This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and for
Congregation Beth Tikvah is being recorded on November 11, 2007 as part of the
Columbus Jewish Historical Society?s Oral History Project. The interview is
being recorded at The Newman Center on Lane Avenue opposite The Ohio State
University and my name is Helena Schlam and I am interviewing Rabbi Rodger
Interviewer: Welcome, thank you, it’s so good to have
you back in Columbus.
Klein: Nice to be here, thanks.
Interviewer: Thank for you for sending back information about your family but I’m going
to ask some questions so that we can get that recorded as well. How far back can you trace your family? What’s your earliest known
Klein: I think my grandmother, who was born in 1881, came to this country from
Eastern Europe in 1889.
Interviewer: Do you know from which country she came?
Klein: She came from Hungary.
Interviewer: Do you know from which city?
Klein: I used to, but I don’t anymore.
Interviewer: Okay, good enough, but what about your grandfather.
Klein: You know I think he came from Eastern Europe too but I don’t know any of
the specifics about him. He died ten years before I was born.
Interviewer: Do you know your grandmother’s maiden name?
Interviewer: What do you have as a memory or do you have memories of your grandparents?
Klein: Of course, these are my mother’s parents. Her father died before I was
born. My mother’s mother, my grandmother from Hungary, I knew very well, saw
her very often.
She died in 1978. By that time I was an adult. She was a very, very warm,
industrious person who lost her husband when she was quite young and lived as a
widow for, my guess is, 50 years, had very little money but she went into her
own business. She made face cream. She was entrepreneurial and extremely
charming and persistent and bright. We suspect that her formula was something
like a little of this and a little of that, nothing very special, which she
touted as coming from the wellsprings of the universe. So she was quite a
Interviewer: What did she call her cream?
Klein: I don’t remember, maybe Tillie’s Special Formula. That’s my guess.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful, what about your parents? What can you tell me about your
parents starting with their names and how they met?
Klein: My father’s name was Harold. My mothers name was Jean. Her maiden name was
Schwartz. My faher was born in Zanesville, OH in 1913 and raised for his first
five years in Coshocton. He is really an illustration of a phenomenon of Jewish
History and that is, as immigrants landed in New York or wherever they landed,
they would move west along the old Route 40, called the Old National Road which
has now been replaced by Interstate 70, and they would stop along the way. My
father’s father’s father-in-law put his four sons-in-law into jewelry
businesses in little cities along Route 40 or close to it, Alliance and Newark
and Coshocton. My father’s father had a jewelry store in downtown Coshocton.
My father’s mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918.
Because my grandfather didn’t think it was right for him to raise his son
by himself, he made connections back in Cleveland and married a woman, I?m not
sure out of love, who became my father?s stepmother. My father was raised in
Cleveland, went to Shaw High School where, I think my mother and my father met
before that, courted one another. She graduated from Cleveland Heights High
School, he from Shaw and they were married in 1937. My father was 25 and my
mother was 23. They had the same birthday but not the same year, so September
23, two years apart.
Interviewer: Were they married in Cleveland?
Klein: They were married in Cleveland at the old Stouffer?s Inn on Shaker Square,
the 19th of May, 1937. They were married on Memorial Day weekend
because they thought in advance this would be a very good day to have
anniversaries in subsequent years, a holiday weekend.
Interviewer: What about your mother’s family then?
Klein: My mother was the youngest of four. She had an older sister and then two
brothers and herself. My mother fell in love and was ready to be married before
her older sister was. In those days you didn’t get married before your older
sister. I think they did anyway, but not by much. It caused a little bit of a
family brew ha ha of minor proportions.
My mother’s older brother was a professor of Social Work, taught at New
York University and also the University of Chicago. Her middle brother was
enamored of Zionism having been a protege of Rabbi Max Kidushin at the
University of Wisconsin.
In 1937 or so he went to Israel, in order to try at pioneering, came back for
a little while, went to Israel in 1947 to fight and stayed there until he was
killed in 1967 in an automobile accident. My mother’s brother, the Israeli,
was steadfastly and insistently secular, thought that Zionism was the solution
to the Jewish problem and the religion had nothing to do with that, as a matter
of fact was an impediment. As a matter of fact, in order to make this point, he
would regularly on Yom Kippur morning have a breakfast of bacon and eggs, living
Interviewer: Well, a colorful Jewish past you are describing for us.
