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A Wonderful Life: Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l (1913-2003)

Eulogies and Words of Tribute
Responsa by David Golinkin

Insight Israel

Volume 3, Number 6

March 2003

 

A eulogy delivered by his son Rabbi David Golinkin

28 Adar I, 5763 – March 2, 2003

In the tractate of Ketubot (104a), there is a famous story about the death of Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah, who died some 1800 years ago:

On the day that Rebbe died, the Sages declared a fast day… His maidservant went up to the roof and said:   “The Angels want Rebbi and the Sages want Rebbe.  May it be God’s will that the Sages overcome the Angels!”

When she saw how [much Rebbe was suffering from his stomach disease…] she said:  “May it be God’s will that the Angels overcome the Sages!..”

Since my father’s surgery last July 17th, I have thought of this story many times.  For many months I prayed that the doctors should win the struggle; later, I prayed that the angels should win the struggle…

But I have not come here today to dwell on my father’s death, but rather on his life.

There is a classic movie by Frank Capra called  “A Wonderful Life”.  My father’s life of 89 years was a wonderful life.  I can think of few people, and few rabbis, who had such a huge impact on so many people and who spent over sixty years doing the wonderful things which they loved to do.

According to the Mishnah in the tractate of Sotah (9:9),  “Meeshemet Yossi ben Yoezer Ish Tzredah v’Yossi ben Yohanan Ish Yerushalayim batlu ha’eshkolot” – “When Yose ben Yoezer of Tzredah and Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem died, the ‘grape clusters’ ceased”.

Who were the “grape clusters”?  In the Talmud, the Amora Samuel explained by wordplay “ish shehakol bo” – “a man who contains everything”.  Prof. Chanoch Albeck explains in his mishnah commentary “anashim tovim sheyesh bahem chochmah u’ma’asim tovim” – “good men who possess wisdom and perform good deeds”.  The English equivalent would be a “Renaissance Man”.

Throughout Jewish history there have been “anshey eshkolot”, and with all subjectivity, I maintain that my father was such a person.  On the one hand, he was full of chochmah – wisdom – about a tremendous variety of subjects and had an unbounded intellectual curiosity about almost everything under the sun.  On the other hand, he was an ish ma’aseh who performed countless mitzvot on a personal and communal level.

In the short time at my disposal, I couldn’t possibly enumerate Abba’s chochmah and ma’asim tovim, but I would like to share with you some of the highlights of his career and the influence they have had upon me. Since I am an academic, I will start with chochmah.

Abba’s formal education was as varied as his interests.  After studying at the renowned Remeiles Yeshiva in Vilna and at a Polish gymnasium, he graduated from Stefan Batori University in Vilna with a degree in Polish Law.  This last degree may not seem unusual to us, but in the anti-semitic atmosphere of Poland in the 1930s, it was no small accomplishment.  Abba told us that he was once chased across the campus by a group of anti-semitic students.  When he found a policeman, the policeman refused to come to his assistance.

After arriving in America in 1938, Abba earned an M.A. in American History from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Finally, from February 1942 until June 1944 he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained after just two-and-a-half years, a feat which, I believe, was never duplicated either before or afterwards.

In reviewing my father’s education, one can begin to see the Renaissance nature of his chochmah.  There are rabbis, and there are Polish lawyers, and there are American historians, but I know of no one else who was all three!

Once we have reviewed my father’s education, I think we can understand his love of languages and etymology.  We have learned in the tractate of Megillah (13b): “Mordechai meeyoshvey lishkat hagazit hayah, v’hayah yode’ah b’shivim lashon” – “Mordechai was one of the members of the Sanhedrin who sat in the Hewn Chamber, who knew seventy languages”.   With slight modifications, this statement could apply to my father:  He was the son of Mordechai and he knew eight languages:  Polish, Russian, German, Latin, Aramaic, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.   Yiddish was, of course, his mame loshen and it should come as no surprise if he spoke a beautiful Yiddish.  Abba, however, also wrote a beautiful Yiddish.  About twenty five years ago I discovered a sixteen page Yiddish pamphlet in the Hebrew University library entitled Der Tzenter fun Yidisher Wissenschaft  by one  Dr. N. Golinkin published in New York in 1939.  It is a description of the activities of YIVO – the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna.  When I wrote to my father, he recalled writing the pamphlet in America shortly after arriving from Europe.  He had a premonition of what was to follow and wrote it as a monument both to Vilna and to Yivo.

