This is going to be Rabbi David Zisenwine speaking to the Tifereth Israel Mens Club and Sisterhood Brunch on Sunday, January 27, 2002.
Zisenwine: Forgive me, I picked up a cold someplace between the airplane and Tifereth Israel. Nobodys at fault; it just happened. So if I start coughing, it’s just a cold. I’ll try to get rid of it, that will be about six-seven days or a week. I want to talk about the future. The past and the way we were was very interesting and I think that, I tried to say that the past can’t be torn away or separated from the general environment here in Columbus or here in the United States. So I’d meant to talk about whats going to happen with us, our kids, our grandchildren, this synagogue. What should we do? I really don’t know but I will offer a suggestion. Some friends of mine and I put together a model that I’d like to show you. I’m going to write it. I have a very bad handwriting; small motor skills weren’t my thing but I’ll try. (Writes out his idea.) We are very concerned. As you can see, this was not one of my strong points. Okay, lets see. I can’t see myself. We are all concerned about our identity. Are we going to be Jews? Are our kids going to be Jews? Is this room going to be filled in twenty years? What will it look like? Who will come? Does it really all depend on who the rabbi is or the cantor or the program? I’m not sure.
Let me make a suggestion about identity. We’ve all spent our time talking about our identity who we are. So let me give you an example. My name is David Zisenwine. I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I do that all the time. My wife is always asking me why I have to say Columbus, Ohio instead of Columbus. I don’t know but I always say Columbus, Ohio. Do you do that too? Columbus, Ohio. But if you would meet me in Israel, somebody would say to you as they pronounce my name there, Zeesenvine, oh Zeesenvine. He lives in Raanana. Zeesenvine, he teaches at Tel Aviv University. Oh Zeesenvine, sometimes he has a sense of humor.
People have suggested that you don’t have to be one thing any more. You don’t have to be one thing. It’s a new concept called multiple identities. Not schizophrenia, not schizophrenia. Youre more than one thing. Im a husband. I’m a father. I’m a college professor. I’m a Rabbi. I teach at a university. I go to summer camps. I visit the United States. I come from Columbus, Ohio. You don’t, as my father would say, Mekents meshuga veren. So you can really go nuts trying to figure out who you are. Who am I? I’m really not sure. I’m all of those things. And you know what? It’s not bad to be all of those things. You don’t need to be any one thing. You just have to decide when are you what you are. At work, you work. Now at work youre also a lot of other things. But identity is multiple. Don’t worry about it. Were going to have multiple identities. Our kids are going to look different. They’re going to be bongo players and atomic scientists. They’re going to do that all at one time. They’re going to have names of this and that. They’re going to have multiple identities and we have to learn to live with that because that’s the future. People will not say, Are you Jewish? They’re going to say, What do you do? And you will identify yourself. And depending where you are and under what circumstances, you do what you already do. You’ll choose what you want to tell people. Correct?
Let me give you an example. We were in Sweden and were staying in Sweden as I told you and I walked into a tailor shop. I had finally lost enough weight to take in a pair of pants. This was a major, major victory. I felt good about it. Now most Swedes are very identifiable. They are considerably taller than I am and they’re considerably blonder than I am. I walked into the tailor shop and I took a look at the man running the tailor shop who looked very much like people I had known as a child. Had a tape measure around their neck, a thimble on his hand and he says to me, “Lugash? Where are you from?” So I gulp because Israel has, because Sweden has 400,000 Arabs. So I decided, I think I’ll be a little cautious. So I said, “I’m from the United States.” I said, “Where are you from?” He said, “Syria.” Givalt. You know in Israel, to meet somebody from Syria is a rare thing. He had chosen, in the next room his tailor said to him in Arabic, “Who is it?” Now I didn’t know that he said that but I got it from the context because I knew the word. He says, “Yahoot.” He looked at me. I said, “American,” and he tells his buddy back there, “He’s a Jew.” So Yahoot, he identified me. He gave me an identity. I gave myself another identity. He said, “Where are you from?” I said, “Columbus, Ohio.” He said, “Where is that?” I said, “Oh thank God.” So then I said to him, “Where are you from?” He tells me.
So when we worry about the future, that our kids have multiple identities, don’t worry about it. And their identities will change. They will be Jewish for a while. They will be bongo players for a while. They will be engineers for a while. They will be husbands, fathers, sometime immediate children. They will be many things. And we should not demand that anybody tell himself, I am one thing. Because were not.
There was a time when you could be. There is a woman who is an Armenian. Her name Amy Becalion. She wrote a wonderful doctoral dissertation called From Being to Becoming. We have to choose to be Jewish. Our parents didn’t have to choose. They just were. As I reflect back on my late father, I can’t think of anything he would have been. I mean nobody would have said that he was a member of the United States Congress at that time. Because the people like that weren’t there. So identity is multiple and we should look at that with favor and get used to it. So that when our kids say, I don’t want to be Jewish, don’t be upset. It will pass. It will pass most times. And they will have many identities in the course of their lifetime, just as we have.
