This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on August 13, 2007 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at the Columbus Jewish Federation. My name is Helena Schlam and I am interviewing Dr. Martin D. Keller.
Interviewer: And Dr. Martin Keller, what does D stand for?
Interviewer: Do you have a Jewish name?
Keller: Yes, Moshe Dovid.
Interviewer: Who were you named for?
Keller: Well, both my grandfather’s.
Interviewer: How is that, which was Moshe, which was Dovid?
Keller: My maternal grandfather was Moshe, my paternal grandfather Dovid.
Interviewer: And what can you tell us about your grandfather’s?
Keller: Well, they were both killed during World War I. One, well, one died of typhus and the other was killed in…I’m not sure exactly what kind of altercation… but one was killed.
Interviewer: And this was in Europe?
Keller: In Europe. They never got to this country, no.
Interviewer: Where exactly in Europe?
Keller: In the Ukraine near…not far from Odessa.
Interviewer: And do you know anything about your maternal grandmother?
Keller: Oh yes, I knew both of them well because they both came to the United States and in fact, I lived with my maternal grandmother for quite a while. That is, she lived with us.
Interviewer: And where was that?
Keller: That was here in the United States, in Brooklyn actually.
Interviewer: Oh, well. So how far back though can you trace your family?
Keller: Well, I can trace it quite far back. My maternal grandmother particularly because she came from a family that traced their time all the way back to around the time of the Baal Shem because they were a Hassidic family.
Interviewer: Oh, wonderful!
Keller: Yeah, yeah, and I even know some of the names.
Interviewer: Tell us.
Keller: Well, my maternal grandmother’s name was Gittel and she married someone named Moshe for whom I am named and his name was Goldenberg. Her name was Shapiro and part of the family’s name was Wertheim. I am not sure what part and her father was Joseph and he was the son of Shlomo and I think it was Shlomo’s uncle who was related to the Baal Shem.
They may, I don’t know whether they were brothers or cousins or something of that sort. And my maternal grandfather’s father was Yehuda and his father was Jacob and they were mostly in the Ukraine as far back as we know although my maternal grandmother’s family came originally from the area around Danzig and then the area around Warsaw before they went to the Ukraine.
Interviewer: That is wonderful that you know that much about your family.
Keller: Well, I had lots of time to talk to my lovely grandmother.
Interviewer: When did she come to the United States?
Keller: After Word War I. I think she came around maybe 1920 or 1921 or…yes, before I was born.
Interviewer: And also your paternal grandmother came to the United States?
Keller: She came soon thereafter he came. She was a very interesting person. She looked like a Mandarin princess, I mean she came from an area around the Black Sea and I always felt that she may have had some Oriental heritage, (laughs) for she really looked like a Mandarin princess. Her name was Brina….
Keller:…and her last name was really a Chechen name…it was Mateev.
Interviewer: And that is a Chechen name?
Keller: Yeah, so it could be, who knows. I don’t know anything about her antecedents except that they were from around the Black Sea area. My paternal…let’s see…my paternal father’s name was David and the name Keller goes way back because they originally came from Bavaria…
Interviewer: Ah ha!
Keller:...and David’s father was Shmuel ,whose wife was Miriam, and Shmuel’s father was Yehuda, whose wife was Leah and they came from Bavaria and eventually somehow ended up in the Ukraine where my both my mother and my father were born.
Interviewer: And when did your mother and father come…did they know each other first of all?
Keller: They never knew each other in the Ukraine in Europe
Interviewer: The Ukraine.
Keller: My mother came here also on the last ship that came here before Word War I, it must have been just in early 1914…
Keller:…and she was only about…let’s see 15 or 16 years of age. And she came here thinking she had a brother here who was going to, whom she had but he had decamped and was now in Detroit, therefore she had nobody. She was left on her own, totally on her own.
Interviewer: At age 15.
Keller: At age 15 to 16, I am not sure, something like that, but she was a very tough lady. She has always been tough all her life. So she got some landsleit who got her a job in the garment industry; where else were there jobs? She didn’t know a thing, she hadn’t done anything back home. My grandmother was an inn keeper and my grandfather was in a grain factory, he would buy and sell grain. And she did nothing other than hang around, I guess.
So when she came here, she was very tough. She walked in and they said to her, ” Can you do this?” She said, “I can do anything.” And they made her… she did not do it so they made her a finisher. She looked and if there was anything wrong she either fixed it or gave it to someone to fix. But very soon afterwards the ILGWU began to organize and she became an organizer. And they went out on strike and she got beaten up by some strike breakers. But knowing my mother she probably gave as well as she got. There must have been a few sore knees at least among some of them. Anyway…
Interviewer: And when did her mother come to the United States?
Keller: Her mother came to the United States after World War I, probably in the early 20’s.
Interviewer: So she was on her own.
Keller: Yeah, for a long time. She met my father and then he went into the service in 19…late 1916, early 1917. He was one of the earliest conscripts and after he was discharged was when they got married. After 1919 they got married around 1920.
Interviewer: But, so then, when did your father come to the United States?
Keller: About…maybe around 1916, something like that…
Interviewer: And then, he was conscripted? Immediately?
Keller: Yeah. They…in fact he became a citizen as a conscript.
Interviewer: Interesting. And where was he sent during World War I?