Interviewer: Wonderful, and your parents, how did they make a living?
Klein: My father wanted to go to medical school and started that process but
they got married and the Depression intervened so he stopped his education along
the way and directed a medical laboratory in downtown Cleveland for 45 years. My
mother was not only a housewife and a homemaker but very active in the
community as PTA President. She helped to put several programs in operation in
Shaker Heights and Cleveland and, you know, quite a remarkable woman in her own
Interviewer: Also in the Jewish Community, or not so much?
Klein: We belonged to a temple. I would say their interest in institutional religion
was moderate. We didn’t have, as I recall, much of a concrete Jewish
upbringing. We did not celebrate Shabbat. We didn’t have Shabbat Friday
evening dinner, never lit candles and so on. I went to the temple. We all became
Bar Mitzvah. I would say my parents were a product of acculturation impulses. I
distinguish that from assimilation. They had no desire to fade into the woodwork
but wanted their own kind of blend between American Judaism such that my friends
when I decided to become a rabbi were astonished.
Interviewer: Well, what a good opening for you to tell us how you decided to become a
Klein: I’m trying to help the conversation along. Oh, so you’d like to know
Interviewer: If you don’t mind.
Klein: Oh, I don’t mind a bit. Ask me anything.
Well, let me think here. I’ve always had what I might call them spiritual
yearnings. I’ve always been interested in these things.
I remember when I was a kid I decided on one Yom Kippur to walk to temple. We
lived four or five miles away. My father couldn’t believe it, wanted to know
why and didn’t believe it as I was walking because he drove right next to me
the whole way ready to relieve me at any time. I remember one High Holiday not
going to the temple, just going to the attic with a prayer book and trying to do
it on my own. I went to college, majored in Philosophy. After that I went to
graduate school for a year, thought to myself these issues are too important
just to spend my life writing articles for other philosophy people. I thought,
you know, I wanted to try to make them practical and live in the lives of
So, a variety of things, spiritual yearning, a search for an identity
myself, desire to attach myself to a tradition that transcended my little life
plus something of an assessment of my own interests and possibly gifts added up
to what I never called a “calling” until the last ten years. I’ve
come to feel that I was called to be a Rabbi, though I didn’t think so at the
time. I grew into my vocation.
Interviewer: Wonderful, can you describe a little bit of that process of understanding
that it was bashert, that it was destined?
Klein: You know, I mean that when I was Rabbi the first ten years, three years in
Indiana and seven years in Columbus, even though parts of what I did I liked
very much, working with texts, working with people, I felt a lot of ambivalence
about being a Rabbi. I felt as a Rabbi people were counting on me to be more
certain about my beliefs than I was.
Standing up reading the prayers with which I had a great deal of difficulty
struck me as dishonest. I also felt that I didn’t know enough to be saying
anything with any kind of authority. People would ask me questions and I would
say Judaism feels X about this knowing in my heart that I didn’t know much of
what I was taking about, read a few Shocken paperbacks and things like this.
Plus, I also felt that the rabbinate spread the Rabbi out much too thin and I
never felt that I could delve deeply enough. Along the way I was working on a
Ph.D. and when I received it I thought to myself, you know, I don’t think I want
to go on with the rabbinate anymore I think I’ll make a move to the
university., which I did for a number of years. Loved teaching, loved learning,
felt as if in those years I learned something but the university was a bit
remote from real life for me.
Rather than dealing with families up and down the life cycle spectrum and
staying with families for a long period of time, you had a group of students. I
would get close to the students, they would leave, that would be the end of it.
So the university though it satisfied some of what I wanted for myself, it didn’t
satisfy everything. Came back to Cleveland, taught at the College for Jewish
Studies, gradually I began to find my way back into the synagogue. They asked me
to fill in for a woman Rabbi who was on maternity leave. One thing led to
another. Along the way in the last ten years I feel as if this combination of
working with people, working in a great institution, the pursuit of wonderful
values, the opportunity to teach as much as I want to really added up to a kind
of palette of opportunities that I wouldn’t have predicted for myself at the
beginning, nor did I really envisage its possibility. It has just all come
Therefore I think of myself, you know, Rosensweig talks about Mt. Sinai being
not just behind us, something that happened in the past, but we’re all, if we
know what we are doing, on our way to our individual Sinais. I think of vocation
in that way too. Some people feel from the beginning called to do something and
follow that voice. I never had it, but I feel in recent years that I’m in
pursuit of that voice that has been calling me all along.
