Articles

The Impulsive Crusader of Holy Blossom

His critics say Rabbi Abraham Feinberg is always mixed up in politics — minority rights, civil liberties, things like that. But he and his many supporters call it fighting for God’s Kingdom on Earth

DOROTHY SANGSTER October 1 1950
Articles

The Impulsive Crusader of Holy Blossom

His critics say Rabbi Abraham Feinberg is always mixed up in politics — minority rights, civil liberties, things like that. But he and his many supporters call it fighting for God’s Kingdom on Earth

DOROTHY SANGSTER October 1 1950

The Impulsive Crusader of Holy Blossom

DOROTHY SANGSTER

WHEN one of Rabbi Abraham Feinberg’s two secretaries rapped on the door of his study the other day at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and handed him an anonymous letter with a grin the rabbi wasn’t surprised. He understood the grin because the letter began with these words: “Rabbi Feinberg, you old whiskered devil "

For Abraham Feinberg, spiritual Ie der of Canada’s largest Reform Hebrew congregation, is neither old, whiskered, nor particularly devilish. At 49 he is clean-shaven and dark. He is also intense. “Working for him is like hanging onto an electric drill,” an employee once said. “You’re afraid to let go for fear of what will happen.”

Most of the crackpot letters the rabbi receives are unsigned and offensive messages, written in pencil on cheap scribbler paper. Unsavory as they are they don’t faze Feinberg, who understands that crackpots speak only for themselves and not for any sizeable group of thinking Canadians.

At first glance Feinberg bears little physical resemblance to the traditional Jewish rabbi. In his neat conservative suit, with his bulging briefcase, he looks not unlike a hyperactive insurance agent. Fifteen years ago millions of American radio listeners knew him as “Anthony Frome, the Poet Prince,” lyric tenor of the airwaves. Today American-born Rabbi Feinberg is one of the most controversial figures to occupy a Canadian pulpit.

Gentiles recognize him as the official voice of Canadian Jewry. This fact was aptly demonstrated a few years ago when Montreal’s Mayor Houde introduced him to friends as “Le Cardinal des Juifs”—the Cardinal of the Jews.

Among his own people Feinberg’s position is less clearly defined. His congregation is considered by many the most important Jewish congregation in Canada. Certainly it gets the most publicity. The Holy Blossom Temple, a big modernistic structure on Toronto’s north Bathurst Street, is the second largest synagogue in the country and its congregation the second oldest (Montreal has both the largest and the oldest).

For the past five years Feinberg, who came to Holy Blossom in 1944, has held high posts in the influential Canadian Jewish Congress. But there are members of the congress who do not see eye to eye with him on matters of procedure and policy. They say, “He speaks too freely,” and “He’s too impulsive.”

As an example they point to the public statement he made from Paris in the summer of 1948, when he was in France as their representative to the World Jewish Congress, to the effect that Jewish DP domestics and nurses were being barred from Canada. The statement, given wide publicity, intimated the Canadian Government was pursuing an anti-Semitic policy. It drew down the official wrath of the Jewish Congress on the head of Feinberg for speaking without conferring with congress first. But the rabbi maintained that the conditions he spoke of did in fact exist and should be brought to light and that he had spoken as a private individual.

Dozens of Jewish newspapers took up the cudgels on either side. Feinberg, whom dissident Congress members call “a bit of a stormy petrel,” rode the waves of the resultant Btorm with stouthearted conviction. “I hate a hush-hush attitude,” he says.

If the congress can’t quite make up its mind about Abraham Feinberg, neither can the congregation of his Holy Blossom Temple.

Is their rabbi warm, sensitive, charming, idealistic? Or is he cold, insensitive and ambitious? Exponents of both points of view sit facing him on Friday evenings when he steps into

His critics say Rabbi Abraham Feinberg is always mixed up in politics — minority rights, civil liberties, things like that. But he and his many supporters call it fighting for God’s Kingdom on Earth

the pulpit. His critics wonder, among other things, why he can’t content himself with being a spiritual leader. Why must he—as he did recently—assist an ex-bookie to set himself up in the restaurant business? Fein berg answers, “If I didn’t help him, who would? Isn’t it better that he should be selling sandwiches and cold drinks rather than be forced back into a life of crime?”

In spite of such criticism it is a fact that under Feinberg’s religious leadership the Holy Blossom congregation has grown to 1,200; the temple’s Religious School for Children has become a model for similar schools in North America; and the Temple Youth Group, a recreational outlet for Toronto teen-agers, has become so highly regarded that the School of Social Work of the University of Toronto today recognizes it as a fieldwork placement for second-year students.