Keller: Well, he was supposed to go to France but meanwhile he had gotten a position working as an assistant to the quartermaster at Fort Niagara, which was an officer’s training camp. So even though they sent him to New York to embark, they called him back because they needed someone, and he could read and write whereas they had others who couldn’t so he had a good time during the war at Fort Niagara and he enjoyed it, actually.
Interviewer: So, then your parents met and married…
Interviewer: What can you tell us about that?
Keller: Other than that they were very much in love there is very little I can tell you about them. My mother did not work any longer, she just was a homemaker. My father, who then had a brother who came over, I think, pretty much around the same time he did, and the husband of one of his sisters went into business in food manufacturing and food sales and they made syrups and toppings and all that sort of thing and eventually it turned out to be a pretty good business. They were selling them all over the country.
Interviewer: Wonderful. So where were they living and where were you born?
Keller: Well, I was born in Brooklyn but when they got started they were in Lower East Side Manhattan. They had a factory there.
Interviewer: So you were born in Brooklyn. And what can you tell us about your childhood?
Keller: When I was in Brooklyn I didn’t realize that Brooklyn was part of New York because, if you went on the subway, there was a sign with an arrow saying “To New York” so I thought that was some foreign country I was going to. I had no idea.
Interviewer: So how old were you before you ever went out of Brooklyn?
Keller: I probably was five or six years…about five years old before I realized there was a world outside of Brooklyn. And all I could speak at that time was Yiddish because my grandmother lived with us and she didn’t know English so my first language was Yiddish.
Interviewer: Wonderful. And I actually should have asked you when you were born.
Keller: I was born in 1923.
Interviewer: And do you have brothers and sisters?
Keller: I have one sister.
Interviewer: Is she older or younger than you?
Keller: Younger than I by about six and a half, seven years.
Interviewer: And where does she live now?
Keller: She lives now in Teaneck, New Jersey and she has a very interesting life. She studied opera when she was young and she sang with the City Center and then she became a teacher and now at the age of what…she must be she must be about 77…she is a choir director for various groups. Particularly, she has organized the geriatric choir…
Interviewer: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Keller: …and she loves it. That’s her…that’s her great love.
Interviewer: So, back to your childhood.
Interviewer: Now that I get the picture with your family, what was it like growing up in Brooklyn?
Keller: Comfortable. I never had any problems. It was…I had lots of friends and we played a lot of ball (laughs) and did all sorts of things that kids do and when I went to school was when I about the age of five or six, I began to really learn English. I knew a few words, but not much.
Interviewer: Did you go to Hebrew School?
Keller: Oh, yes. In fact partly because I guess I did not know any English and partly because I think my parents – although they were not Orthodox in any sense of the word – they thought I should get a good Jewish education so they sent me to a place called Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Brooklyn…
Keller:…and I went there all the way through to the 9th grade and then from there to the Talmudical Academy in Washington Heights which is right next… it’s part of the same building as Yeshiva College.
Interviewer: That was in addition to your public school or in place of it?
Keller: No, that was it. That was a day school. In other words it was both. We went half day for what we called English and half day for Jewish or Hebrew.
Interviewer: So…but that gave you a very good foundation because…
Keller: It certainly did and in fact it has been a joy to me ever since because I can, you know I can sit down and read a Daf Gemora. I can do all kinds of things like that.
Interviewer: And then you had some interest in perhaps becoming a rabbi, I heard?
Keller: Well, what it was is that the school I went to was a rabbinical school.
Keller: And I just went along with the crowd. I really did not want to be a rabbi. Nor did my parents, but I enjoyed the shiurim of the and I even got as far as going to Rabbi Soloveitchiks shiurim…
Keller: …and he was…he was an outstanding scholar and master and to listen to him present the shiur it was better than the best kind of lecture or conference you could go to and I’ll tell you about what we did later. Because when we moved to Boston when I was teaching at Harvard, he used to come and give shiurim on Saturday nights at the Maimonides School and I used to go regularly.
Interviewer: In what language?
Keller: First he started giving them in Yiddish. When I was at Yeshiva he gave them in Yiddish. Then later on he began giving them in English and he had no trouble with it. He was a real scholar.
Interviewer: So, now we have you finishing school, did you go then directly to University?
Keller: Well, I went, when I finished…
Interviewer: Yeshiva High School?
Keller: …Yeshiva High School. I went to Yeshiva College and I…
Interviewer: In New York?
Keller: …Yeah. I spent four years there and got my Bachelors.
Interviewer: In what subject?
Keller: Basically in biology…
Keller: …and history. And at that time I was getting ready to go into the army because we were at war. This was in 1940… let’s see…1944, and I was due to go into the army and I got a position working with the signal corps, and they asked for me to be deferred to continue to work on what was actually a federal program. And I worked for the next…let’s see…I’m trying to think…’45, ’46, ’47…I worked with the signal corps and meanwhile of course the war ended. So I had to decide what to do and they were still conscripting…but even…but, so meanwhile I decided I’d go to graduate school because they…I had plenty of time. I only worked about 4 hours a day for the signal corps. So, by 1948 I had all my credits towards my doctorate. I had already gotten my master’s and went on to my doctorate.
Interviewer: So was your master’s in biology, also?
