My Non-Spiritual Beginnings

I guess I just am not that much into myself, he said half-seriously. I pontificate quite frequently here but hardly ever wax autobiographical.

To compensate a bit for that, here is a short selection about my "Non-Spiritual Beginnings" extracted from a draft of my next book...

I was born Jewish and grew up in an Orthodox family, but not an entirely stereotypical one. My mother grew up as an American-born Reform Jew in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. She went to New York City public schools and then to Hunter College. My father grew up in an American-Orthodox family. Both of his parents were born in the US. He too went to New York City public schools, then to a yeshiva for high school and to Yeshiva University for college and for his rabbinic ordination.

For an American Jewish family like my dad’s to retain its Orthodoxy was not a common story during the decades of the great assimilation prior to WW II. The currents sweeping Jews away from religion were strong during that era. But my mom and dad swam against the currents. I inherited a strong commitment to Judaism from both of my parents. Back to the story.

At some point, my young professional mother enrolled in a Hebrew class that my young rabbi dad was teaching. Romance followed. After they married, my mom became Orthodox in her faith and practice. In her role as a dutiful rabbi’s wife, she obtained the venerable honorary title of Rebbetzin.

I was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where my father was a dynamic figure on the New York rabbinical scene. He served as a rabbi from 1941 to 1961. First, before he married, he played rabbi in the “minor leagues” in Lexington Kentucky and Omaha Nebraska. After that he served in the “big leagues” in pulpits in Orthodox synagogues in New York City. He presided first on New York’s West Side at the West Side Institutional Synagogue as assistant rabbi.

It was there in 1947 that he changed his name from Goldstein to Zahavy. He was inspired by the Zionist movement and felt the need to Hebraize his name like many other activists and visionaries of that era. But he tells of another motivation for his name change.

The senior rabbi at the WSIS was the well-known Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein. When my dad started, he approached Rabbi Goldstein and told him of his plans to change his name to Zahavy. Partly in jest, he explained to the older rabbi that he was concerned. If a check should come in to the synagogue made out to Rabbi Goldstein, he feared there might be some confusion. Hence he would change his name.

After his stint at the WSIS my dad moved uptown a few blocks to Congregation Ohev Zedek where he was appointed associate rabbi. Following that, he moved on to assume the pulpit as senior rabbi at the Upper East Side Congregation Zichron Ephraim (now named the Park East Synagogue).

From age three, I grew up on the East Side on Sixty-Eighth Street and Third avenue, in New York’s so-called silk stocking congressional district. There were few Orthodox children around for me to play with in my neighborhood. I attended Manhattan Day School, a wonderful elementary yeshiva day school on the West Side.

During the summers, we went to our Long Island summer home in Atlantic Beach. The sleepy community in that village boasted a single centrally-located and nicely-maintained synagogue. By design it was kept Orthodox in its ritual and services so that one inclusive house of worship could serve the whole community, from the Reform and Conservative to its few ardently religious Jews. Most of the villagers were not Orthodox in their practices. They’d go home after prayers on Saturday morning and head off to the beach or to golf, tennis, biking on the boardwalk, shopping or other ordinary weekend activities normally not practiced by Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath... more to follow...

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