Friday, November 16, 2007

Rebellious Roots

Alex Haley had it right – where we come from informs who we are.  Nowhere is that root influence more evident or direct than from our parents.  I was most fortunate in that regard.  Ours was a home of nurturing, love, intellectual stimulation and, above all else, mutual respect.  We also always understood that we were different, in large measure because the father who was such a constant and immediate presence in our lives had a public persona.  At home and outside, he was a larger than life presence always dominating the room whether the nook where we breakfasted or the two thousand seat synagogue in which he preached.  No one had a greater influence in my life.  Sometime in the 1970s he began to commit his life’s story to paper. “This story”, he wrote in his introduction, “ is neither terribly exciting nor terribly boring. It will contain a great many matters which deal with my very personal and intimate life, but also with the fact that I have lived through periods of great historic importance, and at times I was permitted to play some role in them.”  He began writing his memoir late in life, a process cut short by the diminished strength of his last years.  Consequently, it only carried his story to the mid-point.  After my mother’s death, I converted the manuscript into electronic form but with scant hope that it would reach its deserved audience.   Memoirs like this are often consigned to that dustbin known as the family attic.  That could have happened here were it not for the efforts of our friend Clifford Kulwin who now occupies his former pulpit.  The result of his forwarding it to the eminent scholar Michael A. Meyer is the just published Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi, deftly edited and greatly enhanced by the historian’s insightful introduction.

Having someone tinker with your father’s words can be tricky, but from the start we were confident that Professor Meyer was absolutely the right person to undertake this project.  Like my siblings and I, he is the son of Jewish parents who escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany.  We gave him a free hand and he more than lived up to that trust.  Michael Meyer read my father’s story and, from the start, he got it.  Nothing is more symbolic of that than his choice of the title he shared with me before passing it on to the publisher.  “Rebellious”, that says it all and, in so many profound ways, it is the legacy that I cherish most.   Joachim Prinz, from his early rejection of his father’s prosaic disengaged lifestyle through the last days of his life was an unabashed rebel.  In different ways at different times he found himself entering doors of comfortable opportunity but chose always to go against the grain, to provoke rather than to sooth.  He repeatedly paid the price for being the infant terrible.  He held a series of prestigious positions – rabbi of the stodgy Berlin Jewish Community and of a large American Congregation, President of the American Jewish Congress and leader of other organizations – but he never was totally comfortable in those establishment roles.  In fact, being such an anti-organization man with no sense or stomach for the necessary political machinations, it’s remarkable that he got so far.  That he did, can be attributed only to his enormous talent and charismatic force. 

He could do just what most others could not, or at the very least do it better.  With no text before him, he could frame words, first in German and then in English, which would capture and transcend the moment.  His oratorical style moved the listener and countless numbers were drawn in just to hear the cadence of his powerful voice.  He was not in the pantheon of great scholars, but could communicate great ideas in language that even the untutored could easily understand while never courting what he often described as the “lowest common denominator”.  He respected those to whom he was most close, but equally his audience whose intelligence he consistently refused to insult.  He was, like one of his many compatriots in the struggle Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of peace.  He never picked up arms and was a proponent of “Peace Now” in Israel/Palestine long before it became fashionable.  But, like King, he was an obsessed protester who fiercely raised his voice, often risking life and limb to say what he thought was right, regardless of the circumstances.  He was by nature always suspicious of authority and never intimidated by wealth, power or position.

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi’s pages reflect a memoir freely verbalized rather than prose carefully crafted, which is what it is.  While no doubt putting his editing pen through the draft, for the most part he dictated it to his longtime secretary Elsie Nathan.  It is nonetheless a compelling record of a moment now gone, of a history that should not be forgotten.  The times to which he referred in his introduction began in the relative calm of Germany at the turn of his Century but emerged into the nightmare of National Socialism.  It was the moment when a Jewish community (including our family) that could trace its roots back centuries found itself an outsider in its own land.  It was the period of the Second World War, when a generation of European immigrants had to find their way and carve out a productive place in a new country with a new language.  That required a rebooting and overcoming of great obstacles.  It was the time when, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world somewhat reluctantly, granted the survivors a new chance in their own homeland.  In all of this, he was at the center as he would be in the years that followed, most proudly when he stood with King and addressed the nation at the 1963 March on Washington or painfully when he opposed our intervention in Viet Nam.

What would this rebel think of our world?  He would, I’m convinced, be largely appalled.  The idea that his beloved United States could be in its present tarnished state would have devastated him.  Who would have thought that the home of the brave and the free, the bright beacon on the hill, could be debating torture, much less engaging in it?  Perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised at the sharp right turn taken by the American Jewish establishment including the then progressive organizations he once led, but he wouldn’t like it one bit.  Surely he would have expected peace among Arabs and Jews in a shared land, flowing with milk and honey not littered with the casualties of war and hate.  He would not be happy, but neither would he allow himself even a brief moment of self pity and defeat.  He would be on the stump, the in your face rebel reflected in the pages of his memoir.  I hope you’ll read it because his kind doesn’t come around too often, certainly not where we find ourselves today. 

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi may be found at your bookseller or on line at Amazon and other places.  For additional information of his life and other writings check his website.

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