Now I think theres another leg that we have to look at. I think that we must provide our children and ourselves with a sense of Jewish culture that includes religion. But what is Jewish culture? We are Americans by culture. So what is American culture? Anybody want to offer up some sugges- tions of American culture? When you think about it, somebody says, It’s American. What does that mean?
Zisenwine: McDonalds is certainly American. Coca Cola is certainly American. But is that all?
Jeff: Liberal, free thinking.
Zisenwine: Liberal, free thinking.
Zisenwine: Arrogant. That’s what the Europeans say. But they think that. We had, yes Jeff?
Jeff: Were ethno-centric.
Zisenwine: Were ethno-centric. We look at ourselves as Americans. But we look at the world as well. We have tremendous respons—, Americans have tremendous responsibility for the world. And so culture is many things. A culture is, theres no culture, popular culture and sort of formal culture. One culture is eating. I love my culture. If you are an American, you eat hamburgers. Right? Were still eating French fries here? Good, I’m glad to hear that. For an Israeli, hummus and falafel and sometimes you discover that there’s more McDonalds than there is hummus and falafel.
But it’s culture runs from simple things to high culture, to music, to popular music, to sophisticated music. I don’t know if sophisticated is the right word. I don’t think our kids would like that. But from noise to music. Culture includes religion. It is not only religion. It is not only religion. Because many of our kids will tell us, I’m not religious. I don’t need that. He doesnt have to need it. We are to offer them a variety of things that are Jewish culture. It can be what I just heard, folk dancing. That’s culture. Food, Mediterranean food. And what happens if youre someplace else in the Mediterranean and here is Mediterranean food and you decide to come along? Go there too.
But culture is here. We need to transmit to our kids some kind of culture. And then we have to transmit to our kids some kind of community. You know, I talk about every American Jewish community 50 years ago had its own commu–, everybody lived in the same neighborhood. There was a Jewish neighborhood in every city in the United States. There was an Italian neighborhood, a Greek neighborhood, a Jewish neighborhood, and in some cities there was a Polish neighborhood and every- body knew where the lines were. And then what happened? We integrated, all of them. And only those who stayed behind still live there but not many. And they’re all over the place.
What do we need to build? We need to build a sense of belonging to a community because it’s gone. They don’t live in one spot. They don’t know everybody any more. They won’t know anybody. What must you do? And I, this is called an intentional community. You have to intentionally create a community around various things. Intentional communities. Youve got to work at it. The next few years at Tifereth Israel have got to be in creating a variety of communities. There are people who like to folk dance. There are people who like to see movies. There are people who like to listen to Jewish music. There are people who like to eat. There are people who like to read books. They have a sense of community. You must create around various things. Well they have other communities. Of course they’ll have other communities. The physicians will have their own community. The lawyers will have their own community. But nobody ever said that only one community is what you have. You have a variety of communities.
And you can have intentional communities. Tifereth Israel should be working, not only what worked out in 1960, not finding out how we get kids to come to the synagogue. We must create communities around different types of culture. And it may not always be the culture that you and I like. I don’t know offhand what it is that young people and young married people like today. I suspect that somebody ought to be running a program for young couples who have young kids, here. How do you raise a Jewish child? And there ought to be a discussion. It could be an intentional community. And it will pick up all kinds of people. What will it have in common? Membership in this community and their desire to stay together. Do they have to stay together all the time? No. They will float in and out of these communities. They will, and how do we guarantee that their identities around these three things? The main theme here is education. The theme, your educational director and rabbi are going to be very important. They”ve got to think creatively about these kind of communities. They’ve got to be able to have programs that take in a sense of community. Doesnt have to be large. They must have some form of culture that will lead to some kind of identity. Some of them will like to daven, not all. I want to tell you one of my great regrets in life is that I can’t carry a tune. I always think if I could carry a tune, it would have been fabulous. It would have been fabulous. I could have been a cantor. I could have been the singing rabbi. I could have been strumming a guitar. But I’m so bad that people really get nervous when I sing. But if you could do that and you could put all of these…together, you would have multiple identities, multiple communities and various forms of Jewish culture.
What do I think the future is? I think it’s very complex. But I don’t think you can’t control it. I think you can control it. You don’t have to know everybody any more. Because you can’t. So what you will do is you will have groups that you will create. They’re artificial. They are not real. They’re intentional and they’re based on small pieces of culture. Sometimes larger pieces of culture. And you will develop a new community that will develop a new Jewish identity. Identity never stands still. Freud said, “When you look in a mirror, see yourself at age 16. Did you ever think of that?” I’m still combing my hair. But they’re not going to remain 16 forever. And so when you say, “They don’t like to come to services,” they might some day if you offer those services. But if you also offer them another form of culture, another community. Can you imagine, your kids move to another city? And they will. The mobility rate in the United States is unbelievable. Unbelievable. Nobody stays in the same neighborhood. It’s impossible. So what do they do? They go all over the place.
