Life Story of Harry Sky
Harry was a highly regarded Rabbi at a Portland synagogue for nearly 30 years. He retired recently and his retirement ceremonies were widely covered in the local media. Harry is still very active, in good health, and is 66 years old. He has three children and he and his wife live in a residential section of Portland. Although retired from rabbinical duties, Harry is currently active on various boards of directors and pursues literary, counseling and spiritual interests.
Well, I entered the seminary in ’46 and I had my first pulpit in ’48 and I’ve been here since ’61. My first formal pulpit after ordination was in Gloucester, MA. And I wandered around a little bit and I finally ended up here. It’s been an interesting career it really has.
I think I planned on doing it ever since I was a kid. I think it took a different turn from what I had originally planned it to be. On one hand the tradition meant quite a bit to me but on the other hand, I was always asking questions. On the one hand, established norms were the things I followed, but on the other hand I raised questions. And that’s the way it went.
Well, I was one of the first to feel that something has to be done as far as equality as far as women are concerned, both in terms of the tradition and the ritual and ultimately in their becoming Rabbis. And I fought some pretty strong fights over that one.
I was on the law committee of our Rabbinical organization. I raised questions there I wrote some papers. But I think the most important thing for me was not so much those questions but once I came to Portland, I’d seen possibility of having some kind of effect on the general environment. I became involved in causes quite early.
Well, first it started with Human Rights, then the civil rights, then with the Maine Human Services Council, with discrimination in housing, making sure that something was done to winterize homes, setting up all kinds of funds one was for food, another was for heating. Those were the things I got involved with. I’ve always been an activist.
Well, I think it was from my understanding of what life was about. My father had his own way. I remember when we were kids during the depression. He was a Shochet at that time, which is a ritual slaughterer, you know, to provide meat for the Kosher, those who want to observe the dietary laws. The fowl and the cattle have to be slaughtered a certain way. So, he was a Shochet. He was also a Rabbi, and I remember that he and the Kosher butcher on our block every single Friday just before Shabat would go up and down the main avenue collecting money from every store keeper .25 a week, I think that’s what it was at the time and then those funds were used to help neighbors who were about to be dispossessed, or their lights were being turned off, or the gas being turned off.
And my brother and me it was our task to my father would prepare an envelope and my brother and I would have to go sneak it in under somebody’s door because they shouldn’t be embarrassed when we brought them that money. And only once did somebody open the door and that was very embarrassing. I was embarrassed, you know my father told me don’t let them see where it’s coming from. When they opened the door they were astounded and I was astounded and that was it and then they would deposit whatever was left over that week with the butcher so the people could get free meat and for the local grocers they could get free groceries. That to me was norm.
And I remember this was during the depression we lived in an apartment house and there was a big yard in back of the house and every so often you’d hear musicians who were unemployed the most wonderful musicians you’ve ever heard in your life violinist, clarinetist, trombonists all sorts of musicians playing, hoping somebody would throw them something. My mother always had change which she saved for that. Well, you see, there was a different atmosphere then. We were in a depression and there was no one who really wasn’t hit by it. If you had a little bit, you shared it with somebody. There was no such thing as the welfare system.
The welfare system came later. In those days it was neighbor taking care of neighbor. And that’s always been my policy. Neighbor has to take care of neighbor. And that’s how I came around to all these causes through this notion.
I was the first one to raise questions about the women being segregated. Not any more used to be. And much deeper questions. Women should be part of the service, they should be taking part in the Liturgy, they should be allowed to conduct, they should be counted as part of the minyan, they should be the Torah readers, they should be the Rabbi, they should be the Cantors, those are the questions.
When I came to Portland my congregation was already in existence. They hadn’t gone far enough as far as I was concerned, so I pushed for it. There was a board. I had to answer to the board. But I managed to have the board meetings adopt my point of view. We became pioneers. The Orthodox didn’t like it. They didn’t like it at all, but we didn’t care. This was our understanding of what Jewish life should be about. There were constant issues being raised. Some I stuck to the traditions, some I didn’t.
You know, one of the interesting things that’s happened to me in my retirement I notice myself asking myself some questions. You know, you’re retired, you take off your public mask, your public garments and all of that kind of stuff and that’s when you start looking at yourself. So I’m wondering, how much of what I did was really what was asked of me; how much of what I did was what I wanted to do. And I went through a period of about 3 or 4 months where I had absolutely nothing to do with my past or with my congregation or Jewish life or anything like that. But you know, I had a breakthrough and I began to see which is mine and which is in response to others and I’m therefore finding that which is mine very enriching. I’ve looked at parts of myself over the years but this is a new part.
