This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah is being recorded on August 24, 2008 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at Bethesda, Maryland. My name is Eleanor Pearlman and I am interviewing Marc Lee Raphael. And we’re going to start off with personal questions and please give me your full name, your Hebrew name and who you were named for if that’s relevant.
Raphael: Marc Lee Raphael. My Hebrew name is Mordecai and my grandfather, my maternal grandfather who died in 1928, so I didn’t know him, his name was Max. And so the Mordecai and the Marc are for him, Max Babin. And I’m Mordecai ben Yosef, the son of Joel and my mother never had a Hebrew name so I’m the son of Joel and Florence Raphael.
Interviewer: Okay. And how far back can you trace your family in the U.S. or what was the original country that people came from?
Raphael: Not that far back. On my mother’s side . . . .
Interviewer: Were they born here or elsewhere?
Raphael: My mother and dad were born here, my mother in Los Angeles, my dad in New York City. My mother’s mother, my grandmother, was born in Pittsburgh. Esther was her name. She was born in the 1890s in Pittsburgh and my dad’s father, Louis, was born in the United States in the 1880s. He was born also in New York City. So that’s as far back with reliable information that I can really go. And I know the names of people before that but not really exactly where they were from.
Interviewer: New York City, so what was the port of entry for . . . ?
Raphael: For my, Louis Raphael was my grandfather and so his parents came from Russia and I don’t know anything about when they arrived. I only know that my grand-father’s mother and father were born in Russia and came to the United States.
Raphael: And my grandmother Esther’s parents likewise came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at some point and ended up in Pittsburgh and I don’t know when they came.
Interviewer: Do you have stories as to why they left and . . . .?
Raphael: No. I can tell you why my dad left New York and my mother grew up in Los Angeles but I don’t know . . . .
Interviewer: Tell me about that.
Raphael: Okay but let me go back just a bit. My father’s father, Louis, eventually moved to Los Angeles and died in the late 1940s so I knew Louis. I knew Grandpa Louie for a few years as a kid. I don’t really remember whether it’s photographs that I’ve seen or whether I actually remember being with him but when I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s I have, there are a number photographs of me playing with Grandpa Louie who died in the late 1940s. His wife Minnie, my dad’s mother, remained alive into the 60s and we hung out together throughout the 1950s. She especially liked going to the Santa Monica beach. When I was a teenager, she made me go to the beach with her, trying to introduce me to all the daughters of her friends at the beach. She had a little club at the beach.
So I was, I spent a lot of time with my Grandmother Minnie. I didn’t particularly like her. She was a very unpleasant person. My mother’s mother, Esther, grew up in Los Angeles and remained in Los Angeles. She didn’t die until the 1970s. I was much friendlier with Esther, my mother’s mother, through the 50s and 60s. She lived with us. The last twenty years of her life or so she was with us. She had some kind of stomach cancer and had most of her stomach removed and all I can ever remember her eating or drinking is a glass of hot water. I never saw her actually eat any food. I don’t know how she stayed alive. And she lived in our house.
So when I was growing up I liked her a lot. We played cards together. In an autobiography of mine that’s coming out I write about how she taught me to play Poker when I was in the second grade and I would come home . . . .
Interviewer: Second or seventh?
Raphael: Second, second grade. I would come home at eight years old and we’d play Poker all afternoon. And we played Canasta and we played Gin Rummy and other kinds of card games and she never left the house. She never did anything. But I liked her a lot. So I was very close to my Grandmother Esther and not as close to my Grandmother Minnie. So Esther came from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles early in the 20th century.
Interviewer: And Pittsburgh, how . . . ?
Raphael: I don’t know how the family came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Pittsburgh. I never really asked her that. But she came to Los Angeles as an orphan. Her parents died at some point and she came to Los Angeles to live with an aunt, Aunt Lena, and so she was in Los Angeles through most of the 20th century. My Grandmother Minnie, my dad’s mother, came to Los Angeles after my dad left New York. When he graduated from high school . . . .
Interviewer: Where in New York, New York City?
Raphael: New York City, New Bronx and the Upper West Side. He went to George Washington High School in Washington Heights and when he graduated high school, this would have been just at the beginning of the Depression, he came out to Los Angeles to look for work and he remained in Los Angeles the rest of his life. And after he came to Los Angeles, say 1930, his mother and father followed him to Los Angeles with his younger sister. So from 1930 on, my dad, his sister and his parents Louie and Minnie, lived in Los Angeles.
Interviewer: Do you know what kind of work they did?
Raphael: My Grandpa Louie had something to do with Mack Trucks. But he was retired by the time I was born and since he died when I was six, I never really asked, you know, talked to him about his work. No I don’t know. His wife Minnie never worked. And my Grandpa Max, after whom I’m named, who died in 1928, he and my grandmother had several restaurants in Los Angeles. They all had the name “Babin’s” which was their name and I’ve written articles about their restaurants in the teens and the twenties and then he died in 1928 and that was really the end of their restaurants because my grandmother was left a widow with two children, my mother and her brother, and had to take care of her children so she no longer had a restaurant.
Interviewer: What kind of restaurants were they?
Raphael: Well they were called “Babin’s Kosher Hungarian Restaurant” and what kosher means is the subject of an article I wrote because my grandmother had no idea what kosher meant. So kosher probably meant, say in 1920, “deli” but it didn’t mean kosher. So I have advertisements from the Los Angeles Times for several years, Babin’s Kosher Hungarian Restaurant, it was in various places in downtown Los Angeles. I even have one photograph of the wait staff standing around a table. The tables are piled with chalah and all the waiters and waitresses are dressed up and my grandmother and grandpa are in this picture.