The first paragraph reads in translation:

On mountains and valleys lies, spread out, the favorite city of today’s Poland:  Vilna.  It is an incantation for the lovers of nature as for the lovers of culture.  Three cultures intersect here: Polish, Lithuanian, and Jewish.  Each contributed its part here; each tied her hopes to here.  But no one found a more beautiful, pet name, which breathes more love and respect, than the Jewish name:  Yerushalayim d’Lita, the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

As was usually the case with Abba, it was written as prose, but it sounds like poetry.

My father’s Hebrew was perfect and, whenever he came to Israel, people could not believe that he had never lived there.  As for English, my father didn’t know a word of it until he arrived in the United States in 1938.  Yet, within a short time, he had mastered it.  His creative prayers display a mastery of English which many native English speakers, myself included, never achieve.

Here, for example, is a prayer to be recited before Shalom Aleicheim on Friday night:

PEACE

Peace.

A Jew dreams of peace all his life.

He longs for peace every day of the week.

 

On Shabbat he lives peace.

He savors peace.

It is in the air.

It is on the face of spouse and children.

 

Peace radiates and envelops you

from all sides:

from the table, from the wall,

from the ceiling, from the floor.

It reigns in every corner

of the house.

It beckons you from the door.

 

You can almost see it.

You can almost touch it.

 

It looks like an angel

with a beautiful face,

dressed in white;

floating in the air,

hovering over you;

caressing your face

with a touch of its delicate wings.

 

Come in O Angel,

Come in O peace.

Come in and stay.

Do not go away.

 

I long for your presence.

I long for your bliss.

 

 Barchoonee L’shalom

Mal’achay Hashalom.

(Say Something New Each Day, 1973, p. 16)

My father’s second great love was history, both Jewish and general.  If he had ever played “Jeopardy” on TV, he would have won a bundle.  Provided, of course, that you had told him what “Jeopardy” was!  He frequently knew little-known facts of history, which you could hardly find in books even if you knew where to look.  For example, I once told Abba that one of the topics I would teach in a halakhah course that year would be the question of whether women may wear tefillin.  He asked me if I had ever heard of the Maid of Ludomir.  I had not.  She was a woman who became a Chassidic rebbe in the nineteenth century and put on tallis and tefillin every day.  She is not mentioned in any work about tefillin nor in most works on Chassidism, yet my father knew the story off the top of his head.

Lastly and most importantly, in the area of chochmah my father taught me how to ask questions.  As you know, one of the four sons in the haggadah is “she’eino yode’ah lishol at petach lo” – “one who does not know how to ask questions, until you open his mouth”. My father continually opened our mouths in questions from the time we were very young.

He had an unbounded intellectual curiosity.  He always wanted to know “why”.  He looked for connections in halakhah, in history, and in Bible.  I still recall the Shabbat table discussions we had in Arlington and in Knoxville.  By the time we finished eating, the table was piled high with books.  We were usually looking for answers to the questions Abba had raised.  Our Pesach seders lasted until three or four a.m. because of the questions and answers flying back and forth across the table.  Since then I have learned how to search for answers, but it was Abba who taught me how to ask the right questions.

Now I will briefly outline some of my father’s ma’asim tovim, good deeds:

My father was a congregational rabbi for over forty years.  His three main pulpits were in Arlington, Knoxville and Columbia.  He performed well over a thousand bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.  He gave thousands of sermons and taught thousands of classes.  Wherever I go, I run into former students and congregants who remember his smile, his personal touch, and his infectious love of Judaism.