I’ve been a self investigator for a long time. Well, it went even deeper. I was in Zurich last summer and one of the people I worked with on a one to one basis was Dr. Stroeble who is a Jungian analyst about 2 years older than I am and went through the horrors of the holocaust. He’s a German, not Jewish, but a German Christian and we shared a lot of time together and one of the things that he helped me realize that just like everybody else I’ve got to confront the evil in me. Now we’re in the shadows. Well, I don’t know if its the shadows, but the evil, okay? It’s a series of dreams that I had that I brought back. And so we worked on it and talked about it quite a bit and its really opened up some new doors to me because I think this is also what led me to start asking about, you know, what kind of masks I’ve been wearing. And it’s been an eye opener.
I definitely feel that I’m starting a whole new section of my life. There’s no doubt about it. I’m not sure what I foresee happening in that next section. I started off by doing some counseling I even had a space on Pleasant Street but then after a while I felt that’s not what I wanted. Sure, I don’t mind counseling but I don’t want this business space, cards, office space, all that goes with it. That’s not for me. Nor did I want to get myself involved with sending out flyers to the whole world trying to promote business for myself. I said to myself, whatever comes, comes that’s it. Some people will come to me, some people won’t come to me and I’ve a few bucks.
I’m doing some teaching, I mean filling in on a very small congregation in Rockland. Things like that. Like this coming Sunday night I’m going to Augusta and I’m going to be speaking on Numerology from a Jewish point of view. The following week I’m speaking at the Moss Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia. I’ll be speaking on two things How do you deal with burn out. Secondly, they have a kind of institutional ethics committee that has to deal with issues that always come up and they want me to address myself to some of the issues that they’ve been thinking about. What with the limited resources whom do you help and don’t you help. At what point do you say no and what point…And they have it’s a rich community. Some people feel they don’t want to play bad at all. They don’t want to be the ones to say, you know, when do we stop, but it can’t be helped.
The Moss Center asked me to speak because I was written up in the New York Times, January 15 of ’89. It was a two column piece on my counselling. They’d gotten wind that I had been counselling clergy. And they wrote about it. And then of course, it spread around the country and the vice president of Moss asked if I would like to come up and talk on those two issues. So I said sure.
When I do my counseling it’s a combination it’s all these things. I’ve had people who’ve come to me for numerology readings. I’m very much interested in bringing people to a sense of self who is your self who are you. And I work through the dreams. I work through face to face conversations and images. Through their experience. I try not to impose myself on them. And I think I’m very intuitive. And I usually hear what’s happening. And it’s that that I tap into. I’ve had some very good results.
I think every human first of all I accept the old mystical tradition that within each human there is a spark, a divine spark. If you read the Bible story, it says that. God blew his breath into the human. And I think that has continued through the ages. And that spark is the soul. And that spark is almost like the telling point as to what you want to be or you should be. There are no two sparks alike.
I’ve done readings, for instance, that turn out to be that the most destructive or challenging part of that person’s life, lets say, is the 15/6 you know, with the Tarot cards. 15/6 is the devil sitting on his throne and the male and the female in front of him and they have this ring around their necks and he’s holding on to the strings. It’s obvious if they wanted to they could take it off. But they don’t. Just standing. They’re captured by him.
Well, something like that comes up, it’s obvious what this person has had to deal with all his life. That is being caught up in things from this life and the previous life the soul has gone through many many, you know, transfigurations and part of the journey in this life is to get rid of that. It’s reincarnation. All sorts of things come up. In the Zohar, which is really the text book of the Jewish mystical tradition, it actually says that each human being goes through six millennium of incarnations. In Hebrew school you have a much more rational approach. It’s not a mystical approach.
I run into a lot of other rabbis that are into the mystical stuff. Oh yeah, sure. Quite a few, but they’re considered off beat. Just like me. I knew this even as a child. I’ll tell you a story. Okay? Remember, this was my first convention that I attended after my ordination. And I was sitting at a table with a very famous Rabbi, he’s now deceased, by the name of Jacob Agus, and suddenly I found myself talking about all kinds of mystical things and I couldn’t stop and he said to me, “Where did you get all of this” and I said I don’t know, I just did.
Many times I will come up with an idea and it’s in my journal and later on I’ll read it in a book. I never read that book before. I think I’m remembering and I’m intuitive. Could be part of the collective. You know, Jung always said “We own, but what one has, everyone has.” And each one of us, once you’re willing to listen to the spark of the Self, it’s amazing the amount of information that you have. It’s all there.
I’m not sure, I’m really not sure what I would have become if not a Rabbi. I know it would have been very similar to what I did do. And it was this business of having people come to their essence, I think, is something that has been with me for a long time. When I think back to the earliest preaching I ever did when I was still a student, people I remember once, this was after I was ordained, my first summer, I served as a as a replacement for a rather well known Rabbi in New Jersey who is since deceased and the congregation wasn’t an Orthodox congregation, conservative reform. And one day my father got a letter from them. Amazed expressing their amazement at what I saw in the text that nobody else had ever seen. I still have a copy of that letter. He was showing it to everybody. He gave it to me. He was proud of me. I’ve always had that sense.