Interviewer: If you’re able to, it would be great to have that copied and to send that to the, as part of something, to the Jewish Historical Society as, ’cause I think any kind of documentation like that will be of interest.
Raphael: Yes, well I’ll send you a reference to where I published an article on the restaurants. The article was published in the “Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly”.
Raphael: And that photograph appears . . . .
Interviewer: In that, okay.
Raphael: in the article.
Interviewer: Okay. And your parents, what kind of work did they do?
Raphael: When my dad came to Los Angeles in 1930, he pretty quickly found a job as a beauty-supply salesman and that’s the job he had his whole life. He would travel . . . .
Interviewer: Did he finish high school?
Raphael: Well it’s not clear whether he actually graduated from high school or not. I went to George Washington High looking for evidence of his graduation and I was not able to find, finding a transcript in the New York City School System is difficult.
Raphael: So I don’t actually know if he graduated high school. He probably didn’t. Either he dropped out in the 12th grade or he graduated. But I don’t know.
Interviewer: Well around those years was the Depression so he may have had to just. . . .
Raphael: Yeah it’s possible that he had to go to work right about 1930. He was born in 1914. So that’s possible and I don’t know. He was a little vague about this.
Interviewer: And your mom, do you know?
Raphael: My mother graduated from high school, Los Angeles High School, and she got a job after high school.
Interviewer: And tell me her name again.
Raphael: She got a job after high school in the movie industry. She was what was called at the time “a script girl” and she worked for a director known in the 1930s as “The Shlochmeister”. He made these really junky westerns, Sam Katzman, and in my forthcoming autobiography I write a chapter about the motion picture industry and my mother’s role in this. She appeared in westerns which I used to see as a kid. She grew up riding horses in Los Angeles. Kind of strange but somehow she rode horses and at some point the director Sam Katzman, when he had an actress, a cowgirl, who couldn’t ride a horse, the first one my mother used to say was Hedy Lamar, but I’m not sure if that is the first one or not. She couldn’t ride a horse so Sam Katzman said, “Anybody here can ride a horse?” My mother got on the horse and she then would ride off into the sunset at the end of every western. So we would be called in as kids in this little television in the late 1940s and my mother would say, “There I am,” and you would see this dot riding off, just the rear end of a horse and a dot. So my mother worked in the motion picture industry until I was born and then she never worked, other than being a housewife, she didn’t work outside the house ’cause she had three children.
Interviewer: Do you have any siblings?
Raphael: I have a brother. I was born in 1942. My brother was born in 1946 and my sister was born in 1947.
Interviewer: Okay. And what are their names?
Raphael: My brother is Larry. He’s a rabbi in San Francisco, Sherith Israel in San Francisco. And my sister is Joann and she has a horse ranch in Oregon. She breeds and raises horses and especially teaches people how to ride horses, equestrian and other kinds of riding. She’s a horse person. We all grew up riding horses in Los Angeles. People don’t think of growing up in Los Angeles in 1940’s as riding horses, but my brother and sister and I, because of my mother’s love of horses, grew up going to a stable all the time and so we all were fairly skilled at riding and I developed a really serious allergy to horses. And by the age of 10 or 11 I had to stop. I’ve never been on a horse again. But my brother and
sister continued riding a little bit and my sister made it her profession. So I come from a Los Angeles horse-riding family, beauty-supply salesman on one side and a horse rider on the other side.
Raphael: It’s not the standard profile of a family where both sons are rabbis.
Interviewer: So you, you’re the eldest and so then you were the first person to go on, to continue your education?
Raphael: Uh huh. I was the first person in the family to go to college.
Interviewer: Okay. And what was your life growing up? It sounds unusual with the horse business, to me.
Raphael: Well it was just a typical Los Angeles Jewish kid of the 1940s and 1950s. It was, 1950’s were a very safe time. I have no recollection of my parents ever locking the doors of our house at nighttime. We lived in a modest neighborhood, mostly Jewish people in the neighborhood. I spent my summers every single day as I was growing up at the Santa Monica beach. I just went to the beach and surfed and read and sort of alternated on a surfboard and reading War And Peace. And it was much like most of my friends who lived on the west side of Los Angeles. We rode our bikes to the beach. It was perfectly safe. We didn’t even lock our bikes. We’d just dumped them somewhere on the beach and spent the day at the beach. I had much too much sun as someone growing up. Nobody had any sense that it was bad for you.
Interviewer: Right., we didn’t know the sun wasn’t our friend.
Raphael: No. So it was pretty typical. Every so often one of my friends got a summer job. We were lower-middle class families. It’s not that anybody had any money but we . . . .
Interviewer: What was your first job?
Raphael: My first job? Well I delivered newspapers. I guess that was my first job, delivering an afternoon newspaper. My second job was washing windows. I would put a flyer in the mailbox of neighbors to wash windows and I began then to expand my business into mowing lawns and washing windows.
Interviewer: Was that your idea to do that or did your parents . . . .?
Raphael: Yeah. No I did all these things on my own.
Interviewer: For your own, for spending money?
Raphael: For spending money, yeah.
Interviewer: And tell me about your education. Where did you go to college and how did you get interested in history and becoming a rabbi? Take me through that.
Raphael: I went to a Reform Jewish summer camp as a teenager when I was fourteen and the experience at that Reform Jewish summer camp was so positive that I decided while I was at camp that I would be a rabbi like the rabbis on the staff that I really liked.
Interviewer: So you were about 10, 11?
Interviewer: Oh fourteen, fourteen.
Raphael: Fourteen. The summer of 1957 I decided to become a rabbi and I changed my mind at one time for one week. But otherwise from the age of 14 on, I had decided to become a rabbi. I was one of these kids that . . . .
