Robert Frost Rarely Went to Church, But Poet Had Personal Rabbi

Laureate Enjoyed a Friendship With Rabbi Victor Reichert

Promises To Keep: For more than two decades, Rabbi Victor Reichert (right) maintained a friendship with Robert Frost.
Courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries
Promises To Keep: For more than two decades, Rabbi Victor Reichert (right) maintained a friendship with Robert Frost.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published April 02, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.

(page 2 of 3)

“Victor Reichert brought his wide knowledge of philosophy to bear on his Jewish studies, and he understood that Judaism is a hugely ethical religion, a worldly religion,” said Jay Parini, Middlebury College professor of creative writing and author of the 1999 book “Robert Frost: A Life.” Reichert’s grounded view of religion likely made him an appealing companion to Frost, who rebuked the idea of a better, heavenly existence in his well-known 1915 poem “Birches”: “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” “The idea of earth as the right place for love, I felt that was something that you would have gotten from Victor Reichert,” Parini said.

In his friendship with the rabbi, Frost discovered “a way to see into biblical literature and Jewish thought,” Jonathan Reichert said. Frost’s own faith background was muddled: His father was a religious skeptic, and his mother a follower of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. In his adult life, Frost was not much of a churchgoer, but he nevertheless called himself an “Old Testament Christian”; he was drawn to the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of a harsh god, Parini said.

Frost relied on Reichert to decipher certain aspects of the Torah. In a handwritten letter to Reichert, on display at U.B., Frost asks the rabbi about the concept of sacrifice in the Bible. Reichert drafted several letters in response, also on display, though it’s unclear which, if any, he sent the poet. According to Jonathan Reichert, Frost consulted with his father before the publication of his 1945 play “A Masque of Reason,” about a conversation between Job and God. Reichert apparently suggested the last line, “Here endeth Chapter Forty-three of Job,” a twist on the fact that the Book of Job has just 42 chapters. “My sense was that Frost wanted to get it right,” Jonathan Reichert said. “They talked long and carefully about this poem. As I remember it, Frost said, ‘Victor, you gave me the green light.’”

Frost returned the favor in 1946 by speaking at Reichert’s synagogue when he took a trip to Cincinnati for a reading. His sermon, which began with warm remarks toward Reichert, marked the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. Reichert recorded Frost’s talk, transcribed it and printed 500 copies, with the intention of sending it to friends, congregants and interested readers. But Frost feared that some of the real-world people he described in the talk would take offense at what he said, so he asked Reichert to hold off. After Frost’s death, in 1963, Reichert distributed it.

Over their 24-year relationship, Reichert was more than Frost’s friend — he was also his enthusiast. Reichert saved more than 600 magazine and newspaper articles about Frost, and amassed a collection of books and chapbooks that the poet inscribed to Reichert and his family. In 1960, Reichert was instrumental in getting his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to award Frost an honorary doctorate.

Reichert also wrote, often fawningly, about the poet. “He almost worshipped him,” his son said. He viewed Frost in the “prophetic tradition,” as though “he had met Isaiah or Jeremiah.” Jonathan Reichert occasionally edited his father’s articles on Frost, and warned him against “hero worship.”



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