Do you remember there was a comedian who reflected times long ago, named Sam Levinson? Does anybody remember his name? He was a stand-up comedian who made it on national television talking about being Jewish. And I remember him saying, If any of you see my son Conrad and he’s hitching, all right give him a ride. And at that time it only cost a dime to call home. So give him a dime and tell him to call me. He’s always on the move.
We are always on the move. Many of us will have many jobs. I never dreamed in my whole life when I was sitting on Cassady Road that I would some day spend my life in Israel and I would be in Sweden and I would visit Spain. I never thought of them. But I have multiple identities. You know, do many of you have, because of where I live I have all kinds of crazy things. Like I have an American drivers license and an Israeli drivers license. Why do I have an American drivers license? Because when they always ask me, Who are you? I need two pieces of identification. I discovered that drivers license always works. Try Social Security and they don’t believe you.
But we vary our identity, but were the same. And I would say that that is really the challenge of the next multi-research center, of the next Tifereth Israel research center: to create identity, culture and community and to get somebody to coordinate it all the time. And to change it all the time and to keep it stable because youre going to need, youre going to need to take into consideration those things that you want as well. It’s not all what they want. It’s what we want too. What do we want in the future? We want them to be here at the Mens Club. We want them to say it’s worthwhile. The program might be different. But I would offer that identity, culture and community are the answer to the future. We can’t do it unless we work at it. And it’s not just simply…lets have another program. Programs won’t do. It’s a program that will draw people around certain themes. And you could think of them. You can really think of them.
I mentioned earlier the late Bertha Krause. The pre-school here was a very popular place. And if any of you ever met Bertha Krause, you’d never believe that it could be popular. Because she was running all over the place. But little kids loved her. She had something that was magic about little kids. And a lot of people do. So there was a little kids group. And some people teach kids how to read the Torah and they were there for a while. And kids learned how to read the Torah. And there was a choir. Theres still a choir I understand. The choir attracts certain other people. It’s another community based on Jewish culture.
So I would urge you, I would urge you, don’t sit still. You won’t anyway. Your kids certainly won’t. And never despair because they need identity too. Because not knowing who you are is a real problem. Who are you? I don’t know. Elie Wiesel writes about the Holocaust. I have a story. (That’s that cold now.) He goes to see, after the war, the Hassidic rabbi that was in his town, the Vishnitzer Rebbe. Vishnitzer Rebbe says to him, “Who are you?” He says, “I am Eliezer, I’m Eliezer,” and he goes on and he tells him. And he says, “Well Eliezer, who are you?” So he says, “I’m Eliezer ben so-and-so,” this mans son. He says, “No, whoever you are?” So he said, “I’m Dovid, Vibes grandson.” So he says, “Ah, now I know who you are.”
We could do that here in this room some time. Some of us could say, Ah, Dovid, Vibes grandson. But our kids won’t be able to say that. They’re going to be all over the world. So you want them to say, I come from Columbus, Ohio and sometime I take part in Jewish cultural events. What do you have? And they will choose the programs and they will look and they will think of culture and community because we all need a sense of community.
You can’t be alone. You can’t be alone. It’s very difficult to be alone. The people who are alone are isolated. They’re, they have, like psychologists call…view of the future. They have a little…But you don’t have to be one thing. I want to repeat it, you can be many things. So I would urge you to be many things, to your kids, to the synagogue, to the future. But make sure that all of these things is part of your life so that this synagogue will continue forever. We must make changes. Now I know somebody said to me, “You keep talking about change.” I believe in change but I also believe in tradition. I don’t think you can make such radical changes that nobody recognizes. You can’t have a synagogue that doesnt look like a synagogue. This place looks like a synagogue, doesnt it? Doesnt this look like a mens club gathering? Certainly. I mean even the bagels and lox, that is quintessential Mens Club, everywhere in the world.
And so we must have this sense of community with its various kinds of culture and we must work at it. So lets do that so that our grandchildren will be able to talk to each other. It’s very important. I want my kids to be able to talk to your grandchildren and children. And I want them to know that they don’t have to be one thing at any time, that they can float in and out. It’s certainly all right. They’ll do it anyway. So lets welcome them. Well lets pay people to create communities, intentional communities and lets listen to what they’re saying. It’s important. Not what we have to say but what they have to say. Because that’s the answer. We often talk to ourselves. Don’t talk to yourself. Talk to the kids. And when they say wild things, listen and then you can respond. You’d be surprised. It might work. So I would like to conclude and say I’ve had a very, very nice time here. I’ve enjoyed it because my identity is kind of secure. You know, I see old friends and I like being here and I’m pleased the bagels are still the way they were and the synagogue looks the way it is and my culture is safe. And I will get on a plane tonight and I will wing my way back to Sweden where I will get off the plane and they will absolutely know that I am not one of them. But if I stayed long enough I would be. And so I hope that you do too. Keep serving bagel and lox, change it, get them to come for different things and remember whats at stake is our soul. Our nishoma is at stake. That’s what identity is all about.
