I like to link all our holidays, major and minor, to the seasons of each year and to our life in general. As sure as the months rush by like traffic on Route 95, Hanukkah is coming, and I look forward and backward. We’re still in autumn, with our recent harvest festival, perhaps agricultural or maybe historic, our holy days involving the creation of a purposely flimsy hut to which you can invite mythical figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or your personal ancestors, or your friends who have passed away. It has a memorial purpose as well as offering a chance to study the stars and enjoy the moonlight and feast on the produce of nearby farms or your private garden.
It happens that we often wish to thank somebody when it’s too late. We try anyway. The late William Braude, the longtime rabbi at Providence’s Temple Beth-El, often welcomed me to his Friday evening Sabbath suppers 60 years ago, when I first taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. His wife, Pearl, had designed the curtains at that then-new sanctuary on Orchard Avenue. I had come home after my travels far and wide, and my “bright college years,” a bit crestfallen – even forlorn at first – and was grateful for the Braudes’ hospitality.
My hosts regularly brought to the table an arrangement of three red roses. I think they were symbols of their trio of sons. My hostess’s nickname, derived from her Hebrew name Penina, was simply “Pen.” She once copied a scriptural passage in her personal calligraphy and installed the crafted letters on to the Styrofoam packaging of some supermarket product and used it as a wall hanging. I understood her role in the sacred family: She added imaginative and innovative “fun” to the more solemn tone of the pastoral dwelling. Pen used her own “pen of light.”
In Octobers past, on the occasion of Sukkot, she gathered boughs and branches from the trees of fall, wherever she might find them, to use as a loose roof for the hut: it is important to see the sky, day and night.
It was Rabbi Bill Braude, William G. Braude, who first urged me to visit Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and to start out on a kibbutz, then make my way to Tel Aviv to teach some English lessons to new olim, immigrants, and then to “cover” the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and report my impressions in a series of letters to The Providence Journal. While in Israel, I also wrote a travel journal for the RISD alumni magazine, and later wrote a book review for The Journal on Rabbi Braude’s “Pesikta Rabbati,” a double volume collection and translation of folkloric tales that was published by the Yale University Press.
Bill and Pen met me in Tel Aviv in August and treated me to a most welcome iced coffee at a steaming sidewalk cafe. They introduced me to their son Joel, who was studying in Israel for a semester and who took me on his motorcycle throughout the Holy Land. And they listened with patience and forbearing tactful courtesy to my naive thoughts and questions.
But the best-loved memories I keep of my friendship with Rabbi William Braude is of the short hikes and treks from the Braudes’ home on Arlington Avenue to the “shul,” or “temple” or “synagogue” (designed by Percival Goodman), with its tall, clear glass windows etched with a few words and dancing figures. Although I was quite young, he would ask me for my opinions on such serious matters as the connection between Genesis and the environmental movement on campuses, the value of ritual, the participation of Jewish representatives at the Martin Luther King Jr. speeches and gatherings in the nation’s capital. Or my opinion of his joining the marches with such notables as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He would take me more seriously than I merited or deserved! And he warned me to never take lightly any insult to our faith.
I had been born into an Orthodox family that gradually shifted to the Conservative movement. I was always somewhat suspicious of the timidity of the Reform style of modern American Judaism, with its over-emphasis on justice for others to conceal shyness about demanding justice specifically for Jews, its distaste for old-style practices and fetishes, its excessive regard for fame and fortune, and its condescension toward the Hasidic concern for the “losers” of the bourgeois world of suburban and urban values and drives. And yet, it turned out to be the distinguished Reform Rabbi Braude who taught me the importance of such things as proper amulets and head coverings, memorial customs, and respect for sincere scholarship and Jewish historical research.
At the Bar Mitzvahs of the Braudes’ sons, or the marriage of their eldest, Joel, I was so deeply moved by the rabbi’s gestures and words that I would taste my tears and have to repress my sighs and sobs.
This friend, who had known his own trials and tribulations as a minister in this sometimes controversial land of Roger Williams, had married me and my bride in my own homestead. He had more than earned my respect and affection, he had imprinted himself upon my essential identity, and I compose these words as a belated thank you to him. I thank him for showing me the value of the holiday of huts, with its ancient memories and cheerful glimpses of the beauty of a New England fall. I think him for the elegance of their menorah and teaching me about Hanukkah’s connection not to Yuletide, but to Zion, the fight to bring Judaism to the land of its birth.
Zionism came somewhat late to the Reform movement, but Rabbi Bill embraced it and imbued it with bonds to each and every holiday of our lunar calendar.
And once upon a time, Rabbi Bill Braude dared to wear a kippah, a skullcap, a yarmulke, facing a congregation that had abandoned this item of separatist clothing, to cover his head honorably and in the tradition. He explained that in his native Russia, the Cossacks would use their swords to knock off this identification of the Hebrew faith and practice.
For such a daring challenge, Rabbi Braude earned the contempt of the then-director of Judaic studies at Brown University. But for me, that very gesture sealed my high regard for a clergyman who brought genuine belief and courageous disregard for mere popularity to an audience, to an altar, to the beautiful interior of a sociable, lyrical and lovely structure dedicated to diversity and to protecting differences, instead of being exclusively concerned with assimilation.
After his passing, Bill’s son took the rabbinic degree on his own, yearning finally to take his place in the tradition of serving the community. In time to come, Joel would adopt a daughter from the Philippines – who was actually an Israeli sabra, strange as it may seem: she was born in Israel to a visiting Filipino mother. She happened to have a superb and splendid singing voice, and she performs proudly and beautifully at Temple Emanu-El – my longtime Conservative temple.
Her adopted father Joel has passed, and these days I also welcome his neshama – soul or spirit – to my celebrations of our sacred days under the skies and to this multiple, seasonal salute to the Braudes in my memories, in these words, and in my heart.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.