To non-Jews, many of whom know little of the ramifications of the Hebrew faith, Rabbi Feinberg’s unorthodox appearance and modern outlook come as a shock. However, when they learn that there are three main branches of Judaism in Canada—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (or “Liberal”), and that Fein berg is a rabbi of the reform school, the picture becomes clearer. The rabbi doesn’t look orthodox because he isn’t orthodox.

Orthodox Jews don’t eat pork, seafood or any other “nonkosher” meat or poultry. These dietary laws and many others are set down in the Talmud (“teachings”) made by the rabbis and scholars of ancient Palestine. Orthodox Jews may not eat milk and meat at the same meal and they keep separate dishes to ensure that nothing that touches milk touches meat. Extremely Orthodox Jews don’t work, drive cars, ride streetcars or carry money on the Sabbaths

Reform Jews, on the other hand, may eat whatever they wish, including pork, in any combination. They celebrate fewer and shorter Holy Days than their more orthodox brethren. There has been no “Sanhedrin” or continuing source of legal authority over Jewish custom since 66 A.D. when the Jewish people were scattered, so Reform Judaism has created one of its own. Feinberg says that some of the ritual laws valid 1,500 years ago became meaningless when the Jews moved out of the ghettos and into Western civilization. “Reform,” he explains, “is simply an adaptation of ages-old practices to the 20th century.”

In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately, skull caps and prayer shawls are worn, sermons are delivered in Hebrew, and the whole proceedings are ritualistic and impressive. But in Reform temples like Feinberg’s men and women sit together, shawls and caps are dispensed with, sermons are in English and a mixed choir sings, accompanied by an organ. There is a minimum of ritual and the service is unemotional and restrained.

Feinberg’s service, like all Jewish services, includes a sermon—one usually tied to a topical subject. His keen interest in current affairs and his willingness to declare himself on any and all topics of the day have endeared Feinberg to Canadian newspapermen. He has jumped into the ring on such varied issues as the Chinese Immigration Act (he’s against the restrictions on wives and children), the movie “Oliver Twist” (he urged it should not be shown to children because of what he claimed to be the anti-Semitic nature of one of its main characters), the sheltering of Vichyites in Canada (he wants them sent back to France for trial).

When religious instruction was introduced into Ontario public schools in 1944 by Premier George Drew, Rabbi Feinberg wrote to the provincial government: “The state has no right to teach religion.

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To teach a specific religion, in this case Protestant Christianity, is to show discrimination against minority groups not professing it.”

Later, on behalf of the Jewish Congress, he submitted a comprehensive brief to the Hope Commission set up to investigate the Ontario school system. The commission has not yet reported.

One Toronto clergyman approached Feinberg privately offering to “see what he could do to mend matters” by having the Hebrew religion also added to the school curriculum. He came away with a curt “No, thanks.”

“I said there is no place in our public 'schools for the teaching of religion,” the rabbi reiterated, “and I mean any religion!”

He has waged a long campaign against injustices to individuals and minority groups and is battling to put laws on Canadian statute books to end discrimination in employment.

“Some people say you can’t stop discrimination by making laws,” he points out; “but why not? There’s a law against stealing and murder isn’t there?”

Like his predecessors at Holy Blossom Temple Feinberg is keenly interested in promoting Jewish-Gentile good will. While he believes that no Jew should give up one iota of his Jewishness to win the favor of non-Jews, or to escape racial discrimination (“That’s harakiri,” he says), nevertheless he sees no iron curtain separating Gentile and Jew except mutural ignorance. To acquaint non-Jews with Jewish ritual the temple has sponsored a number of Institutes on Judaism in recent years. Questions are invited and answered to the best of the rabbi’s ability.

One favorite question is, “Are the Jews still looking for a Messiah?” Feinberg’s answer stresses that while a fçw Jews still are most pin their hopes on a Kingdom of God on earth in the form of a Messianic Era—a period of universal justice, peace and brother-

He is particularly pleased when young people’s groups from other churches ask to visit the temple. Holy Blossom’s congregation has been addressed by a Hindu, a Chinese, and a Nisei, and most recently by William Carter, a colored citizen of Dresden, Ont., the town which voted against serving Negroes in its restaurants. Later, Feinberg visited Dresden, staying with the Carter family and speaking in the local Baptist Hall.

Feinberg ‘ says, “To hew out traffic lanes of thought and understanding between one group and another that, to my mind, is the main task of life.” He admits, however, that his ardor has occasionally hit rock bottom in the middle of the night when he has been dragged out of bed by a phone call from some Toronto tavern to settle an argument about whether Jews believe in heaven and hell. Answer: Some rabbinical scholars believe in hell, but most don’t. Jews believe there is a heaven but don’t place as much stress on it as Christians.

