Two of my longtime heroes died this past week.
On first glance, they seemed as different as two men could be. One, widely considered to be a holy man, followed a life-long spiritual path. He had a gentle manner and sought to bring a deeper level of knowledge to Jews everywhere by making the sacred texts accessible to all.
The other, born Catholic, gave up religion at a young age, and for much of his life was a hard drinker who sought to subdue his violent nature.
But both men reached wide audiences with words that touched people’s hearts, and they were deeply admired because they shared a commitment to authenticity, truth-seeking and compassion.
Of the same generation, they each died where they were born, in the cities with which they were identified throughout their lives — cities which they personified in many ways.
For Talmudic scholar and teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who died at 83, it was Jerusalem, the most holy city. His magisterial writings touched the heavens above, describing the spiritual world of angels as well as the history, mystery, heritage and traditions of Jewish life.
For high-school dropout journalist and author Pete Hamill, 85, it was New York City, and especially Brooklyn; his columns and reporting reached down to lift up the often-ignored underdogs of society, telling their stories of grit, sacrifice and determination – the essence of The Greatest City in the World.
For someone who describes himself as a “Jewish journalist” in a way that is intended to mean more than a journalist who happens to be Jewish, I deeply admired how Rabbi Steinsaltz and Pete Hamill, each in his own way, educated and inspired people through the written word, and did so with clarity and compassion.
I never met Pete Hamill. I started reading his columns in the tabloids when I came to New York for college, and he helped me understand the city. He was one of several reporters who instilled a love of journalism in me back then, reflecting the romantic notion of having a platform at a vibrant, big-city newspaper. Though Hamill could be blunt and tough, he was able to touch one’s emotions without being overly sentimental. And over time I came to appreciate his seemingly effortless style — writing lyrical essays on deadline, the poetry of New York.
When I heard that he died, I searched my bookshelf for the first collection of his columns, published in 1971, which includes sections on Brooklyn, Vietnam (where he reported for two years), politics, boxing and New York. It’s titled “Irrational Ravings” — a quote from Spiro Agnew, referring to Hamill’s writings, and cited by the author with pride.
“In general, my sympathies are with underdogs and against abstraction, authoritarianism and unnecessary cruelty,” Hamill wrote in one of the essays. “I am a free man, a New Yorker, a Democrat and an American. And I would gladly give up the last three descriptions to retain the first.”
His comments on writing a newspaper column resonate with me. He noted that “the best a column can hope to do is present a fragment of an event or an idea, hope to move the reader for a few random moments, and remind him of the gathering darkness before he moves on to” the comics pages. He goes on to describe “these fragments” as “an attempt to discover something about the world and something about myself.”
‘A Holy Mission’
I learned a lot about myself in my encounters with Rabbi Steinsaltz, having been blessed to meet with him a number of times over the last four decades. And whether it was for an interview, an informal discussion or attending one of his lectures, I always came away feeling in awe of the range and depth of his knowledge and inspired by his wisdom, his warmth and modest manner.
Surely, he will be remembered most for his monumental, 45-year-long project of translating the entire Talmud from Aramaic into modern Hebrew, along with his own commentary, and then into English. He was hailed as a genius, a modern-day Rashi. But with his intellect and seemingly endless energy and curiosity, he also wrote more than 60 books, ranging from kabbalah, theology and mysticism to botany and zoology.
For all of his brilliance, the rabbi was self-effacing, claiming his Talmud project was “a hobby” and that he took on so many projects to ward off his naturally lazy nature.
That the rabbi was an “ilui” (Hebrew for genius and master of Talmudic law) is a given. Less well known was his outgoing and intellectually playful manner. Whether speaking on a panel or chatting privately, there was an impish side to him, and he was given to making provocative comments, perhaps to prevent boredom – for his audience or himself. He often teased me about journalism, saying he was used to being misquoted in interviews. But he readily agreed to media requests for his time and views, and he had great patience, enjoying interactions with anyone and everyone.
Gaya Bernstein, a physician in Riverdale, first met Rabbi Steinsaltz more than 30 years ago when she and her family were living in Jerusalem. She and her husband, Lewis, enjoyed a close relationship with him and she received the rabbi’s permission to translate his book on Psalms from Hebrew to English.
When she pointed out that she was not a professional at translation, “he told me, ‘you understand what I’m trying to say, and that’s what I care about,” she recalled the other day.
“I felt I was given a holy mission.”
“We would have long talks and the conversation would sometimes seem to be all over the map,” she said. “But I would later realize he was just setting the stage, making me comfortable, and there was always a message by the end.”
Arthur Kurzweil, a New York-based writer and publisher, wrote two books about his relationship with Rabbi Steinsaltz. The title of the first says it all: “On The Road With Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations With a Man of Wisdom.”
Kurzweil explained that he had been so impressed with the rabbi after reading an interview with him in 1978, that he volunteered to help in any way he could. He was assigned to be the scholar’s driver on all of his trips to the U.S.
“He was interested in everything,” Kurzweil said. “He had a great sense of humor and also was deadly serious.” He described the rabbi’s brief but memorable talk to an auditorium full of high school yeshiva students in Long Island some years ago. His message: “Make the lives of your teachers miserable – ask them tough questions.” As he was leaving, the principal of the yeshiva told the students not to take the rabbi literally. “At that point,” Kurzweil said, “Rabbi Steinsaltz walked back to the microphone and said, ‘I’ve been misquoted many times.’ And then he repeated his charge to the students and left.”
In all of their times together, in conversations and at public events, Kurzweil said he never heard the rabbi preach to anyone or stress Jewish observance. “He wanted people to be more Jewishly knowledgeable. That’s what was important. He would quote from Disney and ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and other examples of pop culture. I suspect he wanted to be relevant and entertaining. Once, after a lecture, he mused, ‘Maybe I should quote from Torah more.’”
In 2016, just two days before a serious stroke robbed him of speech, Rabbi Steinsaltz had a private meeting with Pope Francis. Afterwards, the rabbi’s son asked his father what transpired. Kurzweil recalled what the rabbi told his son: “I told the pope that for too long we’ve been doing the cha-cha and we need to learn to tango.”
After Rabbi Steinsaltz’s death, Kurzweil posted on his website a quote from the rabbi. I think Pete Hamill would find it fitting as well:
“After I die, I really don’t care whether I will go to heaven or to hell. I also do not care at all about what will be written on my tombstone. All I care about is whether I have been able to touch people throughout my lifetime and cause them to grow more and more.”
Gary Rosenblatt, Gary@jewishweek.org, is The Jewish Week’s editor at large.