During the High Holidays, a beloved rabbi nearing retirement and an author chronicling the search for his replacement mourn and remember their fathers. By Stephen Fried

As I walk into Har Zion on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, services have already begun and Rabbi Wolpe is at his lectern talking about what a small town Judaism is. Today, he says, even Jews in isolated enclaves in Spain know what their fellow Jews are thinking in Russia and America.

Yet there is nothing about the High Holiday scene at Har Zion that brings to mind a small town. Some 3,000 people are trying to sit quietly, doing whatever passes for whispering at their age, grimacing, albeit politely, when fellow congregants climb over them to their seats, tugging at ties and pantyhose, retrieving yarmulkes that keep falling off, and riffling through their prayer books looking for the Torah reading, which can be found on page 168.

I can hear Rabbi Wolpe perfectly, but I can barely see him. If not for his elaborate white robes, he would be indistinguishable from the others on the bimah. What I can see clearly is the secular phenomenon Har Zionites refer to as “the fashion show.” It’s like a Chanel showroom, with the trendier women going either supershort with their skirts or full-on maxi. Under their tallises, the men wear Polo or Armani. Yet nobody seems terribly overdressed or ostentatious. It’s more that they’ve been maximized.

I know almost nobody here. There is something unnerving about being a stranger amidst so much familiarity: most of these people have known each other going back three generations. I feel like a guy crashing a family reunion of perfect strangers just because he came to hear the band.

Thank God for Ralph Snyder, a tax lawyer and Harrisburg native (he’d known my father and grandfather) who was the one who first brought Wolpe to Har Zion’s attention—and helped the synagogue poach him from Temple Beth El in Harrisburg—in the late 1960s. He always welcomes me with a firm handshake and one of those little “made you look” tricks like anybody’s grandfather. He takes a poke at my tie, I look, he laughs. I say I can’t believe I fall for it every time. Today, Ralph is also wistful. It is difficult to believe that this is the last time his close friend will also be his rabbi for High Holiday services.

No sooner do I take my seat in far-flung section II than we are asked to rise. The Ark is opened, slowly, dramatically, and two Torahs are taken from it. The cantor gets one and Lew Grafman, the synagogue president, gets the other because the rabbi will need his hands free for the obstacle course they are about to navigate. The choir is cued: four professional singers, sitting in the front row. And the processional begins, with the cantor leading the rabbi and the synagogue’s leaders—officers, board members—down off the bimah.

Why do they take the Torahs out for a walk? Because everyone is equally entitled to honor the handwritten sacred scrolls by touching them. This is never done directly, but by reaching out with a prayer book or tallis, touching the Torah with it, and then kissing the place it made contact. In Judaism, belief in God is optional, something you may wrestle with your entire life. But respect for and fascination with the Torah, the first record of men and women’s struggles with belief in God, is not optional. And the Torahs themselves are both holy and wholly accessible. There are endless rules about how to dress, undress, unroll and read them, but they are meant to be read and studied, not worshipped. A Torah is meant to be honored as a living presence, not an icon.

As an author, I’m especially fascinated by the Torah processional for what it represents: people paying homage to a book, which for 5,000 years has been copied over by hand, clothed in velvet and jewels, crowned in silver and perpetually read and interpreted. From the most cosmic concept to a single letter, everything in the Torah is open to interpretation and debate. Very early in the morning minyan—often before most people get there, actually—one of the first prayers recited is actually not a prayer at all. It’s the 13 rules for literary interpretation of the Torah, starting with: “An inference may be drawn from a minor to a major premise or a major to a minor premise.” There is also a special version of the Kaddish recited after studying Torah.

But the Torah processional has another purpose. It is Judaism’s great “meet and greet,” an opportunity for the rabbi and synagogue officers to press the flesh with hundreds of congregants as they go up and down the aisles. Wolpe himself kisses hundreds of women, and shakes hands with hundreds of men. He pats cheeks, shares knowing smiles, offers brief condolences. His ability to recall personal information about so many people, pulling out names and particulars effortlessly, one after another, is astounding. How is … your sick spouse’s name here? I was so sorry to hear about your late relative’s name here. Isn’t that wonderful news about your child or grandchild’s name here. Mazel tov on your special event here.

As the Torah processional continues—five minutes, 10 minutes—the volume level increases. Many of these people haven’t seen each other for months. Some have been down at the shore all summer and just got back. Others have not been here all year, because they live primarily in Florida now and come back only for the High Holidays, some just to hear Wolpe’s sermons. People with great tans hug and backslap and swap wallet photos until the choir can no longer be heard above the din. When the rabbi returns to the bimah, he has a major shushing task on his hands. But he finally gets everyone quiet, and the Torah reading proceeds.

When the sermon finally comes it shows signs of having been written at the last minute. It is, of course, provocatively delivered, gently stirring. But Wolpe can do that reading a menu aloud. His best salvos today are aimed at an easy target: country clubs. After announcing that his comments are offered with “the security of knowing it is too late to fire me,” he is sardonic about the Bala Golf Club, where “they have given us the privilege of saving them from bankruptcy” by reversing their policy of barring Jews from membership. “We can only pray that soon we can do the same thing for the Merion Cricket Club … Who needs the Messiah? We are now really part of the Main Line. All glory be to Heaven!”

During my long drive back home, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. I skipped being with my own wife and family in shul to hear that sermon, and it was not Wolpe’s best work.


Illustration by Kris Hargis




Sidebar: Interview with
Stephen Fried


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