Interviewer: Did your kids go to the Goldman Union Camp Institute?
Raphael: Uh huh.
Interviewer: Yeah. So it was similar to that?
Raphael: Yeah, exactly, just in California instead of Indiana.
Interviewer: Yes, yes, okay.
Raphael: I loved Religious School, Hebrew School, Confirmation, youth group. I loved everything about the Reform Synagogue that I grew up at.
Interviewer: And your parents attended this synagogue?
Raphael: Yeah they were quite active at the synagogue. They would be youth group directors and they liked going to services.
Interviewer: Both of them?
Raphael: Uh huh, yeah, and we went to services as a family. We alternated. To tell you the truth, we alternated on Friday nights. My mother liked wrestling and boxing. It was a middle-class spectator sport in Los Angeles. It’s not so much that any more but families went on Friday nights to this arena in Santa Monica where there was wrestling and boxing and she especially liked these really cute wrestlers and boxers that could, a wrestler was named Gorgeous George and women went crazy over Gorgeous George.
Interviewer: Oh I remember that name.
Raphael: He had a permanent and it took 20 minutes for him to disrobe and do his hair. So my mother loved watching Gorgeous George wrestle as did lots of other women in town and on alternate Fridays there was boxing and there was a particularly cute boxer named Art Aragon. And my mother loved watching Art Aragon box. These were just, I don’t know what would be the equivalent today, like going to a baseball game I guess. So on Friday nights we either went to temple or to boxing and wrestling. And the ringside announcer at the boxing and wrestling was Steve Allen who, he was on the radio . . . .
Raphael: Was just beginning to be on television with his wife Jane Meadows. But this was one of his jobs, was announcing. And he was a great announcer.
Interviewer: So did you have fun at this ’cause you’re smiling?
Raphael: Oh I loved it, oh I loved going to wrestling and boxing.
Interviewer: And so now you must be 14, 15?
Raphael: 11, 12, through my teens.
Interviewer: Through your teens?
Raphael: Yeah, yeah. So I loved the temple that I grew up at and had very positive feelings and I got a scholarship to go to away camp when I was 14. My parents couldn’t afford this camp but the rabbi gave my parents a scholarship and I decided to be a rabbi at the camp. And that was sort of as I was entering high school. So all through high school everybody knew me as the kid who was going to be a rabbi. It was a little weird but . . . .
Interviewer: Did you like having that moniker?
Raphael: Yeah I had positive feelings about being a rabbi and, how can I, here’s the way to sum this up so you’ll understand. We had a high school car pool, five boys. Until we drove, no even after we drove ’cause we didn’t have cars, one mother drove each day of the week. And five of us got in the car and one mother drove her car. The same high school car pool continued to UCLA.
Raphael: All five of us lived at home, as did all my friends and the only difference was now, we each could take our mother’s car for one day a week. Our mothers were stuck at home without a car one day a week. But here’s the best part which nobody listening to this would believe, we could only take classes at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00 ’cause we had to leave UCLA by 12:00, number one to bring our car home to our mother for the afternoon and number 2 cause our mothers made us lunch. We had to be home for lunch.
Interviewer: In college?
Raphael: In college. This was in college, at least for the first two years of college. The car pool began to drift off and the other four people in this car pool all became famous. Not me, but all became famous. This was an extraordinary car pool. One was, his name is, was, he just died, Joel Siegel. Joel became the film critic for “Good Morning America” for many years.
Interviewer: Oh yes.
Raphael: People know him from Academy Awards.
Raphael: And Joel had published an autobiography. Before he died, he published an autobiography . . . .
Interviewer: And you stayed, did you stay in contact with all these people?
Raphael: Oh yeah. All five of us remained friends. Still are though one’s dead. But they’re all still friendly and they all became famous people. So everybody . . . .
Interviewer: Who are the others?
Raphael: Uh let’s see, Joel Siegel, Norm Ratner. Norm owns a company called Westwood One which owns basically every radio station in the United States.
Interviewer: Oh wow!
Raphael: He’s a media head and he does something with radio for Europe and he’s a big media mogul. And our high school now has the Norm Ratner Center for the Performing Arts.
Interviewer: How do you spell Ratner?
Raphael: Larry Flax, Larry founded a restaurant called California Pizza Kitchen.
Interviewer: Oh I’ve heard of that.
Interviewer: And how do you spell Flax?
Interviewer: Okay, just like it sounds.
Raphael: Marc, Joel, Larry, Norm and I’m just blocking on. And there’s one other famous person in the group that I can’t think of right at this moment. Everybody remained in Los Angeles. Joel Siegel and I, there were 870 students who graduated high school when I did and of the 870, about 865 stayed in Los Angeles the rest of their lives.
Raphael: So Joel Siegel who went to New York and I, I went first to Ohio and then to Washington, we were . . . .
Interviewer: What drew you to Ohio?
Raphael: Well I finished UCLA and while I was at UCLA I also went to rabbi school in Los Angeles, to the Hebrew Union College. And while I was at UCLA I decided that I wanted to be not only a rabbi but a professor. So I wanted to be a rabbi like the rabbis I knew and I wanted to be a professor like the professors I had at UCLA. And I decided that I’d spend my life doing both things, being a rabbi and a professor if I possibly could, which I’ve done my entire career. And so after UCLA I went . . . .
Interviewer: What, so you majored in history?
Raphael: I majored in history.
Interviewer: In what particular . . . ?
Raphael: American History.
Interviewer: American History.