Keller: It was in biochemistry and so was my doctorate in what they called physiological chemistry at the time. And I was going to work for Lederle Laboratories but my adviser told me that I would have a much better time if I got an M.D. and could then work in that area so I applied and to my surprise I was accepted by the three best medical schools in the country.
Interviewer: Which were?
Keller: Harvard, Hopkins and Columbia.
Interviewer: And you decided and went to?
Keller: I decided to go to Cornell (laughs) because they accepted me, too. Because it had a great…it had a great…well, it had a great reputation and Vincent DeVinio, who was a Nobelist who had synthesized penicillin, invited me to become his lab assistant which gave me a free ride in medical school. So I did that. And, it worked out all very nicely. I don’t know…I don’t know why I did anything…I was just standing on the corner, a bus came along and I got on the bus. That’s the way I made my decisions. I never really did any planning.
Interviewer: Well. When and how did you meet your wife?
Keller: Ah, that’s an interesting story. This goes back, let’s say, to about 1950. Its interesting it just shows you the value of bar mitzvahs because we both happened to meet at the bar mitzvah of a cousin.
And we started going out together. And she was at that time completing her studies at Hunter and getting ready to do… she wanted to go and get advance training and so we decided and finally when I got, in 1953, we decided to get married. At that time my military service finally caught up with me (laughs) because I had been getting deferment after deferment and so I said, “Okay, I’m perfectly willing to go.” I was going to go to Korea and I… you know, I really never had much concern where I was going. I was kind of in a…in a kind of insouciant way floating through time. And so we got married and we went down to Atlanta to the Center for Disease Control where I was an epidemic intelligence officer.
And that’s when we started really having fun because it was just when they were getting ready to work on the polio vaccine and so we went through all of southeastern US from community to community, checking on the occurrence of polio, on the various communications and we started giving gamma globulin, which was before the vaccine. That was what you were giving and we had about an 18,000 mile honeymoon. And (laughs) it was marvelous and finally I got out around 55 -56 out of the… and… but remained unto this day … and to this day have been a consultant to the CDC. And…
Interviewer: The Center for Disease Control.
Keller: …and meanwhile Geraldine had finished all of her work for her Ph D and she had even started on her dissertation and her adviser died. So…let’s see, I am trying to think now I am trying…what did we do in 1954….oh, I had been, while I was in the CDC, Governor Lausche in Ohio called for someone to help because they were having a diphtheria outbreak in southeastern Ohio in Vinton County and the CDC…I had…I knew there was an Ohio. I wasn’t sure where it was but I knew there was an Ohio. So, they decided to send me up to do an investigation on what was going on and I flew up here and they immediately drove me down to Vinton County, which is the most rural and the poorest county in Ohio. So I was convinced that Ohio was, you know, like backwoods, hillbilly country which, of course, I hadn’t spent any time in any of the big cities.
And so I worked there for a while and apparently we were able to do some pretty good things and the governor and the then director of health was John Porterfield, who later became the Assistant Surgeon General for the United States, requested that I be assigned to run communicable disease control for Ohio. So that’s it, that was our first stay in Ohio, from 1955 to roughly…I’m trying to think…1955 well, a couple of years, anyway.
Interviewer: And were you in Columbus then?
Keller: Yeah, we were in Columbus. We were living in some apartments on the east side and we had one child who was born here. Actually, not born here. Born in New York and brought here. (Laughs) And then we… all of our children were…a couple of them were conceived in Ohio and dedicated elsewhere. And then we …I’m trying to get my dates straight because a lot was happening to us I can tell you. Okay. Then I decided what I really want to do is complete my residency which I hadn’t had a chance to do because right after my internship I was taken into the epidemic intelligence service. So we went back to New York and at that time we had a couple more kids and we oh, no wait a minute. That’s wrong. Sorry.
We, I went to…back to New York and finished my residency program. That’s when Barbara was born, in New York. The reason we came back to Ohio was they requested that I come back to run their Division of Research and Training at the Ohio Department of Health. So, they supported me to spend another year to get a Master of Public Health. I already had a BA, MS, Ph.D. and MD, but now I needed another degree. So I got a Master of Public Health at Columbia and then came back to Ohio and we spent at least 2-1/2 years here while I ran that division.
Interviewer: And that was for the State of Ohio?
Keller: For the State of Ohio…The Ohio Department of Health. At that point Sidney Lee, whom I knew in the Public Health Service, was the director of the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and he invited me to join their staff as Director of Clinical Services and assistant professor at Harvard. And it sounded good, so we took it and we moved to Boston.
Interviewer: Before you tell me about that, what about those early years in Columbus? Were you at all involved in the Jewish community?
Keller: Yeah…we were…we were close to Agudas Achim so went there all the time and that was it. But we would see, I was doing a lot of traveling all the time. We never got into much in the way…now Gerry maybe got into it more than I did. Yeah.
Interviewer: But…so you always felt rooted in the Jewish community.
Keller: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. We always were whenever we could be involved. But I wasn’t here for lengthy periods of time. And, and that’s when our other two children were born…when we were in Boston
Keller: Elizabeth and Jonathan were born in Boston. And then finally the dean of the College of Medicine here.
Interviewer: At Ohio State?