Interviewer: Lovely, thank you. I’m gong to backtrack just for a minute and ask if in
your younger years there was anyone who influenced you who comes to mind?
Klein: No Rabbis in particular, I had really no mentors. I always lamented that a
little bit. Not only did I not have some personal role model but I didn’t even
have a professional role model, what it’s like to be this sort of thing. I
think that’s why I floundered a bit in the early part of my career. I had no
direction from people who had already done it. I have several very important
role models in my life, but a variety of people.
Interviewer: Name them, if you’re comfortable.
Klein: Oh, I’m very comfortable. Socrates, is this the kind of role model you’re
Interviewer: Socrates will do just fine.
Klein: Socrates has always been one of my great
heroes in life, a person that is devoted single mindedly to discovering the
truth and to do it among other people in conversation. Maimonides has always
been a great role model of mine not only for his erudition but his desire to
find a synthesis between two great cultures and to live in two worlds. Lou
Gehrig is a role model of mine, a person who, when struck down by a deadly
disease at the age of age of 37, could say and mean “I’m the luckiest man
in the world.” That has always resonated powerfully with me. Beethoven is a
great role model of mine, a person with tremendous sensitivity and persistence
in the face of obstacles which confronted him.
Interviewer: Wonderful, it’s so interesting that it’s taken us a long time to get to
Beth Tikvah but we want to hear about your experience at Beth Tikvah and perhaps
we can start if you’ll give us the dates when you were a rabbi and describe
how it is that you came to be the rabbi.
Klein: I came to Beth Tikvah in August, let’s say, of 1974 and I was there till
July of 1981. After Ordination I went to Chicago where I was a part-time Rabbi in Gary,
Indiana and continued pursuing my Doctoral Degree at the University of Chicago.
When I had finished my course studies and all that remained was a dissertation,
I recognized that I could leave and write the dissertation away from Chicago. At
that point I pursued congregations. Beth Tikvah came along. I came in to
interview, liked very much what I saw, the intelligence and sensitivity and
warmth. The small size of the congregation, the proportion of its members
actively involved all appealed to me very, very much.
My predecessor was Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael whom I knew at the seminary and knew to be a bright and
intelligent and committed person. I had a conversation with him. This helped me
to feel that this was a good place to go as well and I came to Beth Tikvah. My
first years, at least for me, were difficult ones, gratifying but difficult,
trying to make my way into a congregation, a fledgling congregation with very
few resources. I remember I had to myself look for a musical soloist that first
High Holiday. We came up with someone who, though well intentioned, was something
of a disaster. I felt a bit put upon by that task, that I was being asked to do
that. So there were some problems there but by and large I loved my work at Beth
Tikvah, made life-long friends, had wonderful growth experiences and so on. Then
when I received my Ph.D. in 1980 I began to think again that perhaps there was
another path for me, left, went to Israel, studied there and found my way to
Interviewer: Let me ask you to describe some of the aspects of Beth Tikvah that you recall
most vividly as far as religious services, as far as the religious school, the
Sunday School, Hebrew School.
Klein: Okay, well what I liked especially about the congregation was its
informality. People would come in shirt sleeves. Sometimes on Friday night I was
the only person wearing a tie. There was also this commitment to education, to
learning, to questioning, to study. I thought there was a directness about Beth
Tikvah life, not a great deal of, I hate to use the word pretension because I
think it’s unfair to more formal structures which I think are not necessarily
pretentious, but I liked the fact that it was a congregation on a human scale.
They were willing to allow me to be a searcher along with them and not
necessarily the one who knew all the answers. As a matter of fact any Rabbi who
would try at Beth Tikvah to know all the answers would be in deep trouble. I don’t
remember anything real distinctive about the Religious School. I mean we had a
small school. We met at the building on Indianola. As I recall there were good
and devoted teachers. The Hebrew School, I remember teaching some at the Hebrew
School though I don’t think as much as I did in Gary.