Raphael: And then I went to rabbi school in Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, to become a rabbi after UCLA and then I went back to UCLA to get a Ph. D. in History. So I had my ordination and my Ph. D. and I then looked for a place where I could be a rabbi and a professor and there was an opening at Ohio State University in 1971 for a Professor of Jewish History and an opening at a small congregation in Columbus, Ohio made up largely of Ohio State University faculty that wanted a rabbi who would be part-time. And I’d already lived in Ohio for two years in Cincinnati going to the Hebrew Union College so I was familiar with Ohio.
Interviewer: And this was Beth Tikvah then?
Raphael: That was Beth Tikvah. So I interviewed for the position at Ohio State and interviewed for the position at Beth Tikvah at the same time. The week that I was there around February, 1971 there was a big earthquake in Los Angeles and at the same time there was a tornado that went through Columbus and took the roof off a building. So I had a difficult choice!
Interviewer: A choice.
Raphael: A choice. But I got the position at Ohio State and I got the position at Beth Tikvah and I decided to leave Los Angeles and go to Ohio. I had some other opportunities but I decided that was the best combination because Beth Tikvah was happy with me being a weekend rabbi and Ohio State was happy with me being a professor and a weekend rabbi. And so I stayed there as professor and rabbi for 20 years.
Interviewer: You were married at that time?
Raphael: Yeah I was married and had two children. They were born in 1968 and 1971.
Interviewer: Right, and their names are?
Raphael: Michael and Todd. And I was at Beth Tikvah for 3 years, 1971 to 1974. Then the Congregation grew too large for a part-time rabbi so that was . . . .
Interviewer: Was that the building on Indianola?
Raphael: Uh huh.
Raphael: My goal very early was to be part-time rabbi and try to build the Congregation large enough for a full-time rabbi to take over. I recently got an award from the Reform movement for building the most congregations.
Interviewer: And then you leave?
Raphael: And then I leave and find another congregation. So I was the rabbi of Beth Tikvah from 1971 to 1974. I had a fellowship for two years, ’74 to ’76 and when my fellowship was over I became the founding rabbi of another congregation in Columbus, Beth Shalom. And I was the rabbi there for four years and it grew too large for a part-time rabbi so they were able to hire a full-time rabbi. And so there were no more new congregations to be founding rabbi of in Columbus, Ohio. I was a fill-in rabbi for one year at the third Reform Congregation in Columbus, Temple Israel, when they were between rabbis. But otherwise I had retired for a few years from being a congregational rabbi.
Interviewer: And which, if any, congregation did you attend while you were not a practicing . . . .
Raphael: Oh I attended Beth Tikvah . . . .
Interviewer: Beth Tikvah.
Raphael: Exclusively. Yeah, the Congregation I was first associated with. We had the most friends at Beth Tikvah and it was close to where I lived so it made the most sense to attend there.
Interviewer: Right, and that’s where your boys were Bar Mitzvahed and so forth because . . . .
Raphael: Uh huh.
Interviewer: My kids were in the same classes as yours. My son Andy is the same age as Mike and my son Jeff is the same age as Todd.
Raphael: ’68 and ’71? I see.
Raphael: You look so much younger so . . . .
Interviewer: Right (laughs).
Raphael: You look about 50. So I would never have guessed. But I know they were Bar Mitzvahed long after I was the Rabbi at Beth Tikvah.
Interviewer: Right, right.
Raphael: Maybe Tony Holtz was there by then, I don’t know.
Interviewer: I think Tony Holtz was, actually Andy was Bar Mitzvahed by Roger Klein and so I think Mike was also.
Raphael: Oh yeah, right.
Interviewer: And then Jeff who is three years younger and Todd would probably by . . . .
Raphael: Tony Holtz?
Interviewer: No I think then Gary.
Raphael: Oh Gary Huber?
Interviewer: Gary Huber had come by that time.
Raphael: Either early 1984?
Interviewer: Right, okay. now we’re going to go into your, is there anything else that you want to talk about in, no back. Okay. Now we’re talking about your family life and we mentioned those children and you have some additional children. Want to tell me their names and . . . .
Raphael: I remarried in 1979. I married for the second time in 1979.
Interviewer: And what is your wife’s name?
Raphael: Linda and she had two children from a previous marriage, Steven and Paula and then we had a child together in 1981, Cara. So there are five children altogether.
Interviewer: Okay and where are your children located?
Raphael: The first one, Michael . . . .
Interviewer: And if anybody’s married or has children, mention that too please.
Raphael: Michael lives in Santa Monica. He’s a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. Todd lives in Los Angeles. He works for a company that organizes conventions for employers about hiring people. And he works at home doing this and he’s married and will be a father in November, his first child. So, his wife is Liora. And Steven lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He’s married and has two sons aged 10 and 6. And he’s a full-time Pro Bono partner at a law firm in Washington, D.C. Paula is not married but lives with a man who has a 9-year-old child and she manages a clothing shop in Georgetown that doesn’t sell retail but sells clothing to stores. And she mostly goes to clothing conventions to show off her T-shirts and night- gowns and things from this clothing store. And Cara, the youngest, started medical school in Richmond, Virginia this week. She got married last November, lives in Williamsburg, Virginia and her husband is an attorney, a lawyer in the Army for four years. He was in ROTC so he’s an Army lawyer at a base right next to Williamsburg, Virginia. So that’s why they live in Williamsburg.
Interviewer: Okay. And you teach . . . .?
Raphael: I’m a Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I came there in 1989 when I left Ohio State University.
Raphael: And I’m in my eleventh year as the Rabbi of a Reform Congregation in Maryland, in Columbia, Maryland, called Bet Aviv.
Interviewer: Can you spell that please?
Raphael: B-E-T (new word) A-V-I-V. I was the founding rabbi as . . . .