My earliest memory is when I was it must have been no more than maybe a year and a half, two years old. Me sitting playing with a balloon and tearing away a book and saying all sorts of things and my father listening what am I saying here? Now, trying to stop me from saying it. Because he felt I was dealing with things that were way beyond me. I think it had to do with, you know, with I don’t know, I’m not sure. It could have been of an incantation, incantational level, it could have been a sense of seeing something from the beyond. I’m not sure. But I have that feeling that’s what it was.
My birthday was April 17, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. We moved around the first couple of years, and I don’t even remember the places that we lived the first couple of years. I just have vague flashes. And I do remember when we moved to 17th Street and by then I must’ve been about three, four years old. My father was never very affluent, you know, he made a living. My mother didn’t work until later on in life when she had to because my father wasn’t working. And at first there was only my brother and myself. My brother was two years younger than me he passed away last year. Then about seven years later, my youngest brother came. I’m nine years older than he. That’s all we had in the family, just the three of us. And no sisters. My mother had a few relatives in town but we seldom saw them. My father had a sister and her family. He was very much involved with them.
I went to school in Newark. Public schools through the sixth grade. And I wasn’t a very well adjusted kid. I wasn’t very athletic. I somehow felt that the school wasn’t saying what I wanted to hear. Just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t get along with the kids. I was never very sociable. I hung around my mother a lot. And, unlike my brother who was very very sociable. My brother was quite ill when we were very young. We almost lost him. And that made a profound affect on me. It had a profound affect on the family. My mother was constantly worried about him. And many times I felt that there was more attention being paid to him than anybody else.
When I was about 12 years old my father sort of convinced me that maybe I’d be better off if I went to a Yeshiva in New York. And I used to commute every week stay there for a week. For a while I lived in a dormitory, for a while I lived with an aunt, for a while I lived in a private home. It was a very trying, troubled time for me. I really needed the home and my good family. And not being one to make friends so sometimes to get a friend you did crazy things. So, I stayed in that school for a few years. And then I went on to another school, and then a third school. And I don’t really think I really found myself until I went to the seminary. Because when I came to the seminary, that’s when I decided it’s time to really look at myself.
I was 22 when I went into analysis. I went to a four year analysis with a Freudian. Classic analysis, she was a very fine woman. Everything was on the couch. I went 3 times a week, 40 weeks a year. It was 160 weeks that means almost 500 sessions. In those days you didn’t have to pay so much it was $10 a session. So it cost me $5,000. Today, that would have cost me $50,000 a hundred times as much. And I felt it helped. Well, it gave me a sense of self at least the beginning of a sense of self. I found as I went in more and more into the analysis that I let go of more and more things. That I was becoming more and more successful at what I was doing. And finally I was ordained and I got my first pulpit. For a while it took a little time before I found myself. And then I came to Portland. That’s when I started really sliding.
My first congregation was in Gloucester. I remember the first summer the town decided that one way to attract more and more tourists Gloucester was always a tourist spot was if there could be a community wide art celebration. So I liked the idea and I suggested that the Temple basement should be used as one of the galleries. And I managed to go to Boston and I approached a couple galleries and got some very interesting art with Jewish subjects and we showed them. And then of course I was written up in the paper because of what I did and that the art that I brought was of the highest caliber in the town, etc., etc.
Well, it made me feel that through art I could somehow deal with these images that are going on inside of me all the time just as stories and literature. And it hooked me. While I was at Seminary there was a period of time, I’d say three of the five years I was there, that I would spend twice a week at the Met Metropolitan Museum of Art. I never cared much for the modern museum or the Whitney or the Guggenheim any of those places. But the Met. When I go to New York now, I go to the Met. It’s as if I was coming home. I especially like the Impressionists and post Impressionists. There’s a mystery about it that captures me. And I manage to see all sorts of things. And I never was caught up in the abstract but, you know, impressionist, post impressionists~ the period that’s almost into the abstract.
See that painting over there in the corner that’s the first piece I ever owned. Bought it in Gloucester. Impressionist Cubist style. Done by an artist by the name of William Myerowitz. Big, big faces. I paid $150 for that painting. I bought it in 1951. And I’ve been told that I could get today on the auction block anywhere between $12,000 and $15,000 for it. There was something about it that caught me and it wasn’t so much the Jewish theme either, because you know there’s so many other things in here. Like these windows the fiery colors as if there were sparks coming out from this ark do you see it? The fire coming out of it. I mean, that’s what caught me. There was something about it. You see, and over here this there is a cage likeness a synagogue in Cracow. And there’s just a general mood about this thing that caught me and I can still feel it. I call this corner my sacred corner. And every so often I feel it. There’s something special about this corner. I have a few more things around. I have some things downstairs, upstairs.