My father was also a prolific author.  He published hundreds of columns, books and pamphlets. Four of his cantatas were published by National Women’s League and were performed throughout the country.  As you know, my father loved children.  This love comes across in his books for children; he knew how to make children laugh.  In 1985, when Chaya was six years old, I gave her Iton Shel Gidon to read.  It‘s a rhymed Hebrew textbook written in the whimsical style of Dr. Seuss.  A few minutes later I heard Chaya giggling.  I asked her why.  She replied:  “this book is so funny”.  Lastly, my father authored dozens of “how to” booklets and creative prayers.  Through all of these publications, Abba taught and enriched the lives of thousands of Jews.

My father was a rodef tzedek, a seeker of justice. His social action manifested itself in three main areas – on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust, on behalf of blacks, and on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

As you know, in recent years many books have been published about American Jewish apathy during the Holocaust.  Yet the record shows that there were three students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 40s who did not remain silent.  Their names:  Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick and Moshe Sachs.  Their accomplishments were described by Dr. Rafael Medoff in a scholarly article in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Fall 1997) and in a popular article in New York’s Jewish Week last June (June 7, 2002).  He wrote:

Shaken by reports of Nazi atrocities against European Jewry in 1941-1942, three rabbinical students at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary established a student action committee to publicize the news from Europe and prod Jewish leaders to adopt a more activist approach.  In December 1942, they recruited rabbinical students from Reform and Orthodox seminaries to take part in a delegation that met with Dr. Stephen Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of that era.

They arrived at Wise’s office brimming with enthusiasm, anxious to share their ideas for confronting the European crisis.  But the meeting turned out to be “a fiasco”, according to one of the participants, JTS student Noah Golinkin.  Wise rejected their proposal to call for increased Jewish immigration to the United States, fearing such calls would provoke anti-Semitism, and he showed no interest in their offer to publicize European Jewry’s plight on college campuses. The students left Wise’s office deeply disappointed, yet determined to take action, with or without the Jewish leadership’s approval.

In early 1943, the JTS students, together with their Reform and Orthodox colleagues, organized an extraordinary Jewish-Christian interseminary conference to raise public consciousness about the Holocaust.  Hundreds of students and faculty attended, with sessions alternating between the Jewish Theological Seminary and its Protestant counterpart, the nearby Union Theological Seminary.

In the weeks following the conference, the JTS activists undertook a campaign of calls and letters to students, Jewish leaders and the media.  In addition, the [three] leaders of the JTS group… co-authored a powerful essay in the magazine The Reconstructionist [in February 1943] decrying what they regarded as the apathy of the mainstream Jewish leadership.

“What have the rabbis and leaders… done to arouse themselves and their communities to the demands of the hour?” the article asked.  “What have they undertaken to awaken the conscience of the American people?”

These efforts soon bore fruit.  Prodded by the JTS students, the Synagogue Council of America – the umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues – established a Committee for Emergency Intercession to publicize the European catastrophe. At the students’ suggestion, the committee announced a seven-week publicity campaign to coincide with the traditional period of semi-mourning between Passover and Shavout. Synagogues throughout the country adopted the committee’s proposals to recite special prayers for European Jewry; limit their “occasions of amusement”; observe partial fast days and moments of silence; write letters to political officials and Christian religious leaders; and hold memorial rallies in which congregants wore black armbands designed by Golinkin.

The memorial rallies, which took place on May 2, 1943, were, in many instances, led jointly by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in an uncommon display of unity.  Equally significant, the Federal Council of Churches… agreed to organize memorial assemblies at churches in numerous cities on the same day, some of which featured speeches both by rabbis and Christian clergymen, as well as by prominent political figures.  Many of these gatherings received significant coverage in the newspapers and on radio.

This important Jewish-Christian alliance helped raise American public consciousness about the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, and increased the interest of Congress and the media in the possibility of rescuing Jews from Hitler – which, in turn, increased the pressure on the White House to intervene…

My father’s efforts during the Holocaust were not an isolated incident.

In the 1950s and 60s he wrote and preached continually on behalf of civil rights.  As a leader of the Ministerial Association of Arlington and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, he fought for the integration of the Arlington School system and for fair housing in Arlington and Washington.