Raphael: As for most of my career, I was the founding rabbi of Bet Aviv, now entering its eleventh year. Four families started the Congregation. It now has 200 families and I’ve told them that within two years I’m going to leave and they’ve got to hire a full-time rabbi. So they’ll begin to move in that direction in the next couple of years. It seems to be I’ve pretty much, most of my career, been a congregational rabbi and a professor at the same time.
Interviewer: I’m looking, I was expecting this to stop but I’ll try to keep track of it.
Raphael: Shouldn’t it click or make some sound when it stops?
Interviewer: Well I want to catch it before . . . .
Interviewer: Before that happens, so.
Raphael: I’ll repeat something if it quits in the middle of a sentence.
Interviewer: Tell me about your travels. You’ve traveled a lot because I was trying to get a hold of you at one point and you were going to, was it Finland?
Interviewer: Yeah, but I just, is that an interest of yours or do you just do it because you have to?
Raphael: No, there, I don’t know if you know this joke. What are the four reasons why someone becomes a professor? May, June, July and August.
Raphael: And at all my congregations, I’ve arranged to have the summer off from the congregation. So at this current congregation, I have June, July and August off and William and Mary ends at the end of April actually. It’s a very short, it must be the shortest academic year in the United States. So I really have May, June, July and August. So the reason I wanted to become a professor and a rabbi was to have my summers to do whatever I wanted, which I imagined at a young age would be to write things. And so that’s mostly what I’ve done. In the 1980s we went to Jerusalem every summer with the children for two or three months and then in the 1990s we switched and began to go to Oxford, England and we’ve been to Oxford every year now for 19 years.
Interviewer: What does your wife do?
Raphael: She’s a professor at a medical school in George Washington University School of Medicine. And she is the director of a program called Medical Humanities. She uses literature to teach medical students things like listening to patients. Medical students and interns and residents discuss through literature the kinds of things they can’t discuss in an anatomy class. So her training is in literature and she’s been a professor at the Medical School and the Director of Medical Humanities.
Interviewer: I’m going to stop and turn over. Okay we’re restarting now, sorry.
Raphael: You asked about travel. So for about 25 years, we spent the summers either in Israel or England and our routine was pretty much the same. The kids would go to some kind of day-long experience, sports camp usually. Sports camp in England for example meant at 9:00 you have Archery, at 10:00 you have tennis, at 11:00 you have drama. It, all over Oxford they have these, we wouldn’t call them exactly “sports camps” but they occupy the kids for the day and so we would send our kids to, so the kids would go to some activity for the day . . . .
Interviewer: When you say “the kids,” are you talking about one or two or all of them or . . . .?
Raphael: Sometimes five, sometimes a smaller number, depending on whether, when some of the kids were older they went to camp in the summer. So we went off without them.
Interviewer: So did everybody meld together?
Interviewer: Because sometimes that’s not the case when two families . . . .
Raphael: They grew up a block away from each other all through their growing up so Steven, Paula and Cara lived in our house and Michael and Todd lived in their mother’s house. But it was only a block away. And so Michael and Steven became best friends and have remained best friends. Todd and Paula became best friends and have remained very close. Cara became friendly with all of them. Here is just a silly example. Todd, whose wife was, is pregnant with a child, Todd said to Cara who’s married to John, “Why don’t we spend a weekend together?” And so Todd and Cara each flew, one from Los Angeles, one from Williamsburg, to Chicago over Memorial Day and they spent the weekend together in Chicago.
Interviewer: So that really pleased you that they . . . ?
Raphael: It’s so weird. I mean Todd left his wife whose birthday was that weekend and Todd left his new wife and Cara left her new husband and they spent the weekend. They walked on Lake, whatever is the Lake in Chicago. They went to a Chicago Cubs game. So, and Todd used to come and visit Cara in college and he, so Todd and Cara have this weird relationship. Cara and Paula are very close. Paula was the best woman, whatever it’s, maid of honor at Cara’s wedding. So all five don’t get together that often but there are links.
Interviewer: Did you marry Cara and her husband?
Interviewer: You did?
Raphael: I officiated at the wedding of three of the children. Todd and Liora got married in Jerusalem so I had nothing to do with that. But the ones that got married in the United States, I’ve officiated at that.
Interviewer: It must be satisfying to you.
Raphael: Oh it’s a very emotional experience and some of the same people have come to all the weddings and that’s been a, a family in Columbus for example, who live in Bexley, you may not know, Ron and Barbara Robins. Ron has been a realtor for many years. The Robins have come to every single one of the weddings wherever they’ve been. So yes we would travel in the summers largely so that my wife and I would go and write and the kids would have fun somewhere and that they could meet kids, you know, outside the country in interesting places like Jerusalem and Oxford.
Interviewer: Do you have any other interests or hobbies other than the things you mentioned?
Raphael: I have many hobbies. I draw with colored pencils and pastels and I frame my drawings. They’re hanging all over my house and in my office.
I give them away to people.
Interviewer: What is the subject?
Raphael: I draw all kinds of things. I, this summer I did four things in the Washington Zoo. We live around the corner from the Zoo. I would go over to the Zoo stare at the rhino and then come home and do the rhino’s head. And I’d go back the next day and stare at its feet. So this summer I did a rhinoceros, a zebra, a flamingo and a basset hound. That’s not from the Zoo. I do some abstract, kind of cubism. I do all kinds of things. I just get ideas in my head and I execute them. I have no particular skill at this but I love drawing. So that’s very relaxing for me. I’ve collected coins and stamps my entire life and I still have a huge stamp and coin collection. I studied piano at William and Mary a few years ago and so I love playing the piano. Again I don’t have any great skill at this but it gives me pleasure. And I guess more than anything I like reading, especially fiction. So I read huge amounts of current fiction and I have a synagogue blog in which I tell congregants what I’ve been reading. And I redo it from time to time with the five most recent books I’ve read and a little bit about them. And my congregation likes my reading suggestions so I put this on the blog.