This period of time was right after World War II. Don’t forget, those were my adolescent years. And I was involved in protest meetings, I was involved in I remember towards the end of the war there was a rumor around that the Germans were ready to trade Jews for trucks. For a truck you’d get “x” number of Jews. There were some people who picked that up and there was a real effort to raise a fantastic sum of money to buy as many trucks so we could possibly get as many Jews out.
And there was a mass, mass rally staged at Madison Square Garden, and Moss Hart together with Ben Hecht staged this fantastic presentation I forget what it was called but I was there. I was an actor in the production. I mean, you know, I didn’t do much just stood there. But they recruited kids from the school in which I was studying. It was just an act I was an actor in the show.
And I did some acting in the seminary. In fact, I had a contract for the Hebrew broadcast on the Voice of America beamed to Israel. Just during my seminary years. They thought my voice was good quality. But the most important thing was the semi professional Theater I was in. And then I’ve been through other things. Once I remember in the summer camp we did some creative dramatics and I was asked if I would go on a dramatic tour to raise funds, and all kinds of things like that. Those years touched every one of us. It was wrenching absolutely wrenching. Especially when you were reading every single day something else was going on. We knew terrible things were happening but who knew the full dimensions of it. How could you? But we knew.
My first experience with someone who managed to get away was about 1938. I was 14 years old. One Friday night, a man appeared in our Synagogue in our Shul. He had come from Vienna and he had lived in that section of Vienna which was the most heavily populated Jewish section, 15 16 Bezuk. I remember that scene back in my mind’s eye right now walking home from Shul with him and his telling me how he had to give up everything to get out.
At the time I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But later on when I read, you know, what was done to strip the Viennese, the Austrian Jews, of their possessions, I mean, Eichmann was there. You’d come in, first thing, you’d come to a table, you show them your pass. They took it away from you. Then you had to give them an inventory of everything you had. If you lied, if they caught you lying, you were shot. Then you had to turn in whatever radios you had, whatever jewelry you had, whatever could be, you know, carted by hand. By the time you were at the end of the table, you had nothing. All you had was the shirt on your back and your passport and out. Take maybe ten shilling.
So when he came to this country, I mean, the Jewish community was organized. No one was left hungry. They were taken care of. We found jobs for them. We found for them an education. All like now. I mean, the Soviet Union has opened up its gates. Letting the Jews out. I’ve just helped my wife compose a letter which is being sent to the Council of Jewish Women. Every Jewish community in the United States is being asked to take in some of the Soviet Jews. The Council has always provided scholarships for kids who want to be educated. So now, they’re asking the Council members to pitch in and to start a separate fund for the education of the Russians. But letting them come here sure they’ve had skills in Russia, but they’re not recognized. A woman comes over, she wants to be a beautician, she has to go to school again. Cosmotology school. Want to be a plumber? You have to go to school again to have a license. Physician. Whatever the case may be. So this scholarship money is needed.
I’m active too. I do other things. I, right now, am serving on two state boards. I’m on the State Parole Board and I’m on the new board that was created for licensing of counselors. That’s what I’m on right now. Besides, you know, the little things I’m doing.
I’ve been busy socially my whole life. My personal needs I missed my teen years. I had great difficulty finding who I really was. My identity as a human being, as a Jew, as a male, American. I think I missed those things that I’d really liked to have studied. Yeah, I’m interested in psycho history. I’m into it. I would’ve liked to have gotten into mythology. And other things like that. I was never much of a mathematician or a scientist. Those things didn’t interest me. But the world of the myth that made a profound impression on me. Sure, I mean, just give me a fairy tale and I sit and read it and I feel I’m there. I can transfer myself to the exact spot. I can interpret too. I mean, when someone comes to me with dreams, it’s like dealing with a fairy tale. So, that’s, you know, sure I’ve missed some things, but that doesn’t mean that as long as I still have a breath in me I might yet do it.
Oh yeah, I had a lot of fun in this life. Tremendous fun. I come out with one liners and two liners. Sometimes you wonder where I got it from. I was never one active in sports. I wasn’t co ordinated. So, you know, playing ball and things like that, was not really me. But, you know, other games, not only head games but also feeling games catch me.
When I was younger I played very little, very little. I felt isolated from kids. I just didn’t feel I was one of them. I had a few close friends. For a while there was the kid next door. Tony. Maybe one or two others.
When I went to Yeshiva, life became obsessed. No relationships. I went there when I was twelve and I went into analysis when I was 22, so it was 10 years. There were things I liked about them. I didn’t like being away from home. I didn’t have a chance to talk to anybody about the things that were troubling me. I was embarrassed by the things that were troubling me. I never wanted to share them. It was the classic case of a teenager. It was neither here nor there.
Actually, part of it was being in New York. New York’s a strange place. Unless you’re raised in a neighborhood, you don’t feel part of it. New York’s a big place, it’s a big place. It stretched and stretched and stretched there was never an end to the street. And if you went from one street to the next, the people on the next street didn’t notice the people on the first street.