Interviewer: Any particular congregants that you had experiences with that should be in
the history, historic experiences?
Klein: Historic experiences, well look, I mean, if I search my mind I could come up
with particulars and names but, you know what, if I mention X of them Y group is
going to be left out and I don’t want to do that.
All I can say in terms of generalities is I remember many, many individuals
quite distinctively and quite distinctly as distinctive individuals and you know
people say all the time that Rabbis really cannot and ought not to have
congregants as their friends and I’ve always found that to be false and it was
especially false at Beth Tikvah. People were warm and welcoming, treated me as a
human being as well as their Rabbi which was a real gift.
Interviewer: I’m going to bring up one incident. You gave what came to be a famous
sermon about God. Can you describe the background surrounding it and also the
reaction to it?
Klein: Well, I could recognize when I first came there, which I think is something
about me in general, that I like people to know who I am up front to the degree
that I expose it or even recognize it in myself. I’d always had a lot of
difficulties believing in God and I felt it was the right thing to do by way of
introduction of myself to say something about my own struggles. So I gave that
sermon and I recall two kinds of reaction. One, almost immediately right after
that Service a couple of people came up to me and said thanks so much for that
sermon, I really appreciated it, will you have lunch with me, Len Schneiderman
in particular. Len was a remarkable guy, brilliant and sensitive and a real
I was of course gratified by that, that somebody felt, and I assume
there were more than just that, who appreciated the honest struggle and search.
On the other hand, I did get a phone call from a congregant, I don’t think I’ll
mention who this is, you probably know who it is, who really took me to task for
this as I recall, either resigned from the congregation or resigned from a very
important role in the congregation and then wrote a very long letter to the
President, a long letter in which he complained how dare a Rabbi do this and so
on and so on.
Of course I was gratified by the first reaction and very hurt by the second.
I remember saying to myself my gosh they’re taking me seriously, (laughter)
which was a very important moment for me because it indicated to me that it is
an opportunity to make an impression and to say something that has a chance of
being listened to. I have subsequently come to feel that though in terms of
integrity this was a very good thing to do, in terms of substance I think I
underestimated the complexity of the question and thought that the issue of
believing in God was much simpler than I have come to feel. Were I to give that
sermon again I think I would give it in a different way. I think I would talk
about the ways in which I do believe in God and the kind of God I believe in and
the ways in which I don’t and the kind of God I don’t. I don’t lament what
I did because it was being honest about it and it was an important moment for me
in terms of self understanding and growth as a Rabbi and as a human being but I
would do it differently today. Hey, let’s hope so, it’s 35 years later.
Interviewer: I am remembering that you also had some controversy over wearing a yarmulka.
Klein: That’s right.
Interviewer: My question is do you or don’t you?
Klein: Well that’s a good question. That’s a very personal question, do I, or don’t
I? I’m kidding you.
Interviewer: You don’t have to answer.
Klein: I’m going to answer anything you ask me.
Right, it was a situation of a Bat Mitzvah of a congregant that was held at
another Jewish institution. That institution, if I’m right, is more Orthodox
in leaning. So I thought to myself, as I was thinking about it, there’s this
whole idea of Minchon Hamakomb. You go to a place and you follow their customs
and therefore I should just put on a yarmulka because they do.
Then I thought to myself, you know what, I’m not just going over there as
their guest. This is a Beth Tikvah service that’s being held at this
institution and we at Beth Tikvah do not believe that a yarmulka is mandatory.
Therefore I am going to represent my congregation here and not just imply, which
is often the case in the Jewish community, that the most Orthodox of beliefs is
one to which everybody else accedes. Even to this day I’m not wiling to
acknowledge that we need to do that because Reform Judaism is not a diluted
Judaism, it’s another way of doing Judaism. So, I believe I’m going to
overstate it but this is the memory as I have, and I was the only one there
without a yarmulka. There was a lot of criticism about that, not a whole lot,
but look, when a Rabbi who is on the whole liked and respected he is not going to
hear all the criticism there is. So I’m sure there was a lot more than I
heard, but I heard some.