Interviewer: Do you have a book club at the Synagogue?
Raphael: We do have a synagogue book club. It only meets once a year.
Raphael: I suggest a novel. Everybody in the congregation reads it and then we get together in a two-hour discussion. Last May when we did it there were 94 people at this two-hour discussion.
Interviewer: What was the book?
Raphael: It was a book of Sholom Aleichem’s stories from which Fiddler on the Roof comes called Tevye and His Daughters. It’s a brilliant translation of all the Tevye stories together in one book and we read three of the stories, just three daughters, and I showed clips from Fiddler on the Roof movie as to how the filmmakers represented these women which has little to do with Sholom Aleichem’s picture of these three women. So I assign some kind of fiction and we’ve done this for 11 years. So that’s a lot of fun but it’s total chaos when 94 people are yelling out.
Interviewer: Is there anything unusual that’s occurred in your adult life that you wish to talk about?
Raphael: Nope, nope.
Raphael: Other than trying to balance being a professor and a rabbi, having two demanding profession simultaneously. People have to die and be buried according to my schedule, not when they want to die and be buried. So funerals get postponed a couple of days if I have a class or a final exam. But no, there’s nothing really unusual.
Interviewer: I guess it’s not good to die in the summertime, huh?
Raphael: No, no. Well I don’t come home. You’re right. I don’t do funerals in the summer. I’ve always had a cantor that I’ve worked with and the cantor is responsible for funerals in the summer.
Interviewer: I’m going to move on unless there’s anything else you want to talk about with family or your interests?
Interviewer: Your community activities. Are there any organizations that you belong to that . . . .?
Raphael: To be honest, I don’t have much time left over after, I’m a professor four days a week and I’m a rabbi three days a week.
Interviewer: Do you live . . . .?
Raphael: I live in Washington, D.C. . . . .
Interviewer: But you . . . ?
Raphael: Three hours from one job and one hour from the other job.
Interviewer: So do you commute from Washington every day?
Raphael: I commute and stay in Williamsburg overnight during the week at a motel within walking distance of the college and I commute back and forth one hour to my Congregation on the weekends.
Raphael: So I work seven days a week except for the summer. So I don’t have a day off. I have the whole summer off but I leave the country.
Raphael: So the only community activity I’m involved in is I’m active in Democratic politics. I’m a resident, a legal resident of Virginia and I . . . .
Interviewer: So you have representation?
Raphael: I have, unlike the district, yes. And I’ve been very active in Virginia Democratic politics, not running for office but working for Democratic candidates for Governor and the Senate in Virginia. So I . . . .
Interviewer: So you have representation?
Raphael: I have, I like the district and I’ve been very active in Virginia Democratic politics, not running for office but working for Democratic Candidates for Governor and the Senate in Virginia. So I…
Interviewer: Well I don’t know whether you want to comment on it but yesterday the Democratic presidential nominee selected a running-mate. I don’t know whether you want to get into that at all.
Raphael: Well my . . . .
Interviewer: This is taped forever.
Raphael: No that’s okay. My Governor, Governor Kane was a finalist it seems, but Joe Biden’s a much better choice because Joe Biden brings extraordinary foreign policy credentials to Obama. So it was a brilliant choice.
Interviewer: I just thought it might be interesting to comment on it since it just happened.
Raphael: Yeah. It would have been fun if Governor Kane had been the Vice Presidential candidate but he’s a good Governor and it’s nice to have him there.
Interviewer: Okay. Any activities at the College that . . . .?
Raphael: No, no. Well I’ve been Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies for eight years. I’m in my last two years as Chair. If you’re elected Chair it’s a five-year non-renewable term, but like Mayor Bloomberg in New York who is trying to change the rule so he can have a third term as Mayor, my Department at the end of my five-year term asked the College if an exception could be made and I could have another five-year term. So the College . . . .
Interviewer: And you have enjoyed that . . . .
Raphael: Yeah, I love being the Chair, I love bossing people around.
Interviewer: Okay. How many people are in this . . .?
Raphael: Ten, nine colleagues and myself. So I’m in years nine and ten now of being Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and about the time that that ends, I will retire from the Congregation I’m at as well and I’ll only have one job left, just being a Professor at the College of William and Mary, not the Chair. So in addition to being a rabbi and a professor, I’m the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and for 21 years I’ve been the Director of the Program in Judaic Studies so I’m very busy at the College of William and Mary with Judaic Studies, with religious Studies and with the administration of the department.
Interviewer: One of my questions here, I think you’ve already answered about how you came about being a rabbi at Columbia, Maryland. And I, and the other experiences as a rabbi, you’ve sort of covered that. And you talked about what drew you to that starting pretty young. So now I’m going to move on to personal philosophy and values. Describe your family life during a favorite holiday and do you have strong family ties. You talked about that but holidays are, any comments on that?
Raphael: I guess the favorite holiday is Passover. The Seder has always been at our house forever. I’ve always led the Seder and like many people who lead a Seder, I do all kinds of things that are, you know, interesting, songs and games and lots of family members are there at Passover time and guests are there and it’s great fun.
Interviewer: Who does the cooking?
Raphael: Well different people who are invited bring things and my wife usually makes the main dish, brisket or something. But, you know, someone brings matzo ball soup and someone brings vegetables.
Interviewer: Is this typical of what happened when you were growing up that the Seder was at your house and . . . ?
