"The Guardian Rabbis" by Natalie Fingerhut
in Living Legacies edited by Liz Pearl (2011)
Dedicated to Raphael Marvin Fingerhut (1938 – 1982) and to the other three male guardians: the late Keith Bush who kicked me out of his Grade 10 Geography class and told me to come back when I was ready to learn, the late Professor Joseph Papaleo, writing teacher extraordinaire from Sarah Lawrence College and to Professor Howard Adelman, former Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, who proved to me over and over again that anything can be accomplished with will and a big personality.
My father, Raphael Marvin Fingerhut (or Ray as he was called) died in a canoe accident that I survived when I was 12-years-old. When Ray looked down at me from heaven − or from wherever they send Jeep-driving, fur coat-wearing, professional wrestling-loving Jewish lawyers − he saw a spunky, rebellious, self-centred smart-ass. As he puffed on his omnipresent pipe, Ray thought long and hard about who was going to be the male role model in his daughter’s life. Who was going to ensure that his daughter didn’t go down the wrong path?
Well, if she’s anything like me, she’s not going to listen to teachers and principals. I'd suggest the Canadian Armed Forces but that could be a threat to national security.
And then it hit him.
A rabbi! A rabbi can look after her! They are trained in this kind of thing, for God’s sake. And no one, not even my crazy kid, is going to mouth off to a rabbi.
Since his death in 1982, Ray made certain that I always had a guardian rabbi. In my teens, Rabbi Steven Garten, former Director of Education at Holy Blossom Temple took the job. In my 20s, there was W. Gunther Plaut, former Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple, and in my 30s, the current senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, John Moscowitz, got the call.
If Ray were alive today, he would have written a thank-you letter to these three unique rabbis.
This is that letter.
Dear Rabbi Steven Garten, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Rabbi John Moscowitz:
Before I begin this letter thanking each of you for taking care of my daughter, Natalie, in my permanent absence, you need to know that while Steve called her Nat, Rabbi Plaut used the formal Miss Fingerhoot, and Rabbi M referred to her ironically as Miss Congeniality, to me, she was and will always be “Hut”.
She’s something else, my little Hut. Highly challenging, I believe is the phrase most often ascribed to her. As you know, she still challenges authority and thinks that rules are made for everyone but her. But thanks to each of you, she functions very well (most days) as a full-time editor, a part-time writer, an enthusiastic member of the downtown Toronto Jewish community, and a responsible member of civilized society.
Of all of you, Rabbi Garten, I think we were the most similar: fun-loving, irreverent, and lucky for Hut, very forgiving. I wasn’t sure how you were going to deal with the tri-coloured hair and multiple holes in her teenage ears, but you saw beyond the superficial and saw a bit of a kindred spirit. When she got sent down to your office for betraying her inebriation one too many times, you gave her another chance to stay on at Holy Blossom Temple. Clearly, you understood that after what she had been through, acting out by being drunk at religious school really meant that she needed a little understanding and compassion.
Besides showing understanding and compassion, you also explained to her many times that she needed to stop talking and start listening. While she didn’t have to agree with what people said to her, she had to listen to what they had to say first. No more Miss Know-it-All, no more Miss Smart-Ass. You should know that 25 years later, she remembers your message, especially in her job as an editor where listening to her authors’ ideas and opinions is part of her daily life. She often rolls her eyes – she is Hut after all-but because you reminded her often about the importance of listening, she listens.
Well, Rabbi Plaut, I am not sure what possessed you − an 80-year-old Order of Canada recipient; the author of a widely used commentary on the Torah; a great author, thinker, and leader − to hire my scrappy 21-year-old to research and edit some of your many acclaimed books. I can only guess that even though you both came from such different worlds − the cultural and intellectual centre of interwar Berlin versus the bars on College Street, you are both curious, highly disciplined, and have an off-beat sense of humour and mischief. The time you tricked her into a chugging a glass of vodka after telling her it was just water, I laughed so hard they heard me in hell.
But this is really what you need to know, Rabbi Plaut. This is what I have wanted to tell you for a very long time. After working with you for ten years and later becoming a sort of granddaughter, Hut could never just sit back and watch the world go by. You showed her by example that she had a moral obligation to make the world a better place. You told her that it was not enough for her to study or talk about a problem, she had to do something about it. Whether it was teaching English to victims of torture, or teaching writing to street kids, or sitting on the Board of Directors at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, she hears your gruff, strict, voice every day reminding her that helping others has to be done. You taught her to do good, and so she does.
Now when Hut turned 30, she was doing alright. The scrappiness and rebelliousness still existed but she had matured. Besides, she had a nice, Jewish boy that she had recently married. She was actually pretty happy except for one big issue: she still hadn’t learned how to cope with the loss of her father. And that’s where you came in, Rabbi M. I gave you the tough job. To be honest, I wasn’t sure you were up to it. I mean, you are kind of quiet and reflective. I wasn’t sure how Hut was going to respond to your personality. However, at your Installation as Senior Rabbi, one of your colleagues noted that you “knew how to suffer (and that you wanted) desperately to be a rabbi so that (you could) teach and heal.” That clinched it for me.
Calmly though assertively, you explained to Hut that she needed to stop looking behind at her fractured past and look forward to a stable future. It was fine to think about what she had lost and reflect on it, but it was not fine to get mired in it. She had to toughen up or else she was going to wind up either writing bad Canadian fiction about being a morose fatherless daughter or being an emotional train wreck.
Toughening up was crucial, but more important was when you caught her using my death as an excuse to be ambivalent about her life. Rather than allowing her to get away with that attitude, you shifted her focus back to what was important: marriage, children, professional satisfaction, and writing. Her present and future had to be lived. Her past had to be compartmentalized. You told her that she needed to learn how to live with loss, so she learned to live with it.
To Listen, To Do, and To Live with Loss. Pretty valuable lessons, I’d say. Not bad for a bunch of rabbis. I thereby raise a glass of Chivas (you guys deserve the good stuff) and point my pipe down at you in respect and eternal thanks.
Give her a hug from me when you see her next.
Natalie Fingerhut received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College-a left-wing loony bin that Ray would have initially objected to but would have eventually admired. She also holds a Masters Degree in History from the University of Toronto and has completed the coursework for a PhD in Genocide Studies at Concordia University − a fact that is a guaranteed conversation stopper at cocktail parties. Currently, Natalie is history editor at the University of Toronto Press in Toronto and a part-time writer. Her work has appeared in Dropped Threads: Beyond the Small Circle, The Globe and Mail, and the Canadian Jewish News, as well as an upcoming short story in Broken Pencil. When she is not playing with words, she is playing with her two children, Raffi and Olivia, and her nice, Jewish boy, Rob Winters, often at the corner of Bloor and Spadina at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre where she proudly and happily sits as a member of the Board of Directors.