Keller: Yeah, and the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine came to Boston and they recruited me and all gave me an offer I could not turn down because at Harvard I probably would have had to go six years more before I was eligible for tenure…
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Keller: …and here they gave me an associate professorship and immediate tenure. That was one…plus a very large salary increase. So, anyway, it was great and we came back and that was our history. We’ve been here ever since 1960…
Interviewer: And what…
Keller: …since 1962.
Interviewer: You came back to Columbus in 1962?
Interviewer: So, I have, according to my records, that you were president of Beth Tikvah from 1975 to 1976.
Interviewer: So from when you first came back in ’62, what was your orientation.
Keller: Well, we knew we were never really…
Interviewer: …with the Jewish community?
Keller: …orthodox in inclination. But we knew Beth Tikvah. Not Beth Tikvah…Agudas Achim. So we would go to Agudas Achim and we would go to the Center and, you know, all sorts of things of that sort and…and at that period of time, one of the reasons I came back to Ohio is, they said to me (laughs) this is…nobody can turn down a job like that. They said, “You come and you can set up and do anything you want to do.” Well, I wanted to travel abroad so during that time we went to Europe, to Africa, to Latin America…everywhere. So we did a heck of a lot of traveling. I did some with Geraldine and some by myself. And so that our orientation was…but finally we ended up with Beth Tikvah. I don’t know what year it was. It was probably when was I president.
Interviewer: In 1975-76.
Keller: So it must have been about 1969-70 that I got started at Beth Tikvah and I liked it so much because I never could quite warm up to large congregations with that sort of thing. I wanted a small group of people and Beth Tikvah was just marvelous. Particularly, I remember very…with great fondness Marc Raphel and…and Klein
Interviewer: Roger Klein?
Keller: Roger Klein. They were wonderful and we had a marvelous time with them.
Interviewer: So, you were very active as…
Interviewer: …as soon as you joined Beth Tikvah?
Keller: In fact the only reason I didn’t…they asked me to stay on for another year as president, I couldn’t because I was going to be leaving the country.
Interviewer: And what do you remember of the time during your presidency? What was going on?
Keller: There were two things…
Interviewer: At Beth Tikvah?
Keller: …that were going on. One is we were sort of searching for our identity (laughs), and also we were looking for a new building, although I was perfectly happy in the one we were at. In fact, I remember one weekend I spent…it was a crew painting the whole place. It was marvelous. So we had a…it was just a warm and inviting congregation with a lot of interesting elements that were both scholarly and a community oriented feeling that we had.
Interviewer: With your Hebrew background did you lead services…
Interviewer: …from time to time?
Keller: …yeah. From time to time I did lead services.
Interviewer: And do other things, ritualistically, or did you mostly do things like painting the building that you just described?
Keller: Well, I…that was just a labor of love (laughs). But…yeah, I did some rituals. I was on committees of various kinds and then also there were search committees for a new housing (laughs). There were all sorts of things of that sort.
Interviewer: So, any other points that come to mind during the time you were president? Do you recall who was vice-president with you or who you worked with the most?
Keller: I worked mostly with Marc and with Roger.
Interviewer: With the rabbis…
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Keller: Yeah. And of course people I worked with that I got to know and really adore were I’m trying to think of all of them. I don’t want to slight anyone. There was Rose’s husband Manny…
Interviewer: Manny Luttinger?
Keller: …Luttinger. There was Ksienski…remember him?
Interviewer: Arthur Ksienski, of course.
Keller: Arthur Ksienski. Where are they now?
Interviewer: They moved to Washington.
Keller: Oh, did they?
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Keller: Arthur Ksienski. Fred…Fred Wyle used to come a lot. I liked him. He’d come over and we would chat constantly. In fact he once had a party when he had finished reading a gigantic set of books by Will and Ariel Durant. He made sort of a seum and we had fun. And, others. Almost all the people who were on the board…I worked with them one way or another.
Interviewer: Well, I see that Don Simon followed you.
Keller: Don Simon definitely. In fact I got to know Don quite well and he did a lot of traveling, too. He was working with Battelle and they kept him traveling, too.
Interviewer: And you were preceded as president by Bernie Bayer?
Keller: I loved Bernie. Bernie was a wonderful guy. And I’ve sort of lost touch with him.
Interviewer: Well, he is not in Columbus.
Keller: I know he’s not.
Interviewer: And I’m not sure where he lives.
Interviewer: But I am curious if you have any recollection of how the transition was handled when you became president?
Keller: It was such a small and intimate congregation. The transition was no transition. It was just, “OK, I’ll do it” and that’s it.
Interviewer: And do you remember about dues and how they were determined?
Keller: Yeah, they had a finance committee that did that but I thought our dues always were within reason and if somebody couldn’t pay them we never got very excited about it.
Interviewer: So, everyone was welcome at Beth Tikvah…
Keller: Oh, yeah. Everyone. Everyone…regardless of previous condition of servitude, and economic status and if…if somebody had…was marrying or keeping company with someone of another faith, it didn’t bother us, either.
Interviewer: And do you remember anything in particular about special rules and for example, was kashrut observed at Beth Tikvah even though it was a Reform synagogue or were there some special points?
Keller: Why, I don’t really recall that a big issue was made of it.
Interviewer: I ask that question because I had some sense that they didn’t permit meat and milk together.