I might today do the same thing if I had to do it over
again. Except now I do wear a yarmulka. The way in which it happened is both
cultural and personal. I mean, obviously we’ve carried on the way of cultural
moods and therefore the fact that in the last decade or so the way we’ve turned to
spirituality has an impact on everybody. When I spent a year in Israel I found
myself gravitating to more traditional worship, not Orthodox per se, but
certainly Conservative and liked it very much and found my own spirituality
shifting a bit. So that when I returned to the States we, for several years,
belonged to Conservative congregations until I joined again as a Rabbi of a
Reform congregation, so part of my personal, I don’t want to use the word
growth because I don’t think I’ve improved, but my own transformation plus
Interviewer: As you were talking it struck me that maybe you had a sense of a Beth Tikvah
identity. Am I on target or…
Klein: Yes you are except I was never conscious about
it nor did I ever consciously sit down and say to myself “Just what is the
Beth Tikvah identity?” I’ve always resisted the claim that Reform Judaism
is a watered-down Judaism and, especially when the contrast is palpable, I’m
very concerned to defend and to represent the integrity and the dignity of
Reform Judaism that I happen to be a part of. So, you know, I guess what
happened to me is what often happens. You don’t recognize overtly how strong
your conviction is in one way or another until it’s under some pressure to be
expressed or to be suppressed.
Interviewer: Could you think of how you would describe your most important contribution to
Beth Tikvah? If important puts it in a tricky mode, how do you want to be
remembered in terms of your tenure at Beth Tikvah?
Klein: I guess in three ways I suppose. One, as a person who tried to do the right
thing, as a human being as a Rabbi, who tried to be honest, to be willing to
express his convictions as well as his doubts, somebody who very much liked and
cared about other people and wanted to be a person in that community. Two, perhaps
one of my contributions is my emphasis on learning and adult education and the
cultivation of some sort of a cultural mood. Three, when I think about a particular
contribution, something springs to mind and that is our transition from our
Indianola building to our Olentangy River Road building and of course the
congregation went through a great deal of turmoil about that. Were we betraying
our identity? Were we about to become something we’re not? Were we going to
begin to become servants of financial matters and not, in a more scaled down way
able to do the Judaism we wanted to do?
I recognized that it was an issue that could drive the congregation apart,
one from the other. I felt the move was necessary but I also recognized that it
was problematic. I think one of the things I was able to do, I don’t want to
overstate this, is to help the different factions, let’s call them, in the
congregation to come to recognize the larger good and perhaps to soften down
some of the acrimony and in some modest way to facilitate a healing, or at least
the possibility of the congregation moving forward together.
Interviewer: How did you do that, consciously or in retrospect unconsciously?
Klein: Well, I think the grandiose terms in which I just described this, I wasn’t
conscious about healing the congregation, helping to stave off acrimony. I wasn’t
thinking in quite those large terms but I did recognize there were grievances
and there were people who were very upset. So what I tried to do, but once again
this is the kind of person I am as welI, I enjoy being with other people, I
enjoy serious conversation, I try to take people seriously. So I continued to do
what I think I do and that is meet with people, be with people, talk with
people; listen to them; what’s going on, and just trying to ask myself what
comes next. I recognized that X I had heard was upset so I called X, “Let’s
have lunch.” Y was upset on the other side, “Let’s get together for
coffee.” It wasn’t a product of a plan or a vision, just a desire to do
what I thought needed doing at that point.
Interviewer: Wonderful. I want to make sure that we get as much in about Beth Tikvah as possible
before ending a little bit on your personal circumstances. At Beth Tikvah, what
services did you think were most needed at Beth Tikvah when you came there or
what was most important for you to address?
Klein: Well, if I’m going to be in a bit of a confessional mode here, it’s not
exactly the way I operate. That is sitting back and asking myself what is the
big picture, what are the holes, what do I need? I’m the kind of person who
basically plunges in and decides what to do next from the inside rather than
from the outside. I think I saw nothing at the beginning other than a desire to
become part of this congregation and to be their Rabbi. Maybe that’s the full
answer to the question. I mean things emerge along the way but that’s
basically the way I was.
Interviewer: Do you have an idea of a change that occurred in Beth Tikvah during the time
that you were Rabbi, not within you, but within the congregation itself?