Raphael: Yes but I begin my autobiography in the opening paragraph by saying that in my entire family in Los Angeles, nobody was actively Jewish. Nobody belonged to a synagogue. Nobody did anything Jewish except my parents had a Seder each year and the Seder was only for our family cause nobody else in our family and my dad’s sister, my mother’s brother, cousins, nobody else did anything Jewish. They were all Jewish but they had no interest in Passover. So nobody came to the Seder except my brother, sister and myself. Maybe we had a friend or two.
Interviewer: How was it, going back a little then, how your parents joined this Reform Congregation?
Raphael: It’s hard to say. I’ve asked my mother and dad this endlessly . . . .
Interviewer: And they just felt, they just felt . . .?
Raphael: We celebrated Christmas when I was two, three and four years old, had a Christmas tree. We celebrated Christmas. My parents considered themselves Jewish but all their friends celebrated Christmas. Everybody in my family celebrated Christmas. And my parents did. When I was four my parents announced that I was going to start Religious School when I was in kindergarten and they joined a Congregation that was just forming, kind of sign of what would happen to me as a rabbi. They joined, were founding members of a tiny Congregation in West Los Angeles and exactly what, they just thought their son should have a religious education.
Interviewer: Do you celebrate Christmas now?
Raphael: No, we never celebrated Christmas after I was four years old again. And my parents became enthusiastic Reform Jews, celebrating everything and revolving their life around the Synagogue. So it was very strange how this happened and nobody in my extended family did anything Jewish ever, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, nothing.
Interviewer: You were Bar Mitzvahed?
Raphael: It was just my family. Yeah, I mean aunts, uncles, cousins, yeah. My Bar Mitzvah, my brother was Bar Mitzvahed, my sister did not have a Bat Mitzvah cause in the 1950s girls didn’t have Bat Mitzvahs.
Raphael: It was very rare. So it’s strange how they suddenly became involved in this Congregation. They weren’t able to explain it.
Interviewer: Okay. Who had the greatest influence on you when you were young and young could be any time? Sounds like the experiences at the camp, the rabbis at the camp, was a very . . . .?
Raphael: Yeah. Do you mean Jewishly speaking in terms of experience?
Interviewer: Anything you want to say.
Raphael: Aside from my mother, I mean outside of the family. My mother was the model for me of much of my life. My mother for example read enormous amounts of fiction and kept handing me books to read as I was growing up. My mother subscribed to one magazine, The Saturday Review Of Literature and the Editor, Norman Cousins. My mother would say to me after she would read something by Norman Cousins, she called me Marky. She said, “Marky” you read this. This is how you should write when you’re older.” And so I would read Norman Cousins Op Ed pieces and talk to my mother about them and talk to her about the fiction that I read. It was largely non-Jewish fiction when I was growing up, let’s say Ivanhoe or Jane Eyre.
Raphael: And then it became increasingly Jewish fiction as I became a teenager. So my mother was a model for all kinds of things. My mother was a very good ping pong player and she taught me how to play ping pong and I became a Los Angeles ping pong star as a teenager, winning all kinds of tournaments. This lasted until I went to UCLA and for the first time I began to play Asian, kids of Asian ancestry, and I . . . .
Interviewer: They wiped you off the …?
Raphael: Absolutely, they played the kind of ping pong I’d never even seen. So that ended my ping pong career. My mother encouraged me to take tennis lessons and in college I taught tennis to people. When I was nine my mother encouraged me to learn how to play Bridge and at ten I taught friends of mine to play Bridge. And my friends and I all through high school, almost every night, we played Bridge in high school. I played Bridge all through college. My mother was a model for all kinds of things. And outside of my mother the most important influence was the rabbi of the Congregation in which I grew up. I loved the rabbi and I modeled, he was very active in Civil Rights in Los Angeles.
So in the late 50s and early 60s I followed him and began to spend weekends registering Negroes in Watts to vote because it was very clear that every Negro was going to vote Democratic. And so this was a big activity of Jewish kids active in Civil Rights. My mother would not let me go to the South as a Freedom Rider in the early 60s but in high school and then in college I was very active in Civil Rights. Again all of this was an influence. My mother campaigned against Richard Nixon in the late 40s. He ran a campaign, it’s kind of famous in California, against a woman in California named Helen Gahagan Douglas and he called her “The Pink Lady” and smeared her in every imaginable way. And my mother went
door-to-door campaigning for Helen Douglas and she dragged me along. And then she went door-to-door for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 when I was 10. So I got introduction to door-to-door campaigning, which I do in Virginia. I could go on for hours. So my mother was . . . .
Interviewer: A big influence?
Raphael: A big influence in everything I’ve done in my life. .
Interviewer: Is she still alive?
Raphael: No, no she died about 15 years ago I guess, around 1993. And . . . .
Interviewer: And your dad, is he gone?
Raphael: My mother, my dad had Alzheimer’s and my mother took care of him for a little bit and then she got him into an Alzheimer’s facility in Los Angeles and she announced, “free at last, free at last” and then she died. It was so ironic that . . . .
Interviewer: That she cared for him and then she . . . ?
Raphael: And then she died. She died just months after she got him into the facility. And he lived on for a few years in that facility with Alzheimer’s. So it’s very sad. But she was the most important influence on me. And then my rabbi wanted to be liked. My rabbi was a terrible public speaker. Everybody went to sleep when the rabbi started to speak, just terrible, really, really boring. So he was still a model. I wanted to be better public speaker than my rabbi.
Interviewer: So it seems like you were always thinking about the future, what you wanted to be and how to get there to be that person?
Raphael: Oh yeah. I was always future-oriented. I listened, I went from synagogue to synagogue on weekends listening to rabbis when I was a teenager trying to learn things about being a rabbi.
Interviewer: What got you through hard times that you may have had?