Keller: I honestly do not recall that….
Interviewer: You don’t remember that?
Keller: It just wasn’t as…so much an issue that it sticks in my mind.
Interviewer: Well, anything else about Beth Tikvah that might be of interest in thinking back?
Keller: Well, yeah. I felt that there were…in my mind…two things stand out. One was the intimacy and friendliness of the place in general. Second was how much the children loved that community. In fact, our son Jonathan, particularly, had a wonderful relationship with Roger Klein.
Keller: He was building up to his bar mitzvah and Jonathan has a very challenging and inquiring way. And he and Roger Klein just got in fact…I remember Jonathan particularly talking to Roger one time when they were talking about man and the image of God, and he said, “What does it mean? Does it mean man in God’s image or Man in God’s image of what Man is?” And Roger said, “Wow!” But that’s Jonathan to this day. He is very inquiring. In fact, when he went to Kenyon, his…one of his majors was religion and he was interested in comparative religions.
Interviewer: Now, which child is Jonathan?
Keller: Jonathan is our youngest.
Interviewer: Your youngest?
Interviewer: And do you remember anything special about his bar mitzvah then?
Keller: Yeah…we had…he had…we had a family bar mitzvah. We were all up there, we all sang together; Barbara, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Gerry, and I. We formed our own little choir and we sang and it was back in our old place on Indianola and we had just a marvelous time.
Interviewer: Wonderful. And what about your other two children? Those..
Interviewer: …who were older than Jonathan?
Keller: …Barbara was a Eastern European Languages and Russian major and she became quite a notable authority. She wrote a paper that won the Mershon prize and it was on family planning in the Soviet Union. It was wonderful. And I remember one particular line. She said they had various methods of birth control and their condoms left a lot to be desired. That was one of the lines in her paper. And she went on to do a variety of things and she worked on some projects and she married a man whom she met at the American Graduate School for International Management. He was not Jewish, but they had a good marriage for a while. But then they drifted apart, and her son Max essentially went to live with her. And he is now a junior or no, he’s a sophomore at Clark University in Massachusetts and is a history major. But he had a great bar mitzvah in Haddysburg, Mississippi, where they were living. Elizabeth had perhaps a little more conventional thing. She went to Brandeis; she graduated early from high school here.
Interviewer: Did she have a bat mitzvah?
Keller: Oh, yes. They all did. But…oh no, not an official bat mitzvah, no. Neither of our girls had that, I’m sorry.
Interviewer: It wasn’t so much…
Keller: No, it wasn’t.
Interviewer: …the pattern in those days.
Keller: We made a little party but it was nothing much.
Interviewer: But they went to Hebrew school.
Keller: Yeah, they both did and they both in fact, Barbara not only went to Hebrew school, she also decided she wanted to study Yiddish, so she did that. But Elizabeth graduated early and got a position as an assistant to the curator at the Columbus Museum of Art and that sort of set her off for she majored in Fine Arts History in Art History and then got a position at Sotheby’s in London. She…
Keller: …came back here and worked for a variety of…I forget…art organizations. But her husband…when she married…met and married…when she met him at Brandeis, then decided to go to medical school. And he went to medical school here, so she said “I’ll go too,” so she went to law school here.
Interviewer: At Ohio State?
Keller: Yeah. And now she is a professor of law at Boston College.
Interviewer: And her husband is a doctor?
Keller: Her husband is the medical director at Boston Medical Center. Yeah. And Barbara and her husband parted ways but she is doing very well. She is teaching English as a Second Language.
Interviewer: Well, your children have done you proud for sure.
Keller: They have done that. Our son Jonathan, particularly, has really progressed. He got his Ph.D. and he is now the Director of Research and Planning for the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. He’s got a good position. They are all doing fine.
Interviewer: And if I remember, Jonathan is a talented musician.
Keller: That’s his love. That’s his avocation. His house is full of…a museum of musical instruments.
Interviewer: Well, each of them sound…
Keller: They’re fine, they’re fine.
Interviewer: …as if they were able to follow their own star.
Keller: They are. They certainly didn’t try to follow mine.
Interviewer: Well, did you try to influence them, too, or you…
Keller: I just tried to influence them to find the best thing for themselves.
Interviewer: And in terms of their Jewish identity?
Keller: Oh, there is no question of that.
Interviewer: Well, when I asked you did you try to influence them, the life that they grew up in gave them a strong Jewish identity.
Keller: It wasn’t advertent. But we always celebrated holidays and right now, for instance, we usually meet in Boston because one of Geraldine’s nieces is married to a man who is a professor of linguistics at Dartmouth who is also a very devout Jew and so we have our Seders with him and all sorts of things.
Interviewer: Well, it’s very nice to see how your Jewish education was a component that made your life richer.
Keller: Right, there was no question about that. And to just kind of sum up for you: I feel that our time at Beth Tikvah, and we wouldn’t have left at all except it became so large and so much like what we had left to go to Beth Tikvah and it was so inconvenient for us to get there that we decided to leave. But…
Interviewer: So what year did you…
Keller: It must have been about…maybe…
Interviewer: …sever your membership?
Keller: It was maybe five, six years ago something like that.
Interviewer: And since then, have you…
Keller: No. Since then…
Interviewer: …been involved with other…
Keller: We’ve mostly been in Boston when the holidays come.
