Two books paint portraits of today’s rabbis that go enthusiastically beyond the black and white.
Shouldn’t rabbis be photographed in black-and-white? Shouldn’t they be portrayed stroking bearded chins or poring over texts in book-lined offices? Isn’t that the proper image, especially before the holiday of Yom Kippur, when rabbis who lead congregations must deliver perhaps the year’s most important sermon?
What then to make of the singing cowboy rabbi found in ”Rabbis,” a collection of portraits by George Kalinsky (Universe/Rizzoli, 2002)? In white Stetson, red shirt, black jeans and cowboy boots, he strums his guitar while a horse nuzzles his prayer shawl.
Among the 100 full-page photographs here, one finds the stand-up comic rabbi, the surfer rabbi, the martial arts rabbi, the tour guide rabbi, and a surprising number of rabbi-chaplains in uniform: not only of the Israeli Army and police but also of the New York National Guard, the New York City police and fire departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
One finds three rabbis, in fact, playing guitars, one pounding a tom-tom, one sounding a shofar and two (only two?) on cellphones. One rabbi is jogging, one is in a gondola, one is astride a red motorcycle and another (only one?) is astride an exercise bike. There are rabbis of Korean, Ethiopian and Japanese descent, and there are 14 women.
Thank goodness there are the requisite number of rabbis, perhaps two dozen, poring over texts or in book-lined offices or at least with a book in hand, one while eating sushi. There are also the requisite number of beards, 51 by this count, and even a few photographs in black and white.
Mr. Kalinsky, a noted sports photographer, has obviously not attempted a rabbinical hall of fame, although a number of those portrayed here might well qualify, but a very demonstration of Judaism’s diversity in unity. Has he inadvertently created something else — rabbis as collectibles?
Selecting a rabbi, not collecting them, is the focus of ”The New Rabbi” (Bantam, 2002). The work of Stephen Fried, an award-winning investigative writer, it qualifies for the short list of books illuminating all of American religion by looking at a single congregation in depth.
This is a book with three stories. One is captured in the subtitle: ”A Congregation Searches for Its Leader.” For three years, Mr. Fried followed the inner life of Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia’s Main Line, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious Conservative Jewish synagogues, as its lay leadership sought a successor for the rabbi who had led the temple for three decades.
That leader, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, was a renowned preacher and, as it turned out, had been the rabbi at the Harrisburg, Pa., synagogue of Mr. Fried’s youth. In 1969, when the author was only 11, Rabbi Wolpe left Harrisburg for the synagogue in Philadelphia. But ”you never forget your first rabbi,” Mr. Fried writes, explaining later, ”When I pray, I still pause where he paused, emote where he emoted.”
How does a synagogue like Har Zion go about replacing its beloved rabbi? That story, although fascinating in its behind-the-scenes details, would not be nearly so compelling were it not intertwined with another story, that of Mr. Fried’s own ”relapse” (his word) into religion after the death of his father.
”Am I here as a journalist or a worshiper?” Mr. Fried has to ask himself, and though it might not have worked out that way, much of the book’s success arises from the fact that the answer is, both.
Beneath the story about synagogue politics is a novel-like story about loss and love between fathers and sons, and its religious resonance. Deaths of fathers stalk the account, as well as the background presence of Rabbi Wolpe’s four sons, one of whom, David, has become a nationally known rabbi himself for his books on Jewish spirituality. Their relationships, especially between father and David, are wonderfully complicated.
The third story that ”The New Rabbi” tells is that of American Judaism and even of American religion. When a congregation asks itself what it wants in a new rabbi or pastor, that questioning leads easily into puzzling over all the transformations in the culture affecting religion and religious institutions.
Members of the search committee get caught up in debating whether they would prefer a successor whom they could address by first name. The debate ”is about more than the rabbi’s name,” Mr. Fried can suggest. ”It is about the future of Judaism, the future of American religions, really.”
He may overreach here occasionally. Har Zion, with its $4 million budget and the equivalent of 100 employees, is not Everytemple, let alone Everychurch.
On Thursday, before heading back to Philadelphia after teaching a first class at Columbia Journalism School, Mr. Fried sat discussing his book in an Upper West Side Manhattan restaurant. Within blocks were a Buddhist temple, a heavily Latino Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox church and several Pentecostal storefronts whose worlds are galaxies apart from that of Har Zion.
Still, there is not a leader of those churches who wouldn’t learn a lot from ”The New Rabbi” and probably enjoy every page as well. Mr. Fried’s eye can be remorseless, and undoubtedly there are people he spoke with who wish they’d kept quiet. But his appreciation for both Judaism and the challenges that face the clergy is manifest.
”The pressure on them is amazing,” he said. ”When I think of the number of interviews canceled because of funerals!”
”The New Rabbi” closes appropriately enough on Yom Kippur last year, two weeks after Sept. 11. With his successor chosen at last, Rabbi Wolpe now sat with Mr. Fried in another synagogue, a regular congregant, ”without an audience.”
It is time for Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead, when many people often leave the service. But that is no longer Rabbi Wolpe’s worry. ”He’s not trying to save the world anymore,” Mr. Fried writes. ”He is just trying to say his own prayers.”