The first Yeshiva I went to was on the East side. The second one I went to was in Williamsburg. The other one I went to was up in Manhattan. And the Seminary was in Manhattan on Broadway and 122nd Street. Right near Columbia and Julliard that was a wonderful one. Different way of looking at life. It wasn’t restrictive we were allowed to be open and free and evolve the way we wanted to evolve.
In 1946 I had a fantastic experience. I had entered the seminary as an auditor in January of ’46. I had gotten through Yeshiva in ’45 and I took some time off, you know, preparing for seminary. In June of ’46, one day, I walked down Broadway the seminary was 122nd down to 100 St. to a Kosher restaurant for dinner. Sat down at a table and there were two young people. Young, yet they looked old. There was something weird about it. Sitting opposite. And I don’t know why, to this day, I can’t tell you why, I automatically struck up a conversation with them in Yiddish.
At the Yeshiva, I spoke in Yiddish only when we were studying. Not conversational. Okay? As it turns out, these two people were a brother and sister. They had arrived in the United States just that day. At the end of the war, President Truman went beyond the quotas and allowed 1,000 displaced persons to come from Europe to the United States. They were a part of that thousand. They were housed in two hotels in New York. One was the hotel Marsailles, which was just three blocks away from that restaurant. That’s why they were eating there.
This kid is sitting there and he takes out his wallet and he takes out a bunch of pictures. Photographs that he took. They had piles and piles and piles and piles of corpses in the trains. The unburied mounds of people. This thing, that thing I don’t remember all the details but it left such a horrible impression. And I took these kids to, you know, to me. I went back to the hotel with them and I had never seen such turmoil in my life.
There were some social workers working with them, but these people were so agitated running back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth not just these two people, but everybody else that was there. There were others too. And finally, one of them gave me a list of names of people who were still looking through camps, looking for relatives in the United States. Well, I called these names into a Yiddish newspaper. We brought some of the D. P.’s over to the seminary. We took them to a Russian movie. Boy, if anything opened my eyes to what those horrible years were about. They started telling me these stories.
One kid, 16 years old, looked like a dwarf. Why? During the whole time, he was hidden in the cellar. Never saw sunshine. From 1939 to ’45. From the age of 10 to 16. He was lucky to survive. I met a woman and her daughter. They looked pretty. Blonde and as Nordic as anybody could possibly be. The two of them had passed in Poland for non Jews. That’s how they survived. I mean stories, and stories, and stories and stories, you know, during this Holocaust. And now, I think there are memories. What can I say? These are very personal to me.
I feel like I contributed to things like that not happening again. I think becoming involved with civil rights. There’s no such thing as saying that this one has a right to live and that one doesn’t. I don’t buy that. Just like I feel on this counseling board that I’m on. I feel everybody should have an opportunity to practice. No matter whether he comes from the main line or otherwise.
So I introduced a resolution just the other day for registration. I agree with either credentials of an associate degree or credentials of a supervised counseling. And three letters of reference from somebody who knows you, your client work. I mean, this is the minimal stuff. Of course, some people didn’t like it, they felt if was too restrictive. They’ll work it out. You have to have look, if it’s going to be state governed, there has to be some kind of state standards. So you look for the minimal standards. That’s how most as many people can get into the door as possible. That’s how I look at it. I don’t care, I don’t care if those guys are waving their degrees around with the doctorates and all the rest of it.
I think in a way that that’s what kept me from getting my doctorate. Many times I’d go sit in a class, I’d go to many courses. And I’d sit and I’d listen and I’d say, “I know this what am I learning here?” Ideas that come from my head, I find them later on in books. So, I think that’s what kept me.
During Yeshiva years I was allowed to socialize with females, maybe towards the end. At about 17 I fell in love with somebody. She wouldn’t have me. She was a beautiful girl. I belonged to a youth group. She was part of it. I wanted so to be invited to her home. She never did.
The second time I fell in love. Well, there’s not much really to say. The real attraction was my wife. I met her in 1949 I must’ve been about 25. I had gone to a Zionist young adult camp in New Hampshire, Tel Noar. And many of us seminary students went there we were all doing different things in that camp as if we’d all been hired en masse and I was supposed to do some teaching some discussions and a few other things but they didn’t give me any assignment and after a week I was bored.
I didn’t find anybody to care for so I told my friend that I’m going home. He says “Don’t go.” There’s a woman coming today, Ruth Levinson. She’s for you. Okay. This friend had never let me down. If there was anything to a real bosom friend well, he was about the closest that I ever had. So I started walking back to my bunk. And there, unannounced, sitting near my bunk was this woman. I didn’t know her name although she knew mine. And I sat down, struck up a conversation with her before I knew it, I had asked her out that night and she accepted.