Interviewer: That’s good to be with family on the Jewish holidays for sure. Well, I am also quite interested in your experience as a professor at the Ohio State Medical School in terms of being Jewish.
Keller: Yeah. I’ve had no difficulty with that. In fact, I have brought on a number of Jewish people – not because they were Jewish, but because they happened to be the best people and happened to be Jewish – into our department. I was chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine which is now the School of Public Health and I had a wonderful time and some great help from a lot of people. And I was chairman and director of the Public Preventive Medicine/Public Health program from 1976 to 1992 when I took early retirement. But, I’ve continued to work in all sorts of ways with the school and with the college. I still have my office there.
Interviewer: That’s nice. But, you have had no incidents in which…
Keller: I’ve had none.
Interviewer: …in which Jewishness…
Interviewer: …was a factor?
Keller: At least none that I can recall. I never recalled any overt negativity from anybody or any question. I know that a lot of people were very interested in the fact that I was Jewish.
Interviewer: Well, I was about to ask whether you had some positive…
Keller: Oh yes.
Interviewer: …experiences as being Jewish.
Keller: A lot of my colleagues and many of my students were very interested in my being Jewish and asked me about it and asked me questions about what it means to be Jewish. That sort of thing. All along I’ve had that.
Interviewer: How did they know you were Jewish?
Keller: You know I really couldn’t tell you.
Interviewer: But that was a given.
Keller: I don’t know. They found maybe you know in some ways I think I may have alluded to it sometime and inadvertently, not because I wanted to say, “Hey I’m Jewish” but there are certain times in lectures when you bring up things like this is…I was lecturing on planning and I took a story from Chelm about that and they wanted them to have their own cemetery so what they did was on a particular fine day they had everyone in the town lie down on the hill side – the richer folks higher on the hillside, the poorer folks lower.
Then they hired someone from out of town to walk around and make a boundary about it. That was the size of their cemetery. I said that’s the kind of planning a lot of people do, as if nothing will ever change, no one else will come, no one will leave and I think our government plans that way. So they must immediately know I was Jewish after because I told them about Chelm, and the fact this was a Jewish folktale. So, I think that’s one of the hints. But, you know, I threw…I always…I inadvertently would throw in things that are from my own background into my teaching.
Interviewer: Well, I will come back to your mentioning your family being connected to the Baal Shem Tov and Hassidism. So do you feel that that is a line that you have carried out or…
Keller: Well, I have a great deal of respect for Hassidism as well as some misgivings. But…, but I’m a little bit in the line with if you remember Peretz Yud Lamed Peretz , he was at first tremendously opposed to Hassidism and he wrote some things that were really quite scurrilous including that when a cow goes crazy and jumps around you shoot her and when a Jew goes crazy and jumps around you make him a Hassidic rabbi. And (laughter).
Keller: but then later, later on in his life he began to think differently about it. And he wrote a wonderful story called “If Not Higher.” You know that story
Interviewer: I do
Keller: Yeah, and that was a conversion towards that and I think he showed both as tremendous negativity and the tremendous positive sense of Hassidism. Well, I was in Brooklyn as a kid some of my friends were the sons of the Skvera rebbe, the rabbi from Skvera, who I think now is somewhere, I think that congregation is now somewhere up in Spring Valley, New York. And I used to go the rabbis house on shabbos and I used to join them in shalach seudos and all of that and sing the songs and have fun. So I have a warm feeling about Hassidism, I really do.
Interviewer: Well. That’s nice to have you share with us and I don’t if… how to make the segue but [long silence] and I would ask you again to respond to how you feel about living in the Columbus Jewish community.
Keller: I think it’s a wonderful community, I really do; I think it’s a community that I feel proud to belong to. And if I were going to stay much longer here I would probably join some maybe they have a new congregation…I don’t care what denomination it is, I’m ecumenical. I’m Orthodox-Conservative-Reform, it makes no difference to me, really. I’m ready to go with any. Its the nature of the people and the community that’s more important to me. And I find Columbus is a wonderful community and there’s a lot of people who are interested in Judaism, interested in themselves as Jews, and certainly a very charitable community. And there is a there is a feeling up here that I really like.
I couldn’t experience it even though I had some great times in Boston, particularly when I went on Saturday night to hear Joseph Soloveitchik give his shiurim and we also went to the Young Israel in Brookline, which was a really orthodox but a wonderful group of people, many of them on the faculty at Harvard. And it was a great place to be. I have enjoyed it here and I think there’s a real future for the Jewish community here. The main thing that they have to be careful about, I find, is not to get too competitive with one another. They really should form which, I think, I mean, I can’t give advice, but I think they should form a consortium of Jewish communities, all of whom are pulling together, for a similar end and realizing that there are differences among them
Interviewer: You mean a consortium of Jewish congregations or communities?
Keller: Congregations, yeah. And they should …they should act as if they were members of a family where there may be some differences of ideas, but not strong enough to pull them apart.
Interviewer: So, what would you say as your memory of Beth Tikvah because they are approaching their anniversary…
Interviewer: of fifty years?
