When Theodore Lewis, the Dublin-born Orthodox rabbi who served as spiritual leader of Newport’s Touro Synagogue for 36 years, passed away in 2010, obituaries from Colorado to Rhode Island and Ireland noted that among other events in his storied life, he had been a guest on the popular American television game show “To Tell the Truth.”
The episode, sponsored by the cigarette brand Marlboro and hosted by Bud Collyer, aired on CBS on the evening of June 30, 1959. Its celebrity panel, comprised of Jayne Meadows, Don Ameche, Kitty Carlisle and Tom Poston, was tasked with determining which of three guests was in fact “the only Irish-born rabbi in the United States.”
Each of the three men wore a suit and tie, sported a large black yarmulke, and claimed to be Theodore Lewis.
Collyer read Lewis’ signed affidavit aloud: “I, Rabbi Theodore Lewis, was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. I was formerly the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Ireland. I am now the rabbi of the oldest synagogue in the United States, Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island. Our congregation was founded in 1658 and the present building was dedicated in 1763. George Washington visited Touro Synagogue in 1790 and President Eisenhower paid a visit last year.
“Touro Synagogue is designated a National Historic Site by the federal government.
“I originally came to this country to find out why so many Irishmen came to America. This month I became an American citizen.”
After asking the three men questions about the Bible, Israel, Judaism, Irish history and Rhode Island geography, all four panelists correctly identified which of the three was “the real Rabbi Theodore Lewis.” One of the guests had incorrectly cited Deuteronomy, rather than Leviticus, as the third book in the Bible. Another had mistakenly stated that Abba Eben, rather than Golda Meir, was Israel’s foreign minister. All of the erudite Lewis’ answers, however, were accurate.
Meadows explained her vote by noting that the man who turned out to be Lewis not only “knew where Fall River, Massachusetts was,” but also had “the rosy glow to his cheeks that looked like he might have lived in the Irish Sea for a while.” Ameche explained his vote by suggesting that the man who turned out to be Lewis had “the only legitimate Irish accent in the group.”
When Collyer requested that “the real Rabbi Theodore Lewis please stand up,” the tall, thickset Lewis (beside whom the two other guests had seemed especially diminutive) rose, smiling bashfully. After he sat back down, the pair of rabbi imposters flanking him revealed themselves to be Philip Colleck, a New York City antiques dealer and gallery owner, and Sidney Gross, an all-night disc jockey on a New York radio station who was popularly known as “The Voice of the Night” because of the horror and suspense stories he told.
The show’s sponsor, Marlboro, supplied a $150 prize to the three participants, to be split evenly between them, as well as a carton of cigarettes each.
Immensely proud of being Touro Synagogue’s rabbi, and an indefatigable promoter of awareness about its history, Lewis used his television appearance to inform viewers of Touro’s restoration fund, and announced that he would donate his winnings to the synagogue.
“The Touro Synagogue is one of the finest examples of classical Colonial architecture. Currently, we are embarking on a restoration program and we hope to finish the restoration of the synagogue in October,” he explained in his Irish brogue. “Our aim is to have three hundred thousand dollars, and this will be by public donation and subscription.”
Collyer wished the rabbi success in his fundraising efforts, thanked the three men for participating, and reminded them that “On your way out, you’ll find a carton of Marlboro cigarettes for each of you.”
It is not known if Lewis also donated his tobacco prize to Touro Synagogue.
A hearty thank you to long-time Touro Synagogue member Bailey Siletchnik for informing me that this episode is viewable on YouTube.
SHAI AFSAI lives in Providence. An independent scholar, he is currently researching Irish Jewry and the life of Rabbi Theodore Lewis. Anyone with a story to share about the Irish-born rabbi is welcome to email Afsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.