with Stephen



Investigative journalist Stephen Fried C’79 is nothing if not eclectic in his choice of subjects. Besides dozens of articles and essays in publications like Vanity Fair, GQ, Glamour, and Philadelphia magazine, where he says he “grew up as a journalist” and which he briefly edited, Fried has written three books: the first about the rise and self-destruction of a “supermodel,” Thing of Beauty; next, an exposÈ of the prescription drug industry, Bitter Pillls [“Off the Shelf,” June 1998]; and the just-published The New Rabbi, excerpted on page 46.

Subtitled A Congregation Searches for Its Leader, the book tells the surprisingly dramatic tale—early reviews have generally reached for the “reads like a novel” comparison—of how Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia’s Main Line went about hiring a replacement for Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, its spiritual leader of 30 years, after he announced his plans to retire in the late 1990s.

Har Zion, described as “one of the most powerful and influential congregations in the world,” includes many Penn alumni and faculty, Fried says. “Some Har Zion bar mitzvahs are like mini Penn reunions.” The connections go back decades, to when Har Zion was located in the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia. Its move to the suburbs in the early 1970s was led by the then-newly hired Wolpe and some Penn people—and fiercely opposed by others. Three decades after the battle (recounted in the book), Fried says, “I still speak to people who are bitterly divided by it.”

In the following interview with Gazette editor John Prendergast, Fried describes how The New Rabbi grew over the four years he spent researching and writing it to become a portrait of “what American religion looks like today,” and how the loss of his father to colon cancer and his own return to religion became interwoven with that story.

How did the book get started? You connect it in the prologue to the death of your father as you were turning 40.

I originally had the idea to follow a rabbi search and the life of a synagogue in the late 1980s, but it didn’t seem like the right time. As I look back, I think this book probably first started in my mind in the fall of 1996, when my 62-year-old dad was dying of colon cancer and I was shuttling back and forth between my home in Philly and my parents’ home in Harrisburg to help take care of him. After my father died, I found—much to the surprise of my family and friends (and myself)—that going to minyan and saying Kaddish for him each day was the only way of dealing with the loss. At minyan, you can’t say the mourner’s Kaddish unless 10 people show up, so you quickly become a student of the sociology of religious services.

And then, in the middle of my year of mourning, Rabbi Wolpe announced his retirement at Har Zion after 30 years on that pulpit. Wolpe had been my rabbi at Temple Beth El when I was a kid—Har Zion had stolen him from our synagogue. I knew him fairly well, and also knew his family: I knew two of his four sons—Paul [Root Wolpe C’78, director of informed consent at Penn’s Center for Bioethics] and David [J. Wolpe C’81, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles]—from boyhood, but they were also both at Penn with me during the late 1970s. I told Rabbi Wolpe about my book idea, and he agreed to participate.

I came to see The New Rabbi as the story of three dramatic searches: the synagogue’s search for a new leader for the new millennium, Rabbi Wolpe’s search for the meaning of his life and his rabbinate, and my personal search for meaning and comfort after the loss of my father. I think these three searches mirror what is going on all over the country for communities, clergy members, and spiritually curious Americans like me.

Father-son relationships seem to be a running theme: you and your father, Wolpe and his father, Wolpe and his sons, even Wolpe and the young rabbi chosen to succeed him. How much of that did you see ahead of time and how did it develop as the book was written?

From the time my dad first got sick—and he died only six months after complaining about what he thought was a stomach ache—I started really observing father-son relationships. It’s not a new thing; almost all my major journalistic work has brought a sort of family-therapy approach to stories. But, as my wife would tell you, after my dad died, my interest in fathers and sons was becoming almost obsessive. In my line of work, however, obsessions can be put to good use.

As far as Wolpe goes, I didn’t really know that his father had died when he was 11 and that the loss of his father had become a central theme of his sermonizing and his life appraisal. When he was my rabbi in the ’60s, it was during the politically charged time of wars in Vietnam and Israel, and my recollection of him was highlighted by the speech he gave during the Six-Day War—which caused my parents to donate the money they had been saving for new carpeting to Israel. He started talking more about his own father, who had died in his forties, when he managed to outlive him, and by the time I started interviewing him, the subject of fathers and sons was heavily on his mind—because of the loss, and also because his son David had become a star in the rabbinate and so the discussions and differences between the two of them were more of a topic of conversation.

So, I guess the answer is that I always knew the book project was being fueled by my father’s death and our relationship, but I wasn’t fully prepared for how the father-son theme would play out in every aspect of synagogue life.

The book ends on Yom Kippur of a year ago. That’s obviously just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and there is a passage about that. But the very end is a personal one, and very moving: you and Wolpe in synagogue praying for your fathers. Can you say what you learned from talking about and observing the life of this
congregation and its leaders about the role of religion in matters both global and personal?

I suppose the biggest thing I learned is how much religion and community matter, on a day-to-day basis, in our lives. Whether you’re an active member of a synagogue or church, or someone who has fled organized religion, it’s still there on the days that matter most.

This book is about the behind-the-scenes life of a peculiarly American form of religion, and it is as much about this country as it is about Jews. Since 9/11, many people have reconsidered their religious beliefs and their ties to local houses of worship. In many ways this book is about what they will find when they return, because it’s about what I found—as a Jew, an American, and a journalist—when I came back to mourn for a parent.

I wanted to give people a glimpse of what American religion looks like today without forcing them to wrestle with the question that always hangs people up: what do you BELIEVE? If the issue can be shifted from “Do you believe in God?” to “Do you believe in creating and sustaining local communities?” I suspect my peers will better understand what is at stake.

And I guess the reason the book ends on such a personal note is because, ultimately, communities are made up of people in their own personal searches. Houses of worship are the original, and still the best places where such searching is encouraged and nurtured.

Back to feature: Coming to Terms


Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/02/02