So I thank you very much. I appreciate your coming. I thought I’d just sort of wound this up quickly and hold out hope for the future. I can’t stand pessimism. I don’t think theres any reason to be pessimistic about the Jewish community. They’ve written it off a million times and look how vibrant it is. So thank you. Keep taking care of your identity. Keep joining communities and whatever culture you like, do it. It will really work. Thank you very much.
Zisenwine:If anybody would like to ask question, I’m open. We’ll take five minutes.
Zisenwine: What is what?
Voice: What is being Jewish in Sweden like?
Zisenwine: That’s a very interesting question: What is it like being Jewish in Sweden? The Jews in Sweden who number about 20,000, 10,000 in Stockholm, out of a population of 8,000,000, have been there for about 200 years. They originally came, they came in three waves. They came from Germany and then they came from Eastern Europe. I must tell you, I didn’t know where Stockholm was. Do you know where Stockholm is? I mean I had a vague idea where Sweden was but I didn’t know. It’s southern Sweden and it’s right across the bay from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. And…so you can take a overnight ferry or you can take a 30-minute plane trip and youre there. There were Polish Jews who came sort of between the wars. And then in 1968, the Communists let out a lot of Jews, you know sort of revolution. A lot of Jews went as political refugees from Poland to Sweden. They were not religious Jews. They had grown up under the Communists. And they saw their identity as Jewish but nothing to do with the culture that had to do with synagogues. So they don’t go. They speak Yiddish, those that the Swedes have integrated, because Sweden is not a religious country. I discovered that 2% of the Swedish population goes to church. They’re not big on religion. Americans, 45% go to church on Sunday or claim to. So theres, because the Jews are so much like the people cause they learned Swedish. You know, were great adaptors. Can you imagine, look what weve learned in two generations. We all speak English, we all play baseball, some of us. You know, were experts at the culture. So the Swedes are highly integrated into the society which means theres a great deal of marriage between Swedes and Jews. And so you get a stridently blonde community but it’s an open community, a tolerant community. And there are some problems. For example the Swedes are very liberal. If you want to talk about liberalism, you got to go to Sweden. They outlawed shichita. Thirty years ago they prohibited kosher slaughter on humane, you know, animal whatever it’s called, being aware of the pain that animals suffered. So the only Jewish, the only kosher food that’s in Sweden is imported from Strasburg, from Holland, from France and from Israel. So if you want to be kosher, and there are not many families that are kosher because one, it’s a bit of an effort, and two, it’s quite expensive. But there are many. So recently there is another scandal in Sweden. Not scandal, problem. The Swedes decided to put limits on the way you have circumcision. There are 400,000 Arabs who have circumcision late and a kid a few years ago died cause they have circumcision at age 8. And the physicians said, “This is a violation of the childs right.” The child has every right to say, “I don’t want this practice.” So they sort of forbade it, not quite cause they allow a doctor to be present. It was always a question: what constituted an anesthetic. So of course the mohel, the one mohel in Sweden says, Wine, wine. And until now the Swedes were saying omayn, omayn. They like wine. So okay. But were not sure where it’s going. And it’s not anti-Semitic. It’s considered childs rights. So the Jews of Sweden are part of Sweden, they see themselves as Swedes, but the one thing about Sweden, unlike America, you don’t have hyphenated identities. You are Jewish, not Swedish. You are Jewish, not Swedish. So when you say a Swede has been there for 200 years and ask him what he is, he says, I’m Jewish because the Swedes insist, and they have all kinds of rules about giving names. You can’t have a Swedish name. You can’t change your name. They want to know who everybody is.
They are around, let me just tell my one joke cause I like it. It’s a dated joke but I think you might appreciate it. A Jew in the United States goes to the post office and changed his name from Schlevitch to Williams, pays his fee, Williams. A week later he comes back, changes his name to Smith. The clerk says, Weren’t you here last week? Didn’t you change your name from Schlevitch to Williams? What are you doing? He said, “Ah, very simple.” When they ask me, “What was your name before it was Williams?” I’ll say, Smith.
In Sweden you can’t do that. The Swedes, with all their liberalism, they like Swedes. They like Jews but everybody has to be in his place. Now they have many institutions. They have synagogues, they have a Jewish community center which is magnificent, an old Swedish building. It’s very imposing. It’s in the Fifth Avenue. The Jews many years ago bought property. The Jewish community has a lot of property. So they bought this beautiful building and it’s huge. There are many synagogues and as I told you, the synagogues in Sweden, the rabbis are not part of, they’re not hired by the congregation. They’re hired by the community. They have, youre the rabbi of this synagogue and you choose to go wherever you want and the community pays your fees. You don’t, theres no such thing as a synagogue. There is the community and you belong to synagogues. Now my friend who is the Chief Rabbi of Sweden, I must tell you he loves it. He thinks it a great deal. Suddenly he has to answer only to the Swedish government cause he’s the Chief Rabbi of Sweden. Can you imagine if you want to talk to the king, kibbitz a little and they provide budgets. And they’re very generous.