Keller: My warmest memories of Beth Tikvah are the earliest, when we were a small cohesive group with a great deal of interest in one another and interest in the whole business of being members of a congregation. And, I suppose it’s just one of those things that happens as you get bigger and bigger and bigger all the ties becomes looser and looser and you lose that sense of intimacy and belonging. And that’s what…but I think it’s in the nature of things. For instance my daughter belongs – I forget the name of it – it’s the largest reform congregation in Boston. Its a wonderful congregation. They do wonderful things, but they’re so big that now they’re going into something like what do they call it…synaplex, s-y-n-a-plex like the…you have a lot of things going on at the same time.
Interviewer: Well, let me put the question to you slightly differently. In your experience how has the Columbus Jewish community changed?
Keller: I am trying to think. I think it has changed into a proliferation of congregations, number one. Its changed a little bit in the passing of generations that had different affinities and it has also changed in the fact that I don’t think that there is as much of ain some respects, by the way, there is more cohesiveness in terms of mission But I don’t think there is the same cohesiveness in terms of sort of intimate orientation. Because I don’t think that… for instance. Rabbi Stavsky – who was a man who recently passed away, at Beth Jacob – I taught him physics and English when he was a high school student because I had just graduated college and was looking for a job and they gave me that job. He was at Talmudical Academy …
Interviewer: In New York
Keller: Yeah. So
Interviewer: You taught Rabbi Stavsky in New York?
Keller: In New York. (Laughs) In fact, I am sad about his passing. He always he called me very frequently just to chat and …of course about the old days, and he was a very fine person.
Interviewer: That’s a very interesting connection.
Interviewer: Were you involved with any other Jewish organizations in your
Keller: Well, I
Interviewer: as a volunteer when you were with Beth Tikvah?
Keller: I don’t think so. The only one that I did was Phi Delta Epsilon, which was the medical…Jewish medical fraternity.
Interviewer: Oh, tell me about that. I don’t
Keller: Well, it
Interviewer: Know anything about it.
Keller: It was in medical school. They had a Jewish fraternity. I don’t know how well it has thrived or even if it’s still functioning. But I joined that and we met regularly and we had fun. And that was about it.
Interviewer: And was there such a fraternity at Ohio State? A Jewish fraternity?
Keller: I honestly don’t
Interviewer: You don’t know.
Keller: No, I don’t know.
Interviewer: Hm-hm. Well, I was just curious as to whether there were other areas in the Jewish community in Columbus that
Keller: No. You know I would have probably been more involved but don’t forget…I’d like you to remember the fact that there wasn’t a year that I wasn’t away for a long period of time.
Interviewer: That you traveled so much for your work.
Keller: Yeah, right. So I really could not put down the kind of roots I would have done otherwise. And now that I can put them down (laughs) I have other things on my mind.
Interviewer: Fair enough. And I expect when you traveled you often connected with the Jewish community.
Keller: Always. Always. I remember we were in Dubrovnik, in Yugoslavia, when we found a little street off the Stradona, which is their main plaza, called Ulitza Yudaica Judaica – in other words, the Jewish street and they had a fountain there that only Jews were supposed to drink from. You know, that sort of this was way back, of course. And they had an old Sephardic shul down the street and it was run by a Sephardic man… I am trying to remember his name. I can’t recall it at the moment. So we spent some time there and it was just wonderful.
And everywhere else we’d go we always looked up different… We were in Guatemala, for example. We went…we were there on the High Holy Days and we spent it with a very interesting congregation in Guatemala City. It was particularly interesting since they were having so many insurrections there at the time. They had a wall around it with turrets and on each turret there was a guard with a tommy gun…with a machine gun. That’s where we went for the High Holidays…
Interviewer: Was this last year or
Keller: Oh, no. No.
Interviewer: some years ago?
Keller: Many years ago. I’ll tell you exactly when. It was…I think about… oh, fifteen, sixteen years ago.
Interviewer: Well. I guess as I bring my questions to an end, I think it would be interesting to reflect on what you feel has been your most significant involvement with the Jewish community in Columbus.
Keller: I think Beth Tikvah was most significant. At those years that we were very much involved.
Keller: And then we continued to go to the education sessions, where Manny, particularly, was very prominent in running it and it was good. And I enjoyed them very much but they sort of lost …at least from my point of view they lost their way a little bit. But the most recent one I went to was about five years ago or so ago, and I thought they were excellent.
Interviewer: By the education sessions, did you mean the Sunday night study group?
Keller: It was a study group, yeah. We studied different books; we studied different texts and we spent a lot of time arguing with one another. It was fun.
Interviewer: And always the books are on Jewish topics?
Keller: Always, always yeah.
Keller: the last one I think I went to I think was on the Kabalah actually.
Interviewer: Well now, during the time when you were the president of Beth Tikvah, was there an education study
Keller: Yeah, yes, we had
Interviewer: group then?
Keller: It wasn’t quite as formal but we did have education sessions and we met together and read things and discussed various things. Yes.
Interviewer: And that was when did you first start with Beth Tikvah?
Keller: Well, I was teaching there in…I began in 1968
Interviewer: Oh, you
Keller: But we joined actually after you were no, while you were president, I guess. When we came back from Israel. No, it was in 76.
Keller: That was about the time, yeah. We had joined a few years before then, I can’t remember…in the early 70s.
