The Rabbi's Return

Arthur Hertzberg, scholar and activist, walks the East Baltimore streets of a bygone era.

February 05, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Judaic scholar, social activist and former president of the American Jewish Congress, walked down the North Collington Street block of his boyhood East Baltimore neighborhood on a recent blustery winter morning and recalled his Hasidic roots.

"There was the house of the saintliest of the Baltimore rabbis of that era, Rabbi Axelrod," he said, standing before a brick rowhouse.

He pointed out the Formstone-covered facade that was the home to a rabbi, who had been chaplain to the predecessor to Sinai Hospital.

And, nearby, he recalled, was the house of Rabbi Forschlager, who for years holed up in a second-floor study lined with holy books, painstakingly scribbling a massive commentary on Jewish scriptures he never finished that amounted to more than 20,000 pages by his death. The rabbi was so consumed with his task that his wife would communicate with him by written notes delivered by Hertzberg's father.

"You couldn't walk down this block without discussing the Talmud," Hertzberg said. "This neighborhood had some iconic people. You could measure yourself by them."

Hertzberg, 81, who now lives in Englewood, N.J., has recently written his memoirs. Titled A Jew in America, he recounts a diverse career: He served a long tenure as a pulpit rabbi; he was an activist as a World Zionist Organization executive, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a president of the American Jewish Congress; he was a scholar who documented the strains of anti-Semitism in western culture; and he was a pioneering participant in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

In the memoir, Hertzberg recounts his formative years in East Baltimore, and the influence of his father, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Herzberg, a Hasidic rabbi so revered that when he died, his synagogue refused to name a successor for a quarter century.

Hertzberg's East Baltimore neighborhood of the 1930s, centered on East Baltimore and Lombard streets between Patterson Park Avenue and the Fallsway, was a vibrant community of East European Jewish immigrants, its streets lined with kosher butchers, bakers, delicatessens and synagogues, and filled with the sound of Yiddish conversation.

"For us, this was a cohesive neighborhood, and it was a community," Hertzberg said on a recent visit to Baltimore, where for the first time in decades, he walked streets of his childhood. "It was an East European, Yiddish-speaking Jewish ghetto."

Today, that neighborhood is vastly different. The Jewish community had largely moved out by the 1950s. Now, only vestiges remain: the delicatessens on Lombard Street and the synagogues around the corner on Lloyd Street.

Parts of the neighborhood have been hit by blight and decay, but the neighborhoods of Washington Hill and Butcher's Hill are seeing revitalization as houses are renovated and businesses, like corner markets and chic restaurants, begin to move in.

Hertzberg stood outside a rowhouse in the 2100 block of E. Baltimore St., one of several homes in the area his family occupied. He admitted to some trepidation at revisiting such old memories.

"This evokes for me, chiefly, poverty," he said.

"I remember walking from this house to the Jewish parochial school, 1709 E. Baltimore St., with a hole in my shoes," he said. "And covering it with matchbox covers because I wasn't going to make my mother cry to tell her that I needed a pair of soles."

But on being invited inside, Hertzberg discovered that what had been cramped, drab quarters during his childhood had been renovated into a gentrified urban sanctuary.

"This house is part of the early immigrant struggle," Hertzberg told the woman who now owns it. "And I'm very moved that you have made something of it."

Hertzberg's family later moved to an apartment on Patterson Park Avenue, across from the park, where he lived through his high school years. He recalled being awakened by his father before dawn so together they could study the Talmud, the commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, before he left for school. The rabbi was tutoring his son in the kind of classical education he would have received had they stayed in Poland and he attended a yeshiva instead of City College.

"He taught me every day, straight through high school and college," Hertzberg said. "During the summer, we studied with our shirts off. We studied the Talmud up there, baking under the roof."

Hertzberg's boyhood friend, attorney Melvin Sykes of Upper Park Heights, recalled the elder rabbi as a gentle soul, but also as a classic scholar who disdained much of what passed for Jewish learning.

"When I visited occasionally, he would play with me," said Sykes. "I was going to Baltimore Hebrew College, and he would say, `What tractate [portion of the Talmud] are you studying now, Melvin?' And whenever he did that, I started to quake, because I knew what was going to happen."

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