Klein: No, I think there was growth. I think there were good things that happened. I
think we were a congregation of substance. I don’t think I affected any big
change. We basically grew from, I think it’s fair to say, a congregation of
100 to a congregation of 125 in the seven years that I was there. I feel very
gratified about my time there but don’t think that I made any remarkable
Interviewer: That’s modesty.
Klein: Modesty is sometimes the truth. (laugh)
Interviewer: Rose, do you have any Beth Tikvah questions that I’ve missed. I have others
to ask but I was trying to keep Beth Tikvah in one segment. We’re letting you
catch your breath.
Rose Luttinger: Did Beth Tikvah change during your rabbinate?
Klein: Well, I don’t think so. I think we became in some ways more of what we
always were. There was an intensive vocation, I like to think, but I don’t think the
congregation changed and in some ways the move to Olentangy River Road alerted
me to two things: One, it was about to change and in some ways needed to change and I wasn’t
sure that that’s what I wanted to continue to follow doing. A congregation
that had some aspirations for growth was going to mean many more life-cycle
ceremonies, many more activities on my part for people who are only marginal to
the congregation. I remember thinking that. I think today I would have a
different view of that but then I recognized that if intensity is something that
I cherish that a growing congregation with more services to increasingly
marginal individuals is something I just didn’t want to do, though I thought
and do think it’s important to do it.
Two, so it may be on the cusp of change it
caused me to think a little bit about my own future. Some of it had to do I’ll
say with my immaturity as a Rabbi that I wasn’t, that is in the sense of my
own deep ambivalence and some unease with ritual. I didn’t grow up with a lot
of ritual, especially as a leader of ritual. Today I’m much more comfortable
with it and may have had a different view of it then. I’m not the least bit
sorry that I did what I did by leaving Beth Tikvah, except I left a lot of
friends because I think that my trajectory has been a blessed one.
Helena: You did have a watershed of receiving your Ph.D. in Philosophy from the
University of Chicago, and it was then the year after that that you went
to Israel, right?
Interviewer: What did you do in Israel? Did you study again?
Klein: In Israel I studied and I taught. I studied at Pardes Institute full time and
I also taught at two places the fledgling Reform Yeshiva there and at the Hebrew
Union College at HUC.
Interviewer: And that was for one year?
Klein: That was for one year. At the end of that year we were looking for what would
come next. The President at Beth Tikvah at the time when I resigned said to me “Why
don’t you just go away for a year and come back. You need a year off and come
back to us.” I said to him “I think I’m done.” So at the end of my Israel year
it was either find a position back in the States or stay another year. We
recognized if we stayed another year it would probably be forever. I’m not a
fervent Zionist and didn’t really have that aspiration and so I stayed just for one
Interviewer: You didn’t really consider staying longer in Israel?
Interviewer: From Israel, your next stop was?
Klein: Wesleyan University in Connecticut where
I was for seven years the Jewish Chaplain and Professor of Religion.
Interviewer: Then you moved back to Cleveland?
Interviewer: Did that feel like a homecoming to you?
Klein: Oh definitely It did for me. Ann and I both felt that New
England was a bit foreign to us. We’re both Midwesterners. My parents were
getting older and none of their children was at home. I was the oldest, felt I
had some obligation to do it but that wasn’t the major factor. My parents
weren’t insisting at all. I wanted to rejoin a community. I didn’t want to
be in a university with its town and gown separation so it definitely felt like
a homecoming as well as having other reasons for doing it.
Interviewer: I realize that I did not ask about your brothers and sisters which should
have been in the early part of the interview. Tell us about your family.
Klein: They’re going to be insulted when they read the transcript of this, that
they came this late in the story. I’m the oldest of three boys. I have a
brother who is three years younger who is a Urologist, a surgeon. He currently
lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, practicing medicine. He is married with two
kids one of whom just received her Ph. D. in Anthropology.
My youngest brother, six years younger, is married and has three children,
lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, teaches at Cain University in New Jersey. I
recently did a program for the Maltz Museum in Cleveland on a film whose title
is Forgiving Dr. Mengele about a woman who gave him amnesty so to speak and I was asked
to lead a discussion on the issue of forgiveness. My brother is involved in a
scholarly way with this question, works with the Commission on Truth and
Reconciliation and wrote a long paper on forgiveness which I read in preparation
for it. So we in a sense collaborated. We’re both interested in the same
Interviewer: Well, now that brings me to your children who are also in Cleveland, I
understand. Tell us about your family.