We really hit it off. I said, “Will you go out with me tomorrow night?” She said, “No, I’m busy.” “How about Tuesday?” “I can’t” I was so struck with her that I proposed to her. Two days after I met her I proposed. A month later she accepted. She said, “I’ve got to think about it”. We just hit it off. Somehow or another, you know, whatever could’ve been different about her I liked whatever was different about me she liked. That’s what did it. A friend of hers told me a couple months later how my wife described me to her. “I met this cute redhead. There’s something about him that’s different from anybody I’ve ever met.” And she was talking and talking and talking. And this friend said “I knew that was it.” And we’ve been married now it’ll be 40 years this December.
I have three children a daughter and two sons. Two grandchildren. We were married in December of ’50, my daughter was born in August of ’52. For the first 6 months we lived in we rented part of one of these New York town houses. Eighty fifth Street near Central Park West. It had been a mansion at one time. Even in those days they were buying up these mansions and breaking them up into many apartments. So we were on the second floor, which must have been the library. And that’s where we lived.
It was a nice place except it was kind of crowded I mean everything was in one room. I was studying for my comps and I put on the light, my wife was trying to sleep. She has to go to work the next day. I had no place to study. Other than that, we would live like I mean, she was making a fairly decent salary. But that went to pay for the rent. She was a pension specialist. For one of the early pension companies. And whatever money I was making paid for my analysis in those days.
I was doing some teaching. I taught in a Hebrew School. That’s where I made money. A good part of it went to analysis. It was my last year in analysis. And the big thrill for us was Saturday night walking down Broadway, 72nd Street, where there was a newsreel. We’d stop in every store and look inside and say “When we have some money, I’m going to buy this and when we have some money I’m going to buy that,” you know. And those were the days when television just began, so for .25, we’d go in, we’d watch the newsreel, and we went downstairs in the basement and we’d see Sid Caesar. So, between the newsreel and that it was almost like a three hour show. Then we walked back up Columbus Avenue. And every single Saturday night we’d buy ourselves a big big piece of cheesecake at Delmonico’s and have it for breakfast the next morning. That was a big thrill. Those were the good days. The real good days.
Once in a while not too often I’d get back to Newark. When I was ordained I had this job for the summer so I was living in my cousin’s apartment and I’d see my folks. And at that time, there was real estrangement between my father and myself. My observance pattern. He didn’t think I was following the old true line. I told him years before that I wasn’t. But here he saw it and it disturbed him.
It took quite a few years before I felt like I’d made it. I think it took at least 10 years. In those 10 years, little by little I was earning more. I was already a Rabbi. I had positions. By the time we came to Portland, my daughter was nine years old, and things had freed up a little bit for us not enough yet. But then my wife got herself a job when my daughter became 17 or 18 I think it’s later. Worked for Union Mutual. And she worked for them for about 17 years and really didn’t want to retire but had to because of her handicap. And she was one of UNUM’s Washington lobbyists. Her expertise was really pensions. And Union grabbed her when she came to them. She really had good credentials.
At first they told her that she was over qualified, but then I found a way of getting them to look at her seriously and she got the job. A couple came to see me and the young lady wanted to study for conversion. And I gave her instruction. I asked them where they were working they tell me Union Mutual. At that time, Union Mutual wasn’t hiring too many Jews. She happened to be working in the personnel office. And I told them what happened to my wife. They told her she was over qualified, never bothered to call her again. And I suspected it was because she was Jewish she wasn’t called. Forty eight hours later my wife gets a call. They wanted her to re test. Test got the job, and she remained with them.
I was very much involved in the social changes of the ’60’s. I was very much involved. I was involved with Civil Rights. I was involved in Viet Nam. I was involved in the hunger issue. I was involved in the housing issue. I was involved in the Human Services Council I was involved. I was President of the Inter Faith Council. I went to I was part of the march on Washington when Martin Luther King spoke. I was there.
He was standing right near me he was on the Lincoln Memorial. So he was standing on the steps and I was sitting at the bottom of the steps. About 50 feet away. The speech was an overwhelming, overwhelming experience. The man was a masterful speaker. He was able to put into words things that others couldn’t. And he really caught me. And suddenly it was as if a cloud had come off of my eyes and I started looking around at the audience and the blacks were sitting there I felt as if they had features I’d never seen before. It was almost like a revelation.
And then I got caught up. I came back to Portland. I helped organize the NAACP. I was involved with all kinds of things having to do with Civil Rights. That led to other things, you know. When you start talking about Civil Rights for blacks you start talking about it for everybody. You become interested in the women’s issue, you become interested in the gay issue, you become interested in the handicap issue, you become interested in the, you know, the AFDC issues, the poverty issues, you name it. Wherever there was a minority, a group that I felt didn’t get a fair share, I thought that’s what civil rights was all about. And everybody has to have an opportunity. That’s the whole point. An opportunity.
