Albom Makes Rabbis Look Good, Again

By Gerald L. Zelizer

Published January 21, 2010.
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Have A Little Faith: A True Story
By Mitch Albom
Hyperion, 272 pages, $24.00.

There was a time when our parents and grandparents regarded the rabbi as wise and his role as indispensable. Unfortunately, much popular culture has downgraded that image. Recent depictions of rabbis peg them as religious bureaucrats or buffoons — demoralized and eventually done in by synagogue politics.

That is changing. Mitch Albom’s best-selling book “Have A Little Faith: A True Story” (Hyperion) aims to rehabilitate the role of the modern rabbi in pop culture. The book unpacks the faith of two clergymen, and includes an inspiring portrayal of a suburban rabbi and his congregation.

Albert Lewis is a Conservative rabbi of more than six decades at the influential Beth Shalom synagogue, a 900-family house of worship near Philadelphia. In 2000, Lewis, in his 80s and in failing health, asks Albom to write a eulogy for his funeral. Albom agrees under the condition that the two get to know each other personally.

A few months stretch into eight years as Albom periodically flies from Detroit to Philadelphia to interview his boyhood rabbi — both in his home and in the hospital.

Albom depicts in extraordinary detail why Rabbi Lewis was convinced that the congregational rabbinate was a privileged job — without the condemnation or condescension other authors show — and why his laity regarded Lewis as holy and indispensable.

During one meeting, Lewis compares himself with a salesman who, when spit at by a customer, concludes, “Must be raining!“ Joyfully stubborn, the salesman returns the next day. The comparison illustrates Lewis’ enthusiasm in imparting Torah and Mitzvot to his congregation, in spite of being rebuffed by laity who prefer not to be bothered. The rabbi so values the congregational rabbinate that when warned by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary that he is unsuited for the pulpit rabbinate, he takes a job as a camp counselor, but eventually finds his way back to the pulpit.

Years later, as Lewis’ physical powers decline, he turns down the offer to deliver a sermon in his former congregation, not because of personal vanity, but so as not to remind his former congregants that he is dying. “I don’t want to scare them like that,” he says.

When Lewis died in 2008 at age 90, Albom laments in his eulogy, “You were a clergyman of the people, never above the people.… How can…any of us let you go? Where do we look for you now?…Where you have been trying — good sweet Man of God — to get us to look all along. We look up.”

To Lewis, both his belief in God and the sanctity of his role in transmitting that belief to his congregation were greater than the minor annoyance of shul politics.

Albom’s affectionate portrayal of a rabbi runs counter to what we learn from most representations in popular culture. That negative trend was depicted in the 1960s with the best-seller “Heaven Help Us!” by Herbert Tarr, in which a young bachelor rabbi in his first pulpit, although eager to spread the word of Judaism, is incompetent. “Heaven Help Us” was part of a broader societal trend during a decade that challenged the authority of many religious and secular figures.

Little was done to rehabilitate that image by films and books like the 1989’s “Enemies a Love Story,” an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, and 2002’s “The New Rabbi, a Congregation Searches for its Leader,” a book that chronicles the search for a rabbinic successor to an iconic senior rabbi who has served another Conservative synagogue in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Even the television show “Seinfeld” included episodes that maligned the reputation of a rabbi. In one viewing, the character Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), jealous that her friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander) has become engaged, consults a rabbi in her building. The rabbi gossips about Elaine’s jealousy to others, and, in a later episode, makes a pass at her.

Most recently, the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” presented three rabbis as lazy, unhelpful or ineffective, unwilling or unable to help Larry Gopnick in his Job-like suffering.

The idea is beginning to change, however, with Albom’s book, which is helping to rehabilitate the modern rabbi’s role. “Have a Little Faith” will no doubt put a dent in the image of the ineffective rabbi. More importantly, it serves as an accurate portrayal of a man of God who, by modeling his own faith, showed the rest of us how to find ours.

Gerald Zelizer has been rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen in New Jersey for 40 years. He is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly.


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