Klein: I have three children, two girls and the youngest is a boy. My daughter,
Elissa, who was born in Chicago, is now 36 and the mother of two little girls, 8
and 7. She, herself, is a nurse at one of the hospitals in Cleveland and
flourishing. My middle child, Shana, just turned 31 and is an attorney, working
part time, and also married with no children. And then my son, Danny, who is 26 (Both Shana and Danny were born in
Columbus. Danny was born a month before we left Columbus in June, 1981.) and
Danny is a tennis pro in Cleveland and every now and then gives his old man some
Interviewer: Tell us about your tennis. It’s more than a hobby I think.
Klein: Well, I love tennis. I’ve always been interested in athletics and I play
tennis three, four times a week, singles three of those four times, work out a
couple of days a week, try to keep myself able to play singles. It’s very
important to me. Yeh, love it, feel fortunate that I can still do it, to the
degree that I am.
Interviewer: And other interests that you might classify as hobbies. Somehow I’m not
sure about the term hobby, but other interests?
Klein: Other things pursued by amateurs the idealogy of which as you know is the
word love, that is amateur, amatore, etc. So I like to think of hobbies, so
called, as things we pursue out of love. One of my passions is music and I now
do quite a bit of lecturing around the city on musical themes. I just gave a
series (I think I mentioned this to you.) at the temple on Samson, Moses, and
Jonah in Art, Literature and Music, a very successful series. I do give
previews, pre-concert lectures for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra at Severence
Hall before concerts on the music of the evening. This is something that I find
gratifying and a lot of fun.
Interviewer: Would you describe how you came to be asked by the Cleveland Symphony to give
Klein: Well, I’ve always used music in my teaching, even back in Wesleyan days. I
remember once giving a course on Midrash. My musical themes were Beethoven’s Diabeli
Variations which is essentially a theme with variations. That’s what Torah
is, a text with variations, Midrashim. So I’ve always tried to find ways to
combine my passions. Once, five, six years ago when I learned that the Cleveland
Orchestra was going to do a concert version of Richard Straus’ opera Electra,
recognizing that it’s a very difficult opera to listen to and to access but a
magnificent one, I decided to give a couple of lectures at the temple on it to
prepare people for the opera and some people from the symphony were there
evidently. I didn’t know that and I got a call a couple of days later, “Would you come down and do the pre-concert lectures at Severence for Electra.” One thing led to another and I’ve been doing it for four or five years. I did
a lecture on Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel. I’ve done Bruckner and
Beethoven and Mahler and Shoernberg and Bernstein, and on and on.
Interviewer: One thing in this Cleveland period I haven’t asked you about was your
teaching at the College for Adult Studies and what your current affiliation with
Klein: Right, that was the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, since renamed the
Segal College of Judaic Studies, I believe. I taught there full-time and began
to do part-time things with increasing frequency at temples. When I left, in
1999, the college I was an adjunct member of the faculty for a couple of years
and would go back and do lectures which I still do. I don’t believe I have
that adjunct status anymore but I continue to teach there from time to time.
There’s plenty of teaching for me to do at the temple and around town. I do a
lot of speaking around town, around the state and even around the country a
little bit, not to exaggerate that. I also have an adjunct position in the
Medical School at Case Western Reserve University in Family Medicine.
Klein: Yeah, and I do one thing or another from time to time down there.
Interviewer: For example.
Klein: Oh, you know, I’ve been on committees. They’ve asked me to do
some things on biomedical, ethical issues as it relates to say religious themes
or ethical themes and so on, not very much, but I’ve not had time to respond
as much as they would like me to, anyway it’s a connection.
Interviewer: And yet another area that you’ve explored.
Interviewer: Rose, I’ll turn to you again. If you’ve got anything that I’ve missed
before going to the last two windup questions. The last one which is, always
going in reverse order, is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t
Klein: Oh, I’m sure there is. One thing of course I want to say is that my years
in Columbus were very, very formative for me, professionally and personally. In
terms of friendships Beth Tikvah and the community offered me an opportunity to
develop myself and to be able to think about how to live life in a certain way.
