabbi, shorter than Rabbi Stone, feels diminished in his clerical robes and is known to trip over the hem. He’s a man who keeps tracks of numbers — the number of times the phone rings before his secretary picks it up, the number of empty seats in the sanctuary and the numbers within baseball stats. He has a particular interest in bringing an ethical sensibility to baseball, returning the game to the fans with more affordable ticket prices, which doesn’t leave him in good stead with the owner of the Cleveland Indians and a star player who are also voting members of the synagogue board.

When Josh Stone returns to Cleveland to work on a business deal at the same time that his father’s health is failing, he notices that the Ohio city “had become a quieter place, drifting into a dignified old age like a dowager on a respectable pension.”

The striking cover of the book features a photo of a historic synagogue bima (taken at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn) rising into a city skyline.

Micklin Silver says that her husband really enjoyed writing, and also wrote several short stories, but not enough of them to be compiled into a book. With their daughter Marisa, who lives in California and is also a novelist, he would often trade pages of what they were working on.

The Silvers married in 1956, soon after she graduated from college, and they lived in Cleveland from 1956 to 1967, when they moved with their three daughters to a brownstone on Manhattan’s East Side and joined Temple Emanu-El. In their Cleveland years, they would spend every Friday night at Shabbat dinner with her in-laws (Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver died in 1963).

“He was very strong and good looking. He spoke beautifully and with great authority,” she says of her late father-in-law, a Zionist hero who mobilized support for the creation of the State of Israel. “He had an Old World reserve about him.” She remembers him mostly as a grandfather who really loved his grandchildren. She says that he wanted Ray to become a rabbi too, but that wasn’t what Ray wanted to do. That his brother Daniel went to rabbinical school took the pressure off.

The Silvers moved to New York so that he could expand his business and she could pursue her interest in film, but it was hard in those days for a woman director to get funded. So Ray stepped up to the plate, with no previous knowledge of the film world, and served as producer of films Joan directed, “Hester Street,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Between the Lines.” His curiosity about the business turned to mastery. He also directed two films, “On the Yard” at a men’s penitentiary in Pennsylvania, using inmates in minor roles, and “A Walk on the Moon” (the 1987 film about a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a Columbian village, not the Liev Schreiber film about a Catskills bungalow colony).

Micklin Silver agrees that “Congregation” is cinematic, and she says that with all its episodes, she can see it as a series. A member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, she meets with a reporter the morning after the Oscars in her late husband’s spacious study, filled with many objects from their world travels, like a printed Japanese kimono on the wall and intricate Mexican and Chinese figurines. While he was writing the novel, she would work in an office on the other side of the apartment, and they’d break for lunch together (breaking earlier in the morning to discuss the possibilities of lunch).

“Ray had it all,” she says. “He was very bright, he had a wonderful education at Harvard, he had a real curiosity about things and such a heart.” Her voice cracks as she speaks.

In another room, there’s a photo of a beaming Ray Silver on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, with his arms wide open to the world.