Raphael: I guess a strong sense of community and I guess lots of people that were supportive, people that I had made relationships with either as a rabbi or outside of being a rabbi. Close relationship with children, hanging out with children, spending time with them but mostly adult people who were and who have been, who continue to be supportive. I’ve been pretty much blessed with not having too many hardships. But I’ve had really really a lot of caring friends and so I guess that’s the primary support that I’ve had.
Interviewer: If you could give a message about life and love to your children, grandchildren and generations to come, what would you say?
Raphael: Life and love, I guess I would repeat what I’ve repeated to my kids, even the kids who are in their 40s that I continue to say and that is try and convey a genuine sense of interest in other people. Too many people seem mostly absorbed in themselves and they finish telling you endless things about themselves and they forget to ask you anything about yourself. There are people I generally don’t remain friends with them, who tell me endless stories about their children, how wonderful their children are, how great they’re doing. They don’t even know if I have children. They just don’t care about other people. I’ve always tried to tell my children that before you start talking about how great you are to somebody, try and not only ask them about themselves but try and remember what they tell you so the next time you see them you can say, “So how’s Jeff doing now and you’ve told me something about him a few months ago?” And so it’s really hard because you don’t really care. But you’ve got to work at this.
And so I think that’s the primary lesson that I’ve told my children since they were young and that, for me is, when I have, I’m always having luncheons with congregants. My congregants just want to have lunch and talk about something and I would be terribly embarrassed if, like yesterday I had lunch with a congregant named Matthew and if I had to say, “Now Matthew tell me again how many children you have, where do they live and what do you do?” Now I don’t remember every single thing about everything but I knew where Matthew’s children live and sort of what they were doing and a little bit, so I could ask, “How’s the kid in San Francisco?” They don’t expect me to remember every name of every child but, “How’s the San Francisco kid doing and how’s the Baltimore kid doing and I remember your wife’s an elementary school teacher, you know, and she starts back,” just a few things like that. And it makes a huge difference I think with people when they sense that, you know, he remembers this about me. And you have to work hard to remember those things. So I’m not saying I’ve been really successful at conveying this to my children. But I never stop working at it. So I think that’s, if I had to reduce it to one lesson, I would say try and develop a genuine interest in the lives of other people.
Interviewer: Okay. Anything else that you want to make sure that . . . .?
Raphael: I guess I should say something about my philosophy of Reform Judaism because it’s been pretty consistent since, I was the rabbi of three congregations in Los Angeles before I came to Columbus, Ohio, so it’s been consistent for 40 years. And that is two things. I believe the essence of Reform Judaism is reduced to two words, informed choice.
Raphael: So I’ve tried to instruct congregants that they should (a) inform themselves about everything, really study and learn and then (b) that they should make a choice that’s their choice. So when they ask me, “What does Judaism say about . . . .?” I say, “Go learn what Judaism says about that and then you decide what you want to do as a Reform Jew.” So I’ve tried to stress learning and tried to stress choosing both on the congregational level and on the individual level. And secondly, ever since I was the rabbi in Los Angeles and then in Columbus, Ohio, aside from the High Holidays, I never have given sermons. I’ve always opened the Torah, read some verses from the Torah and initiated a discussion with
the congregation about something in the Torah portion for that week. So when I first came to Columbus, and this was rather radical for these people ’cause they expected a sermon, we had Torah discussions instead of sermons. And the cantor that I had working with me who became a rabbi, he was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati but he also was a very talented song leader, he knew about a thousand Torah songs.
So we would sing, we’d carry the Torah around, we’d sing, we’d sing during the discussions, we’d sing and sing Torah songs and then I would lead the discussion with the congregation about something in the Torah, try and teach something in the course of that discussion. And that’s beem the way I . . . I’ve been.as a rabbi. Last Friday night at my congregation, I have June, July and August off but I agreed to start on Friday, August 22nd instead of after Labor Day. There were a lot of people who were checking out the congregation for the High Holydays so there were a lot of potential members there and I agreed to come. So I did a Power Point presentation. The Torah was open and I did a Power Point presentation in which I showed three paintings and discussed these paintings in relation to the Torah portion. So I still am a rabbi who discusses, who makes . . . .
Raphael: Not so much creative as makes the sanctuary into a classroom. That’s really, I’m a professor in Williamsburg and I’m a professor in Columbia, trying to teach and do it through interaction with congregants. In fact a congregant blurted our Friday night, “Could we move on?”
Raphael: I was actually having a conversation with one congregant who said to me, “I really don’t agree with that,” and this guy Joel, who’s an offensive person, Joel said, “Can we move on?” And I said, “Joel, no we’re not moving on. I’m going to finish this conversation I’ve having and if you want to engage me in a conversation, we’re going to have a conversation too. I’m not moving on.” I got a little irritated with Joel and people don’t like Joel. So anyway, so that’s, I’m a professor at the congregation and I’m a professor at William and Mary. I wanted to be sure I threw that in.
Interviewer: Okay. Anything else at all?
Raphael: I have very fond memories of living in Columbus, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s, very fond memories of being the rabbi for three or four years of Beth Tikvah, for four years at Beth Shalom and for one year at Temple Israel and for teaching adult education programs at all the congregations, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I even wrote the history of an Orthodox congregation, Beth Jacob, and I liked going from congregation to congregation as a worshipper. So I have very positive feelings about Jewish life in Columbus, Ohio.
Interviewer: I think we’re just about finished.
Raphael: Thank you very much.
Interviewer: I need to read the concluding . . . .
Interviewer: On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah, I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History
Project. This concludes the interview.
* * *
Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Edited by Rose Luttinger
END OF INTERVIEW