For instance, with the issue of AFDC. I was at that time on the Maine Human Services Council. I proposed I said it’s not enough to keep on raising the amounts of working people. You know they’ll never get out of it. All that you’re doing is helping making for them, you know, giving them another incentive not to go beyond. And from this, training programs arose.
I remember, there was one woman who I felt was wasting her life. She had a miserable life. Married once or twice. Had mothered maybe 12 children out of wedlock. And so of course she was on AFDC. But a bright woman. She’d sit at meetings and in her head would calculate, you know. Where you could find money here, where you could find money there. So one day we were driving back into Portland, and I talked to her about going to school. I said, “You’re letting whatever is yours just go through your hands. If you went to school and you got your bona fides, do you know how much more effective you could possibly be?” She listened. Then got her BA. Came through with a 4.0. That’s right. And did it in three years. Then she went on got herself a graduate degree in some form of social work.
And she’s doing extremely well. She’s become the reference point for people who are having difficulties because of chemical addiction, alcohol addiction, people who just are walking around with these tremendous shadows all over themselves and this feeling there’s no way to get beyond it. They all come to her. All come to her. She finds them this, she finds them that, she finds them this, she finds them that, she finds them someone to be a mentor. To help them out of their mess. So that’s the sort of things I’ve done.
Of my three kids, my youngest feels I was with him all the way. He spoke at my retirement function unbeknownst to me. He had called his mother and said he wanted to speak. So, my wife contacted the chair person and she said, “Okay, let him speak for five minutes but I don’t want his brother and sister to speak too. Check with his brother and sister they said no, they don’t want to. We want him to do the speaking for the family.”
And he used this image. He said, “When I was very young, my father would play a game. I would stand on his feet with my back to him and he would take me on a trip. I got a little older, a little heavier, I was too heavy to be carried that way. I still felt he was taking me on a journey.” He looks at the congregation, he says,
“Everyone who is sitting here today I’m sure can attest that as a father and Rabbi, it’s been a radical journey.” Boy, was that vindication. Absolutely. Absolutely. My middle son has had his ups and downs. But he’s okay now. My oldest is doing okay. She’s married and has two children. But I felt what my youngest said was really a good indication.
I think I’ve spent quite a bit of time at home. Maybe I should have spent a little bit more. Anybody who has an active life could say that. I know I did okay.
For vacations, well, before we came to Portland, they were very, you know, ordinary places. We’d go a week here, or a week there, a month here, a month there. It was never out of the country. When we finally came to Portland, ’64, we went to Israel for the first time. And then from then on, we’ve been traveling all over the place. We’ve been in Canada, up in Nova Scotia, you know, the Maritimes. We’ve been most of the United States. I shouldn’t say “most” a good part of the United States. We’ve been to England, to France, to I’ve been to Germany, to Switzerland. We’ve been to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Austria. Quite a few places.
I want to spend more time in France. There was something about France there’s a quality there. There’s a way people talk about things. They don’t take things seriously. They always see the lighter side to it. On the other hand, they see the dark side. And I just like the place. I like the museums, I like the art, countryside. And as far as England is concerned, I think its pretty well the most beautiful place in the world, especially in the country. It is I’d like to spend I wish somebody would let me go into The British Museum and lock the door and let me be there for a couple of months.
And then Switzerland was always a favorite of mine. I always want to go back to Switzerland. I love the mountains. There’s nothing like traveling on the train in Europe. You can really see the countryside. That’s an experience. You know, you have to get on just one train what you see is amazing.
First of all, the countries are smaller. You know, Europe is divided into two parts, the East and the West. And the East is much larger than the West. And the West is packed to the gills. There’s no such thing as empty space. So when you go on these train rides, which takes you to the empty spaces, well, it’s something to see.
There’s places I’d still like to see. Oh sure. Lots of places in Europe. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe. I’ve never been to Asia. I may go. I’m not pushing it.
I was really surprised in Germany. It happened this summer. I have a friend. I went to Zurich with him and one day he invited me to visit a friend of his in Germany, West Germany. He invited a woman who was with us too, so the three of us went. We said, “What the heck.” I felt it was a country like any other country. I spoke to people. They seemed like everybody else.
One woman did talk to me about the Holocaust what happened to her town. She showed just where the synagogue was. Where this was. Where that was. What’s happened. At present, the synagogue building is used as an interfaith center because there are no Jews there. They all were shipped away. None came back. And I had met some Germans last time I was in Israel. I had gone down to the Dead Sea. My wife was going to get some treatments there. We met a German couple. Got very friendly with them. And both of them were in their forties. Their respective parents had served in the Wehrmacht. One of them had an uncle who had actually been an officer in the SS. Their children absolutely refused to have anything to do with Germany.