In the late sixties and seventies, he organized numerous demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry.  He organized a citywide youth assembly in Washington.  He convinced a group of teenagers in Washington to undertake a “Fast for Freedom” which became the Vigil in front of the Soviet Embassy, which lasted for many years.  And he organized a march through the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee, with the mostly non-Jewish cast of Fiddler on the Roof.

Thus, for over forty years, my father consistently observed the mitzvah of “lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” – “do not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Lev. 19:16).

The fourth area of Abba’s ma’asim tovim I would like to mention is his Zionism.  To chronicle Abba’s love for Israel and efforts on her behalf would take hours, so I will just mention two characteristic stories, which would sound apocryphal – if they were not true.

When my parents became engaged in 1951 my father did not buy my mother an engagement ring.  Instead they decided to donate the money to UJA.  It was as if they were both engaged to the State of Israel.  It wasn’t until 10 years later that my mother got her engagement ring.

On May 1, 1951 the first Israel bond went on sale.  My father learned about this in advance and arranged to purchase bond number #WA000001 as a gift for my cousin Meyer Goldstein in honor of his first birthday.

Abba wrote him a letter in Yiddish, which reads in part as follows:

Tomorrow you will receive in the mail a bond from our long-dreamt-of State of Israel.  Today is the first day when bonds of the Jewish State will go on sale throughout the world and you will be one of the first to receive a holy bond from the Holy Land, which will connect your young life with the great, fulfilled dream of tens of Jewish generations.  You were born in a great time and as you grow up, let the bond be for you one of the symbols of your connection [to Israel] and of your growth.

If you want to know why I live in Israel, you need look no further than those two episodes.

Finally, I would like to mention my father’s Hebrew literacy program.  In 1963, my father decided that he wanted to teach every adult in his congregation in Arlington to read prayerbook Hebrew.  He came up with two amazingly simple ideas:  a) those who know how to read must teach; those who don’t know must learn; b) run 15 parallel classes every week for 12 weeks so that no one has an excuse to skip a class.  The result was that he taught the entire congregation how to read Hebrew, and the synagogue won the Solomon Schechter Award.

In the 1970s, my father decided to expand his method across the U.S.  He convinced the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs to adopt the program and he wrote the textbook Sholom Aleichem, which has sold over 100,000 copies.  In 1981, he wrote the sequel Ein Keloheinu, which teaches the Shabbat Morning service, and which has been translated into Russian and Hungarian.  In 1986, at the suggestion of Danny Siegel, he wrote While Standing on One Foot, which, via the Hebrew Reading  Marathons, teaches adults how to read  Hebrew in one day.  This book has been used by some 700 synagogues in 45 States, Canada and Australia.

The amazing thing about the Hebrew Reading Marathons is that my father ran the entire program out of his house, with the assistance of my brother and mother.  My parents taught over 150 eight-hour marathons at an age when most people retire.  My father charged next to nothing for teaching the Marathon, in order to ensure that everyone could afford it.  Abba had a dream – to teach every Jewish adult in North America to read Hebrew.  I have no doubt that had he lived to the proverbial 120 he would have fulfilled that dream.  Indeed, on July 16th, the day before his surgery, he was in the middle of revising his new book Mah Nishtanah, based on the Passover haggadah.

I will conclude with one very characteristic episode.  About two years ago, Abba reached an agreement with a wealthy friend that in seven years – when my father would be 93 years old – the friend would supply a large sum of money for the Institute for Hebrew Literacy.  My father told me this with great excitement; he was sure he would continue to teach Hebrew ad me’ah v’esrim, until 120, but alas, God had other plans and my father died in the middle of his life’s work.  But I have no doubt that he is now b’yeshivah shel ma’alah, in the Heavenly Academy, teaching Hebrew to thousands of Jews who never had the privilege of studying with him in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch!   May his memory be for a blessing!

Tax-deductible donations to continue Rabbi Noah Golinkin’s life’s work may be made to:

The Institute For Hebrew Literacy

5639 Thunder Hill Road

Columbia, Md. 21045


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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