Theres a summer camp in Sweden that every Swedish kid has been to. I must tell you…I think it’s become the Jewish national, international anthem. Everybody sings…everybody. They’re always singing…in Sweden. So it’s an active, vibrant and different Jewish community. Different. But very active with roots in Europe. They see themselves as Europeans, not as Americans. And they have a few things to say about Americans. Not terrible. That’s right. We like Americans. They think Volvo is still a better car. I think they’re probably right.
Zisenwine:Any other questions? Yes.
Voice: I understand your interest in Israel. But what interest, what caused you to Sweden?
Zisenwine: Because my interest is in educating Jews. The question was, I understand that youre interested in Israel but why would you go to Sweden? Because I’m concerned about Jewish identity, the communities. I’m not just interested, I have made a decision for myself, but I don’t think everybodys going to make that decision. And I see something that’s taking place in Europe today, 50 years after the Holocaust, there is a renaissance of Jewish communities. Suddenly they’re coming alive. These communities that were behind the Iron Curtain, they were there and they stayed Jewish. They don’t know what it means but they’re Jewish. And they want to be Jewish. And somebodys got to teach them. And I really enjoy it. These are people who really want to learn to be Jewish. And they have no idea what it’s all about, really no idea. They have a few customs sort of that they remember their grandparents having
Voice: Rabbi, I remember you saying that most people do not go to synagogue.
Zisenwine: Yes. Well it’s very easy because the government pays for it. All synagogues and churches are paid for by the government. The synagogue is part of, like the official Jewish church and they get a subvention from the government.
Voice: How does…
Zisenwine: Good. They have no problem. The government pays. It’s a wonderful deal.
Voice: But do they go to the synagogue?
Zisenwine: Yes. On Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, like here, as you probably noticed, they’re not closing the doors on Shabbat here. But on Yom Kippur, the synagogue seats 1200 people. They had to have two shifts. They did Kol Nidre twice because they couldn’t get every- body in. So yes people go on holidays. There is a Jewish day school. They come on Shabbat. I’d say about 2-300 people sometime come on Shabbat. The synagogue is, this beautiful building, it was built of wood. Theres nothing but wood in Sweden. Wood and water. And they built this magnificent synagogue, built by a Christian architect at the beginning of the century who had no idea what a synagogue looked like. So it really does have sort of a resemblance to a Protestant cathedral. But it’s really magnificent. Yeah.
Voice: Can you give us a little insight of what…happened in Israel. There was another major bombing last night…
Zisenwine: I have no idea. I really would like to answer that but I can’t…the prophet, the son of, I’m not trying to dodge it. It is a terribly complex situation. Now in Israel, unlike the United States, the one subject that everybody talks about is politics. You are not, by the way, you know how you’re identity is defined in Israel? Are you on the Right or are you on the Left? Are you a Right, are you with the government or are you against the govern- ment? Do you want to trade land for peace or you want to stand firm? And if you go into a home and you have, people now have rules. We will not talk about the matsav, the situation. That lasts about ten minutes. And then they start shrying. So we only talk to people who agree with us. I don’t know, it’s a difficult, I, personally, am very optimistic. I mention this because I don’t think the people will let that go on. Nobody wants to be killed. Nobody wants their children to be killed. And I don’t think we should villainize Arabs. They don’t want their kids killed either. I mean I know…they sacrifice, not all of them. Not all. Depends what the street is going to do. Obviously Arafat is in a precar-ious position. I don’t know enough about it. But I’m not pessimistic because I can’t imagine anybody letting this thing deteriorate. We didn’t build that wonderful state for this thing to deteriorate. The State of Israel is a wonderful place. It’s an active, vital place. So it’s not going to go down the tube.
Voice: Did you read Jack Chomskys article that was in our Dispatch on Friday?
Zisenwine: I didn’t.
Voice: He compared Israel and the Arab situation, critical of both sides. I was going to ask you to comment on that.
Zisenwine: I didn’t read the article. There are many people critical of both sides. Those are the people who are yearning for a solution. But both sides have problem. I mean Arafat is not a tsaddik. He’s not a saint. A very complicated man. But sometime were not saints. Sometime.
Zisenwine: I’m sure there is but I think it’s minor. So I’m saying, Is there anti-Semitism in the United States? Minor. You know there are occasional slurs but not of any great proportion. Are we come to the end of our bagel? Jeff?
Voice: Do you think there might be a beginning of a long-term solution because…crackdown in Pakistan…
Zisenwine: You know Jeff, I really don’t know anything about political science and how these things work. Everybody talks about that. Well one thing in the equation that everybodys mystified by is George Bushs position which the Israelis never expected. Bush has become a very big supporter of Israeli policy. Nobody anticipated that. While I was still there, people were writing about Bush the oil person. That scares Israelis. People are connected to oil. But it hasnt been that way. Just as George Schultz years ago turned out to be one of the most favorable Secretaries of State, and he represented the Bechtel Corpo- ration, a major building company who built the Middle East, not…So I don’t know, I really don’t know. Lets pray that somebody does something right before too many people get killed.