I’m forever grateful for my Columbus experience which was to me singular.
Interviewer: As a final question, what kind of life messages do you give to your children,
your grandchildren and your congregation? That can be all one or three separate
Klein: Well I don’t think of myself as a message giving person, except indirectly.
The lived life is our strongest message. Others can assess that, I certainly can’t.
One quote that has always struck me as very, very powerful is a quote by Abraham
Joshua Heschel who said once that he’s an optimist against his better
judgment. I think what that suggests is that when we open our eyes and look out
on our world we see a lot of problems and insoluble dilemmas and tragedies which
confront us for which there is no adequate explanation and it can drive us to
skepticism, or to cynicism, or to despair and those who are so driven have their
eyes open. The world can lead us to that kind of conclusion. In spite of that,
Heschel is saying he’s determined to be an optimist because to be an optimist
is to be willing to see what is possible in life and all the wonderful things
and the opportunities of that kind of attitude can create for us so that I’ve
always thought of Judaism as fundamentally a nevertheless kind of religion.
V’ahal pi hain, even though the world is a certain kind of place, in large
measure, I refuse to accede to it and I’m not only going to focus on the other
parts of reality which also exist but I’m going to make my reality in the
image of an optimistic and buoyant person. I’ve long been an advocate of the
reversal of the maxim, “Seeing is believing.” “Seeing is believing” is true but more powerfully believing is
seeing. I think the world in which we live is a function as much as itself as
much a function of how we choose to live in it than what impinges on us from the
outside. I don’t know if those are messages but they certainly strike me as
things that are true and that I try at least to live by.
Rose: I thought of a question. We never asked about your present position in
Cleveland and how do you relate to a large congregation like you have?
Klein: Well, in my Beth Tikvah days I never could have been a Rabbi of a large
congregation. I wasn’t ready for it personally, spiritually, intellectually,
emotionally. Now I find it perfectly wonderful for a variety of reasons. One is
the congregation itself. It happens to be just an extraordinary congregation
with a rich culture, with wonderful leadership, wise leadership. One of virtues
of a large congregation is it has resources and therefore there are things you
can do. I’m one of three Rabbis. We also have a Cantor and an educator and an
Executive Director. So unlike a synagogue like Beth Tikvah in my day the Rabbi
is not asked to do everything, though I do a little bit of everything, life
cycle events, services, all the things the rabbis do but we have colleagues to
do them with.
Also when I want to mount a program (It’s a congregation of 1600
families) people are going to come out for it because we just have a large
enough number that you can experiment with things, you can go on with things.
You can do a variety of things that you wanted to do. So I find congregational
life for me to be perfectly, perfectly wonderful at this point. People often say
to me “Why don’t you take your full vacation every year? Why do you leave
certain vacation days on the table?” My answer is “If I had work from
which I needed a vacation, I would take them all.” So this kind of life and
career suits me just fine. It took me 30 years to find it emotionally and
personally and every step along the way I felt was important. You ask yourself
when you look back on your life what’s the role of this, that or the other
experience. Up to ten years ago I would have said they were just random dots on
a piece of paper and now I see them as dots in a coherent narrative that lead to
where I am now.
Helena: I’m curious as to whether you expect to ever retire.
Klein: Every single night, at some point, I retire. (Laughter). I intend, to be a
little dramatic about it, to die in my chair. If God is good to me and I’m
able to sustain my health and if somebody will have me, I hope to continue
working forever. Of course I might change my mind but right now what’s the
point of retiring. I mean, life is a burden? What I’m doing is labor for me? I
have a Rabbi colleague friend in another city who says “I don’t get up
every morning and say thank God I can go to work,” but that’s just what I
say. Thank God I’m living the life that I live. Who wants to retire from it?
Helena: That’s a lovely response and perhaps a very fitting closing. Do you have
further things that you want to add?
Rabbi Klein: No.
Interviewer: Then I will read the formal conclusion. On behalf of the Columbus Jewish
Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History
Rabbi Klein: Thanks.
Interviewer: Thank you.
This concludes the interview.