Interviewer: So were you mentioned during your time as president as being involved in looking for other possible buildings.
Keller: That was our big effort at that time.
Interviewer: So how did you feel about the decision to move and build in Worthington?
Keller: I must say a mixed blessing. I (laughs) …I realized that they had a need for something else. Maybe a larger and more accommodating but I just felt so good about the old place and the intimacy of it all that I felt the loss when they left it.
Interviewer: So, when you were looking for buildings, do you recall what area of Columbus or what your priorities were in finding
Keller: Well, there was a
Keller: Well, there was a growing community beginning in Worthington and that area, so I think they probably They decided that might be a good place. We also looked at a place on Blake, which was much closer in, which I would have preferred. But
Interviewer: Where is Blake?
Keller: It’s off High Street.
Keller: And the thing is that they were looking and maybe they were forward looking in a good way, looking toward a community farther out towards the growing north…northern end. But, we had all sorts of places of things we talked about. But, a lot of it was opportunistic. When we got the gift of the land and all…it was pretty much foreordained as to where we would build.
Interviewer: Were you involved with obtaining that gift?
Keller: A little bit. Not a great deal.
Interviewer: So, did you know Jack Resler?
Keller: Yeah, of course.
Interviewer: What can you tell me about Jack Resler?
Keller: He was a very interesting man. Very, very nice man and had, I think, a great sense of devotion to the community . And he was certainly more than …a generous with his funds and that’s about it. I never talked to him much about money or but, we just chatted.
Interviewer: Do you know how he came to decide to donate to Beth Tikvah
Keller: No, I don’t know
Interviewer: because he was never a member
Keller: no, I don’t
Interviewer: as far as
Keller: I know. No, I don’t know, not as far as I know.
Interviewer: Hm-hm. So, after your presidency and you were abroad
Interviewer: for a year
Keller: You see I had intended to go for…be president for two years but I couldn’t because of that.
Interviewer: But after that, were you ever as involved again when you returned then?
Keller: I was involved and I think I was even on the board for a while but I couldn’t do much more.
Interviewer: And how did you find the experience of being on the board
Keller: I found it pleasant. I thought… I thought we had a good board. There was very reasonable people. We never had any significant differences that left scars. Which a lot of boards do.
Interviewer: Yes. Well, that all sounds idyllic and
Keller: Yeah. I think that Beth Tikvah is very fortunate in many ways. They have good people who are devoted to them, who are interested in maintaining the place and probably will do all right. But, again, I say I’ve felt the loss of the old warmth and cohesiveness that existed.
Interviewer: Have you remained in touch with either Rabbi Klein or Marc Raphel?
Keller: Oh yeah, every now and then we get together or meet somewhere or chat and they’re both outstanding people.
Interviewer: But, I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily a given.
Keller: You must plan it…to make the connection. Well, it’s usually by happenstance I happen to be in their area or something and I give them a call. That sort of thing.
Interviewer: Wonderful. And how did your children feel about Beth Tikvah? I’m backing up. Jonathan, you had the interesting story about, but
Keller: He loved it, he really did. All of our kids loved it. They were not reluctant to come to synagogue any time and they
Interviewer: And they also attended religious school or
Keller: Um…I’m not sure. I think I think maybe. I can’t recall. But I think they probably did some, but not much.
Interviewer: And do you remember if they went to Hebrew school? Did you always live on the east side?
Keller: Yeah, we moved. Well, what happened was. There was a I had a classmate when I was in college. His name was David Greenberg. He became a rabbi in, somewhere in Scarsdale, I think, in New York and his family lived on the east side. We didn’t know anything about it. So they found the place for us and…and he said this is his brother-in-law was the real estate person who sold us the house. So we moved there without knowing a lot about it.
Interviewer: So, have you only lived in the one house in Columbus? You mentioned an apartment during your early years.
Keller: Yeah, that was before we had a house, yeah. So. Now I’m not doing the math readily
Interviewer: How many years have you been in your house
Keller: Well, 62 to…
Interviewer: then on Gould Road?
Keller:… forty-five years.
Interviewer: That’s a good amount of time. (He laughs) And a happy time I’m sure.
Keller: I’ll say. We’ve enjoyed Columbus. We’ve enjoyed the synagogue. We’ve enjoyed our association with the Jewish community. It’s all been good. My wife was more active in it actually than I. She had the time to do it and wasn’t away as much.
Interviewer: Well. Is there anything else that you think might be valuable for future generations who are interested in the history of Jews in Columbus and the history of Beth Tikvah?
Keller: Yeah. I think that it…I haven’t kept close tie on it. But there always has been some…a kind of…an interest in social endeavors. I mean for the society at large. And for the Jewish community at large. I think there has been that feeling at Beth Tikvah and I think if somebody wants to look into the various things that Beth Tikvah has done or the various affiliations they’ve had in terms of outreach towards social issues, that would be interesting.
Interviewer: Very good. And, as far as the general Jewish community you have only the highest praise.
Keller: I think this is a wonderful Jewish community, really, in every way.
Interviewer: Well, that’s an excellent ending I would say. And so on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, I want to thank you for contributing to the oral history project.
Keller: I’m delighted to have had the opportunity. Thank you. Particularly, I am delighted to do it with you.
Interviewer: Thank you. This concludes the interview.