I’d like to thank you. (applause) I apologize for this cold but I had nothing to do with it.
Voice: Youve just heard the conclusion of Rabbi David Zisenwine addressing the brunch of the Mens Club and the Sisterhood on January 27, 2002. This is Carol Shkolnik, a volunteer for the 100th anniversary book, going to interview David a little bit more, try to capture some personal things that he mentioned over the weekend we couldn’t record because it was Shabbat.
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Interviewer: Okay. David you grew up in Columbus?
Zisenwine: Uh huh.
Interviewer: is that correct? Okay. Could you just tell me a little bit about your family of origin?
Zisenwine: Of origin?
Interviewer: …what did your grandparents do because as you say, people like to associate you as far back as…
Zisenwine: My father arrived in the United States in 1921. He was one of five kids. He had other siblings that had come to the United States before World War I. He was the last of the five kids, the youngest. And they settled in Columbus because the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, an organization that settled immigrants at that time, the early 20th Century, wanted to diffuse the population so they sent my uncle, my fathers oldest sister was 20 years his senior so she was married. And somehow my uncle got to Columbus as a tailor.
Interviewer: Your uncle who was?
Zisenwine: His name was Simon Kerstein.
Interviewer: Okay and your father was?
Zisenwine: My fathers name was Gabriel Zisenwine. My father was a jeweler, he was a watchmaker, trained in Europe to be a watchmaker. He was 18 when he came here. He went to work in a jewelry store owned by a Jewish family named Goodman. And, you know, he married my mother who was actually his neighbor in Europe.
Interviewer: What was your mothers name, the maiden name?
Zisenwine: Her name was Weinstein but she, he married her, he went to visit her brothers who were his friends and she had grown up so they were married when she came to Columbus. Actually it’s interesting because the only other person in Columbus who had grown up with her was Evelyn Polster, Morris Polsters wife. They had gone to junior high school and high school together.
Interviewer: Now where was this?
Zisenwine: In New York.
Interviewer: Okay. But your father was from where?
Zisenwine: My father was from a town on the Lithuanian-Polish border, in Poland, called Augustola. Still exists today, has about 12,000 people.
Interviewer: I’m not going to try to spell that right now…
Interviewer: Oh, okay.
Interviewer: Not at all. Okay. So you grew up in Columbus?
Zisenwine: I was born here at a hospital that doesnt exist, St. Anns Hospital.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Actually there is a St. Anns north of here.
Zisenwine: I know.
Interviewer: In Westerville.
Zisenwine: Well. Born here, I was raised here. I was in Bexley most of my life…many other people.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay. And I have information about where you went to school. You did get your Ph. D. from Ohio State?
Zisenwine: I got my Ph. D. from Ohio State in 1975.
Interviewer: Okay. I’m going to put with the file for this the things…some of it that didn’t go way back.
Zisenwine: Yeah, I got out of Ohio State when I was a rabbi.
Interviewer: Okay. You mentioned the other evening a little bit about one of the changes that happened in Tifereth Israel with the changes in the Religious School. Could you say a little more about that and some of the people involved?
Zisenwine: Oh, tremendous changes. I would say that the people who really had an unbelievable impact on the Congregation were these four or five people who came, Saul and Barbara Wachs. Saul Wachs influence was major. He got the Congrega—, all the singing and music and prayers that are…Saul really changed the Congregation. And Anne Bonowitz, Schiffman Bonowitz was also involved. The other two people did not stay in Columbus. They left. They have gone on to another…should have some contact with them.
Interviewer: Uh huh. And how was it that Saul Wachs came to Columbus?
Zisenwine: Sam Melton decided, he was research on the Jewish Theological Seminary, sort of tapped and he figured Saul was the person for this job and he was absolutely correct. Absolutely correct.
Interviewer: Maybe I have said this to you but I, a few years ago I interviewed Anne Bonowitz for the Historical Society and she remembers that you and Reid Wasserstrom picked her up at the airport. Did you remember that?
Zisenwine: I do, yes.
Interviewer: Cause I thought you probably would because of the detail…
Zisenwine: I remember very well.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay. What were some of the special or noteworthy things that might have happened during your four years of Assistant Rabbi and Rabbi here?
Zisenwine: I think the major thing, an impact on the Congregation but was not noticed, was the interaction of women having aliyot. We didn’t take a vote. I brought it up to the Board Meeting. They voted and it was unanimous and that was it. I would say that that was a significant change. Sort of slid by. It was a hot issue in those days.
Interviewer: Do you know what year that was?
Zisenwine: I can’t remember.
Interviewer: Don’t remember? So the first woman who had an aliyah was?
Zisenwine: I can’t tell you.
Interviewer: I think someone thought it was Sylvia Gaynor but I don’t…
Zisenwine: It might have been. It might have but I don’t remember.
Interviewer: Was the first Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat during your tenure here?
Zisenwine: Yes but I don’t remember. It wasn’t, I considered as a Rabbi it was sort of a…, sort of past, almost a…There was one person who objected violently, a Rehmar.
