Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Rabbi, The Lawyer, and the Redhead

The Rabbi, The Lawyer, and the Redhead It had to have been one of the strangest gatherings of dinner companions: 90-year old Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut- one of the leading rabbis of the 20thc and Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple, Robert (Bob) Smolkin, a middle-aged, dignified, very successful Bay St. lawyer and co-founder of the Out of the Cold program at Holy Blossom Temple, and me—a 30-year old mouthy redhead who called the Wheat Sheaf Tavern her second home.

Once a week, for two years, the three of us got together at Rabbi Plaut’s apartment for dinner. It began after Rabbi Plaut’s wife, Elizabeth, needed to be relocated to Baycrest and Rabbi Plaut was alone. I had previously served as Rabbi Plaut’s research assistant in my 20s, and he had developed into a grandfather-figure for me. So, I decided that once a week I would visit him. We would play chess (where he would beat me soundly in minutes) or watch sports.

I met Bob Smolkin through the Out of the Cold program where I volunteered. One night, he approached me and asked how Rabbi Plaut was doing. I told him that he was doing OK under the circumstances, but that I wanted to do more. Bob suggested that he and I should have dinner with Rabbi Plaut to which I enthusiastically agreed. We planned to start the following Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, Bob sent me an e-mail which went something along the lines of:

Dear Natalie: What were you planning to bring for dinner tonight with Rabbi Plaut? I think my wife, Sheila, has some leftovers in the fridge…some sort of potato item…please let me know your thoughts on this matter. Bob

Dear Bob: I don’t know how to cook. Now what? Natalie

We sheepishly decided the best idea was to procure a prepared chicken from the Loblaws across from Rabbi Plaut’s apartment and some sort of vegetable product that I would magically transfer into a salad, and knowing Rabbi Plaut’s fondness for chocolate, we got 3 brownies.

We brought our groceries up to Rabbi Plaut’s apartment and got to work trying to set up dinner. Of course, being of a certain age, they both thought I, the female, had this under control and were a little confused when I declared that the kitchen was really a foreign country. I eventually got to work making the salad and when I couldn’t find anything to mix it with, I used my hands to the absolute horror of these two refined gentlemen.

We decided to make it a weekly event. Bob would bring leftovers, I would do a Loblaws run and make a salad using proper tools. After dinner, we would watch baseball or tennis, and when Bob and I could convince Rabbi Plaut, we watched hockey. Sometimes, Bob would bring a movie that he thought Rabbi Plaut would enjoy. The one I remember most clearly was about Hank Greenberg and Bob and Rabbi Plaut would reminisce about past World Series and their heroes. Once, Bob organized a private dinner with us and Captain John from Captain John’s Harbour Restaurant and we all got a special tour of the boat.

But the best moments that Bob and I had with Rabbi Plaut were when he would tell us stories about living in Germany. We learned about his parents and his strict upbringing, about the rise of anti-semitism and when he saw Hitler up-close. He told us about his own athletic career which included notable achievements in soccer and tennis. Bob would then talk about his own childhood, his parents to whom he was devoted, his cottage, books he was reading, and of course, his children. Both Bob and Rabbi Plaut enjoyed listening to music from their respective generations which at first made me cringe. “Why can’t we listen to what I want to listen to?” I would ask in mock petulance. “Haven’t you guys ever heard of Echo and the Bunnymen? U2? “Sinead O’Conner?” Once, Bob found some old hats of Rabbi Plaut’s and he put one on and began to do a vaudeville routine. Rabbi Plaut joined in. And I just laughed.

Many times at dinner, I would ask them both questions, one right after another, trying to imagine what their lives had been like and what I could take from their experiences and apply them to my own. I know I drove them both crazy with my “like” after every few words and my “yeah right whatever.” But I was in complete awe of them and I remember feeling so very privileged that I had that quality of time with these two remarkable individuals.

In 2003, I had my first child and that put an end to our regular dinners. Bob continued to visit Rabbi Plaut with regularity even after Rabbi Plaut moved to Baycrest. My own visits with Rabbi Plaut were far less regular, and I did not see Bob for many years until Rabbi Plaut’s funeral in February 2012. This past Friday, I learned the sad news that Bob too had passed away.

I hope that the two of them have found each other somewhere and that they are having dinner together. Hopefully, the chef is better than me.