Abraham Feinberg is a bom worrier. He once confided to a friend that he was worried that his wife was worrying about him being worried. He makes constant asides about his health. ‘This conference is making tremendous demands on my health. I don t know how I stand it.” “Excuse me while 1 just swallow this pill. I think I m getting ’flu.”

However, having thufl expreased run ! anxiety, he then proceeds to do the job

in hand with his verve and efficiency and his associates have learned to take his fears with a gtain of salt.

He was born in an Ohio mining town in 1901, one of nine children, son of a poor Lithuanian cantor (a chanter of prayers in synagogue) who had fled pogroms in his native land. His early home life was strictly Orthodox.

He was a brilliant high - school scholar and graduated at. 14. Then he got his first job—an 11-hour stint on a laboring gang. Other jobs followed. He saved his money, went off to the University of Cincinnati where he won several scholarships and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He took post-grad courses at Chicago and Columbia and was ordained a rabbi at 23. Within four years, in 1928, he was installed in one of New York City’s wealthiest reform temples.

Week after week, as he found his presence sought after for Park Avenue parties, lavish dinners, and nothing else, Feinberg worried. What good was he doing anybody? Why be a rabbi if no one wanted your moral leadership? “Being a rabbi here is not a calling: it’s a business,” he told himself.

One evening in 1930 he informed his astounded congregation that he was leaving the professional ministry. “The preacher today,” he said, “has been forced to renounce his mission and become a salesman. He is made to fear a loss in membership more than the wrath of God. Instead of a poet, a dreamer, a transcendent mystic, he distorts himself into a seeker after popularity, a clerk of pew rentals, a good fellow. Just as other men sell clothes or automobiles or stocks, so does he dispense religion—for a price.”

Furore followed. Newspapers seized on the story. Religious leaders hastened to align themselves pro and con. On one hand Feinberg was accused of being a deserter, on the other he was hailed as a courageous champion of truth. He was congratulated as an honest man, flayed as a mistaken careerist. While the battle raged, the young ex-rabbi sailed for France.

Born—A Poet Prince

He had taken a few singing lessons in New York and in France he studied voice at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. He returned to New York after a few months to marry a cultured and attractive young fashion stylist named Ruth Katsh. Feinberg began to get small singing parts in

In 1932 Ed Wolf, the promoter of Arthur Tracy, “The Street Singer,” chanced to tune in a Feinberg song. Ho was delighted. And so was born "Anthony Frome, the Poet Prince,” over Station WJZ on Sunday afternoons. The show proved so popular it was switched to an evening spot at 11.15 four nights a week on the NBC network.

The program concerned the imaginary wanderings of a vagabond prince who sang as he traveled. In Italy, for instance, he sang “M’Appari" from “Marta”; in Palestine, “Rachel” from “La Juive.”

Feinberg, who has visited most of the countries described on the program and who sings in BÍX languages, sees nothing particularly shameful about this. On the contrary he feels that love songs and ballads play a purt in helping people to understand and appreciate each other. Nevertheless, there were times when he could have wished for more dignity in his publicity.

It was widely and inaccurately reported of him that he aspired to be the best-dressed man in New York, that he cherished a pet lizard, that he never sang without a cornflower in his lapel

and the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyám in his pocket, that he was planning to build a miniature castle in the Berkshires, had a passionate weakness for barrel organs, and was a keen fisherman who once landed a full-grown porpoise.

Rabbi Feinberg insists that it wasn’t his idea of good publicity to be photographed in his smoking robe and slippers, lounging in what the newspapers called “his 40-foot living room, lined with portraits in oil and precious first editions” and to be catalogued “a romantic idealist.”

As Frome, Feinberg began to climb the hard road of radio. He made personal appearances at New York’s Fox and Paramount Theatres. A fan club sprang up around him with the enchanting name of the “Court of the Poet Prince.” His picture ran on the cover of Radio Guide and on other theatrical and entertainment magazines. His weekly salary went as high as $1,500. The future looked rosy.

Then in Germany Adolf Hitler came to power and Abraham Feinberg began to worry again.

“I began thinking about what was going to happen to the Jews and I knew that there was only one thing for me to do—I had to go back to the rabbinate,” he recalls. “That was, and is, where I belong. Singing is only amusement. My soul is in the pulpit and in the study.”