Zisenwine: Pauls wife. She would get up and leave when the women came. But it was harmless. And that’s all she did, she left. She was the only person that ever expressed any objection to it. She really did object.
Interviewer: Are there some other kinds of things you…
Zisenwine: Well we instituted…
Interviewer: when you were here?
Zisenwine: we instituted a womens study group once a week studying Jewish history with the primary sources.
Interviewer: Is this something that had been asked for for quite a while?
Zisenwine: I think it was asked for; I sensed that there was a need. So we did that and we also had a Talmud study group that met at Battelle. Harold Neuman was the head of the Education Committee and he…
Interviewer: Worked at Battelle?
Zisenwine: worked at Battelle. Actually the head of the Battelle Institute was a member of this Congregation, Harold Ed Farber, was actually active in the Congregation. And Ed Farber gave us a room every week and a lot of people from Chemical Abstracts, downtown, they would come and meet once a week. We would have lunch. It was a private dining room, and study. It was a nice thing. I’m pleased. I always felt that was a real thing.
Interviewer: Was that sort of unusual for Columbus, to have Jewish study groups at lunch time?
Zisenwine: I think so at that time. It was unusual in the rest of America. It wasn’t an original idea but I thought it could be done. And it was done.
Interviewer: Theres a lot of that going on now.
Zisenwine: Yeah. It was done and successful and met a need and I was pleased with it. We worked a lot with kids. We set up, started sending our kids to Ramah. That required getting some money as an incentive. I was never convinced that these kids couldn’t afford it but most of them could at that time. But they needed an incentive. Camping was not part of this institution.
Interviewer: Could you say something about some of other special people who were here when you were here?
Zisenwine: Well Nathan Zelizer, Nathan Zelizer was without question the most complex, supportive and interesting person in this Congregation. If he hadn’t supported all this stuff, it would have gone down the tube. He really had power in those days.
Interviewer: Were you Assistant Rabbi when you initiated those things?
Zisenwine: I was his Associate.
Zisenwine: And the truth is he gave me a free hand, you know. At that time he had his things that he wanted to do and he thought these were a good idea. He didn’t want to do it. So he wanted me to do it, which I did.
Interviewer: So it was no, exactly a clear division of labor? It was pretty much you had an idea, you…
Zisenwine: I dealt with education. I preached every other week. He did all the funerals. And he visited from the first years that I was here, all the hospitals. So I did the school, educa- tional programs and preached sermons. So we did divide it up, yes.
Interviewer: You did have a clear division of labor?
Zisenwine: Absolutely. He never interfered with anything I did.
Interviewer: Okay. Now where during your tenure was it decided that he was going to retire?
Zisenwine: The first year that I was present. The only time I ever saw Sam Melton exercise his total muscle. He said to him, “Rabbi, I love you like a brother.” I was present when this happened. But I retired at 65 and you have to retire. He said, “I don’t want to.” He says, “Rabbi, I think it’s better for the Congregation.” And Zelizer was very upset. So he worked out a compromise where he sort of eased his way out. He went to Florida for a few months, came back. He was here for the High Holy days the second year. But the second year I was here he practically wasn’t here. Came for the High Holy days, came back for Passover. And he was not happy and he was angry with me. He was convinced that I was plotting against him which was totally untrue. I actually told him that…that I wanted to do a Ph. D., that I was thinking of going to Israel. It was not in my best interest for him to retire. And I knew that. I told him that. He just couldn’t believe it. When I told Marvin Katz who was the President that I wasn’t going to renew the contract. And Zelizer came back into the synagogue. He had not been in the building and in his own inimical but nice way he had a white flag, a handkerchief.
Interviewer: So that sounds like it was kind of a sad time.
Zisenwine: It was a difficult time for me. It was not very well known in the Congregation. I don’t think it was known. So I’m not leaving earlier. But I decided to stick it out. And I stayed until I, I’d actually already finished my Ph. D. in ’75 as I recall. And I stayed an extra year. Contract ran through ’76.
Interviewer: So, I hadn’t planned on asking this. Had you planned to not stay?
Zisenwine: No I planned to be a rabbi.
Interviewer: You planned to be…
Zisenwine: Absolutely. I spent my first four years as a rabbi in Sioux City, Iowa. And my wife and I were young so decided maybe I’ll try Israel. It’s a good time in our life to try. We figured what could we lose? Two little boys weren’t in school yet. We knew if it didn’t work out we could return.
Interviewer: That’s right.
Zisenwine: So we were young enough to do that. That’s what we did. No I intended to be a rabbi. I enjoy being a rabbi. People always tell me all these things, why didn’t I like being, that’s not true. I enjoyed it very much. I got, yeah there are some things I like better, things I enjoy very much. I like Tifereth Israel. I like being a rabbi in my home town.
Interviewer: I was thinking about that. It’s kind of unusual isnt it?
Zisenwine: It is but it was very nice. I mean I guess when I was a little kid, I was just…in the Jewish community. I didn’t get into much trouble.
Interviewer: Was Harry your uncle?
