Although Robert Frost rarely attended church, America’s supreme poet of pastoral life had his own personal rabbi. Victor Reichert, rabbi of the Rockdale Avenue Temple, in Cincinnati, was one of Frost’s closest friends and confidants in the final decades of the poet’s life.
Now, Reichert’s son, Jonathan Reichert, has donated his father’s trove of letters, books and newspaper clippings documenting the 24-year friendship to the University at Buffalo’s poetry collection. Accessible to the public for the first time, the materials provide insight into Frost’s hard-to-pin-down sensibilities about religion and spirituality, and chronicle a chance friendship that influenced Frost’s later work.
“My father’s interaction with Frost is a tiny part of American literary history, and it deserves a place where it will be recognized,” said Reichert, professor emeritus of physics at U.B., and a friend and admirer of Frost himself.
Frost and Victor Reichert met in 1939 when Louise Reichert convinced her husband to see Frost speak at the Gibson Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. The rabbi, devoted to the writer Edwin Arlington Robinson, felt he didn’t need another poet to follow. But Louise Reichert, a fan of Frost since her days at Smith College, prevailed. Sitting in the front row at the reading, the rabbi was instantly rapt; afterward, he asked Frost to accompany him on a car ride through Eden Park. “It was a blending of the minds, a soul mates’ meeting,” said Michael Basinski, curator of the poetry collection at U.B.
Soon after their initial meeting, Frost invited Reichert to visit him at a writers conference in August in Vermont, where he lived. From then on, Reichert would all but close down his synagogue every summer to sojourn with his family in Frost’s tiny town of Ripton. Reichert became an integral part of “Frost’s posse” of writers and critics, Basinski said. He accompanied Frost on his famously long walks through the woods, and the two men talked about religion, poetry and philosophy. Reichert soon became a fixture in Ripton, giving regular sermons at the local Methodist church. Many years later, he officiated a double bat mitzvah in the church for his wife and granddaughter.
Reichert was a well-respected Reform rabbi in Cincinnati, known for his interfaith work with the Christian community, but he wasn’t a national religious figure. The son of a poor rabbi whose itinerant career took him to synagogues around the country, Reichert never saw himself as part of the American Jewish establishment. His interests went far beyond Jewish texts; he was conversant in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, German and Italian, his son said. He wrote poetry — ranging in subject from the Western Wall, to New York City, to Abraham Lincoln — and translated medieval Hebrew works.