He accepted the position of rabbi to a small and poor congregation, dipped into his savings to supplement his tiny salary, and settled down once again to a life of spiritual leadership in which his only singing was to chant the Kol Nidre, an old Hebrew prayer, once a year on the eve of the Day of Atone-

Today Feinberg still receives Christmas and New Year cards from many of his former radio fans, both Jewish and Gentile, one of whom signs herself, “Your radio mother from Old Bridge, New Jersey.” Other than this his memories of that far-off era are confined to a thick book of clippings, to the facts that his son is named Jonathan Frome Feinberg and his wife calls him “Tony.” Of his temporary abdication from the ministry he says, “it was the deeply felt act of a young man with ideals.”

After Pearl Harbor Feinberg, now in Denver, volunteered as a chaplain, was turned down because of a slight medical disability. In 1944 he was named rabbi of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, at a salary rumored well up in the fivefigure bracket.

Rabbi Feinberg’s day starts early in a mellow grey-stone house in Toronto’s Forest Hill district. After breakfast with his wife and two children he does an hour’s work in his study. At 9 he drives to the temple where two busy secretaries hand him a pile of mail, a list of phone calls, a thick sheaf of typed manuscripts for sermons and after-dinner speeches.

One day recently his mail included an invitation to pronounce grace at a Community Chest dinner, to sit at the head table at a dinner for the consulgeneral of Israel, and to undertake a speaking tour of the West for the Labor Zionist Organization. Another letter, from an unknown Gentile, assured him she was praying daily for the Jewish people.

Three telephone calls were from members of his congregation planning marriage. The rabbi arranged interviews and set dates for the weddings. His next call was from a young Jew from a downtown orthodox congregation who wished to marry a non-Jewish girl and “understands Rabbi Feinberg does these weddings.”

Rabbi Feinberg is, however, not in favor of mixed marriages. In spite of his desire for harmony and co-operation

between Jew and Gentile he says, “Intermarriage is a challenge. A couple has to work all the time to make it a success.” Neither, following the traditional Jewish line, is he in favor of conversions, believing that the Christian who promises to “turn Jewish” to marry a Jew is obviously acting from ulterior motives. In rare cases the rabbi will undertake a conversion; in all other cases he performs a “mixed marriage” with the understanding that any children of the union will be brought up in the Hebrew faith.

A large part of the rabbi’s day— “too much” he terms it—is taken up with administrative duties. But he is also expected to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved and help with family problems. For instance, a father may be worried because his daughter is keeping company with someone not of their religious faith . A mother fears her teen-age son is gambling.

Not only Jews are helped from the charitable fundsofthe temple. Recently, for example, a young mother sent word her small son had colitis and required a special kind of expensive serum. Could the rabbi help her? None of the family was Jewish and no one at the temple had ever heard of them before. Nevertheless the rabbi arranged to have 24 bottles delivered to the sick lad.

Take a Note on a Nap

Rabbi Feinberg seldom takes time off for lunch. When psycho-analyst Abraham Franzblau visited the temple a couple of years ago to give a lecture series he burst out, “For heaven’s sake, man, take it easy!” He suggested that half-an-hour’s nap after lunch would do wonders for Feinberg.

Feinberg grabbed his memo pad and wrote in big letters, “Take nap after

That was two years ago. The note is still on the pad. But the rabbi still spends his lunch hours working.

After a 6.30 dinner at home with his family he’s usually off to a meeting of some sort. Missing evenings with his son Jonathan and daughter Sarah Jane worries Feinberg for he is a family man at heart.

He likes to tell about the time he took his family for a summer motor trip in the U. S. At one point he took part in a sandlot baseball game and heard one of Jonathan’s pals exclaim, “Say, your old man is all right, even if he is a

Ruth Feinberg tries to dovetail as many of her own activities as possible into her husband’s crowded schedule. She makes a point of keeping free the odd evening that he is free, and also tries to meet him downtown after evening engagements for a leisurely cup of coffee. Mrs. Feinberg is an honorary member of the executive of the Sisterhood of the Temple, a representative of the Canadian Congress of Jewish Women and, until recently, was on the women’s committee of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Art Gallery.

She is a tactful and understanding woman and thus is ideally cast as the wife of the impulsive rabbi. “Because people love her,” he says, “they are willing to overlook many of my shortcomings.”

Heading the list of the rabbi’s “shortcomings,’’according to his critics, is his persistent crusade for minority rights, civil liberties and inter-racial harmony. Why must a rabbi dabble in such political affairs, they want to know. Why can’t he stick to spiritual things?

The rabbi has his answer ready: “Some people call it politics. 1 call it fighting for the Kingdom of God on Earth.” if