Zisenwine: Yes, yes.
Interviewer: I knew Harry. He was…
Zisenwine: Yeah, he was my uncle.
Interviewer: So could you, was there anything noteworthy, the condition of the Congregation when you left it? That was what somebody…
Zisenwine: The Congregation was actually in pretty good shape. They probably had about 850-880 members which I considered to be a, it had grown a bit. Mostly some of my old high school classmates who enjoyed sitting there, you know. I enjoyed having them too so it was mutual. It was a thriving, active synagogue. A wonderful place.
Interviewer: How, since the Wachs era was over, how would you say the education was, the Religious School?
Zisenwine: The Religious School had lost some students. I was doing a Ph. D. in education and was very interested in experimenting in the school. We managed to re-fortify and rejuvenate the high school department. I don’t know if we had over 100 kids in it, 101 or 102. And it had been almost dead. Teenagers, many of whom today are rabbis, quite a few Orthodox rabbis.
Interviewer: Can you say who some of those were?
Zisenwine: Sure I can, Steve Greenberg, Gary Hoffman, Howard Wallick who was not a rabbi but has become a just Jew. There was a fellow we never talked about, Harold Jaye, who is a Reform rabbi, who has this beautiful voice. Lets see who else. Girls involved were the Hoffman girls, Marcie Hoffmans kids. Toby Skilken. There was a whole group that would meet at my house once every other week in the afternoon, eat, and study. It was a lovely period. I enjoyed it very much.
Interviewer: Can you review some of the personal things you mentioned through the weekend about some of the special people on…You said some particular things about Saul Wachs and Bertha Krause and Shirley Kauffman…I want to make sure I get those.
Zisenwine: Dottie Adelman who was the youth director who did an unbelievable great job. Anne Bonowitz. Linda Sperber, very talented. Linda has an unbelievably beautiful voice. Her brother is the conductor of the Haifa Symphony so it’s a musical family. I think she’s in the business as he is as a musician. She didn’t continue at…She moved to California. So they were a very attractive and talented group of people.
Interviewer: And you said some things about Bertha Krause that I think…might not know if you don’t.
Zisenwine: Bertha Krause was a sort of German-Jewish lady with a thick accent who ran our, did you remember her from…
Interviewer: No I didn’t go here.
Zisenwine: I see. She ran around and she was like a scatter-brained person. But Bertha Krause was one smart lady.
Interviewer: How did the kids like her?
Zisenwine: They loved her. I don’t think parents ever figured out how. But she studied with Anna Freud. She was not just some, you know, crazy little lady. She knew exactly what she was doing and I think the …department thrived as long as she was here.
Interviewer: Okay, okay. I’m trying to remember some of the other things that you said that I don’t want to miss. Are there any other people you feel you should say something about for this purpose?
Zisenwine: The second group of teachers were…Carol Stein Berkowitz.
Interviewer: Carol Stein Berkowitz?
Zisenwine: Yes. Also a wonderful teacher. Stayed two years. I think she replaced, Carol was added to…went to rabbinical school. And so I lost track. I didn’t have contact. I was a rabbi. The ballgame had changed considerably and most of the people who worked here were students at Ohio State, local people. We needed to reinforce that a little bit.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that I don’t know to ask?
Zisenwine: I can’t think of anything. It was a peaceful, interesting, I mean, there was tremendous support from the Board. I mean, I would present some project and these supposedly hard-nosed characters always, I never was turned down, ever.
Interviewer: Who were the Presidents of the Board during those years, do you recall?
Zisenwine: Marvin Katz, Ben Goodman and Al Solove. Katz and Solove were the most active. I came in the last six months of Ben Goodmans tenure.
Interviewer: Okay. Unless there’s something else you would like…
Zisenwine: I can’t think of anything at all. It was a very, for me it was a wonderful period. It was a lovely time. Aside from the Zelizer issue which was not untroubling to me, but I don’t think anybody else ever knew about it. It’s the first time I’ve ever talked about it. The times were peaceful and the Congregation was cooperative. As I said, they never turned down any project.
Interviewer: Out of curiosity, did you have any later contact with Rabbi Zelizer?
Zisenwine: I’ve had, I had, I did. He showed up in Israel several times over the years. I don’t know, did you know him?
Interviewer: Yes I did. He knew the members of my family too.
Zisenwine: He was a witty, smart and wise man. He can be tough. I liked him very much. I thought he was a great rabbi by the way, a great rabbi. He never believed that I thought that. But I did. He was just a great rabbi. And he was a model for what a rab–, he was totally devoted to this place. By the way, he was poorly paid. And everybody always talked about Zelizer was a rich man. He might have been from outside sources of income. But he was not from his, and he never took, I mean his salary in 1958 or something was $11,000 a year.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness.
Zisenwine: It was a pittance. He did it because he liked it.
Interviewer: I thank you very much.
Zisenwine: Thank you.
Interviewer: That concluded the interview of Rabbi David Zisenwine by Carol Shkolnik on January 27, 2002.
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