It’s amazing, you know, the grandchildren of those who had served, you know. Their son, instead of doing his military service in Germany, decided to do social service in Israel. He got credit for it. Their daughter was living in the States. We talked and we talked and we talked and we talked and we had an eye opener for me. I mean, I knew what Stroeble was talking about when he said, you know, “You’ve got to confront the evil that’s inside of you.” This really meant for me the judgmental part. He was right. He was absolutely right. And once you give that up, then it becomes a different story.
There’s some people I admire. There’s a man who is a professor at Bowdoin. His name is William Geogehagen. He teaches religion there. The guy knows so much nothing’s ever forgotten. And he’s constantly, constantly growing. There’s a woman, also in Brunswick, by the name of Eleanor Mattern a Jungian analyst who I think has this deep understanding of the mythical as any person I’ve ever met. There is a person here in Portland who I think is really something, Mary Flagg. She used to work for the United Fund United Way. She always had her feet solid on the qround. Really understood what the issues where. I think very highly of her. A woman, her name is Eleanor Merdek. In many ways, it’s a woman who in many ways who had led an ordinary life, yet I feel it’s an extraordinary life. A willingness to do whatever she can for somebody else and her tremendous thirst for knowledge. This is my wife.
I told you, you know, once this retirement came in and I started putting the cloak aside I had to look at myself. And I really discovered what it is in my life, in my collective tradition what I really want. On the whole, I think my life was pretty much together. The things that threw me 10, 15 years ago, don’t throw me any more. You know I was, for a time, very close to John Carroll. He was a marvelous therapist. He opened up some doors for me. What else can I tell you?
I love to hug people. That’s one of my favorite activities. I think you can get more said with a hug than sometimes with a whole conversation. Just bring your arm around somebody, sitting next to that person, holding that person’s hand, hugging it does more than anything. John taught me how. He introduced me I remember the first time he offered to hug me I looked at him a man is going to hug a man? And that kind of stuff. The second time I came, I let him. And I was hooked.
In five years I’ll be 70. I’ll be in my 70’s. And who knows where I’ll be. A lot depends on my wife’s health. I hope she holds out. If she does, we’ll continue to live here. Go down south for a month or two. Go to Tanglewood for a month in the summer. We’ll do some traveling. We’ve become hooked on elder hostels. We’ve gone to a few of those. And I hope that I’ll finally break through and do some serious writing. Those are about the only plans I have right now. And you know, I’d like to pick up a few more clients in my counseling and do maybe a little more teaching, but I don’t want to start beating the bushes looking for people. I don’t need it to make a living.
If I would have done anything differently, I think I would have published more. I think I would have taken some time off and finished a PhD in history or in mythology. To me that was alike. Plus history is a big myth. And who tells it. And I think I would have done that.
I’ve done a little publishing not much. I’ve written some meditations, I’ve written some things for school, I’ve written a lot of articles, I’ve done some responses for the law committee. But not something that, you know, puts it all together. I may yet do it. I may yet do it.
Yeah, I would have learned how to swim. I’ve never gotten around to it. And I was a little frightened of it. I think I picked up my father’s fears. His brother drowned. And he never learned how to swim, so, I mean, I picked that up. I would have done that.
I think I would have become a gourmet cook. Yeah, I’m very much interested in spices. Oh yeah, a long time ago. There’s something about spices that catches my attention. Not just the taste that they bring to a dish, but you know there’s a lot of literature on the special qualities of spices. It’s almost like a mystical thing with spices. Yeah, so I would become a little more familiar with that. What can I tell you? I may have done something more in art, drama, music. But I don’t think, you know, my working premise right now as long as I’m still alive, someday I’ll get to the things I want to get.
As far as a summation of my life I’m glad it was mine. I’ve loved everybody I’ve really had something to do with. I really do. And that’s why I think things worked out the way they did. Every so often, I get a little angry with somebody or turned off, turned on, whatever it is. But I think I had the capacity of forgetting. Forgetting. People would say, “I don’t remember it, I’ve forgotten.” I think I have something working inside that wipes it out. Just won’t let it stay there. And the things that do remain, the negative stuff oh, that can drive me crazy until I get rid of it. But most things, I forget.
I feel like I’ve come all the way. All the way. I hope I’ve accomplished a lot. I hope so. I’ve got enough plaques. They’re on the wall. A few of them are inside me, also. Some of them mean more than others. Oh yeah.
I tell you, I think that as far as my social action motivation, it was really my father’s model. I really do, because neighbor had to take care of neighbor. And as far as the other things, I think it evolves. It must have been something inside of me waiting to come out and when enough of the garbage was removed, it did emerge.
As far as advice goes, as I said earlier, look for the self that’s really you. That’s the key to the whole thing. That’s the God within you. Once you’re in tune with that, then it’s much easier for you to follow the path that’s really yours. And not be constantly responding to the world that’s around you. But rather to the world that’s within you. That’s the key.