Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Judaic scholar, social activist and former president of the American Jewish Congress, walked down the North Collington Street block of his boyhood East Baltimore neighborhood on a recent blustery winter morning and recalled his Hasidic roots.
"There was the house of the saintliest of the Baltimore rabbis of that era, Rabbi Axelrod," he said, standing before a brick rowhouse.
He pointed out the Formstone-covered facade that was the home to a rabbi, who had been chaplain to the predecessor to Sinai Hospital.
And, nearby, he recalled, was the house of Rabbi Forschlager, who for years holed up in a second-floor study lined with holy books, painstakingly scribbling a massive commentary on Jewish scriptures he never finished that amounted to more than 20,000 pages by his death. The rabbi was so consumed with his task that his wife would communicate with him by written notes delivered by Hertzberg's father.
"You couldn't walk down this block without discussing the Talmud," Hertzberg said. "This neighborhood had some iconic people. You could measure yourself by them."
Hertzberg, 81, who now lives in Englewood, N.J., has recently written his memoirs. Titled A Jew in America, he recounts a diverse career: He served a long tenure as a pulpit rabbi; he was an activist as a World Zionist Organization executive, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a president of the American Jewish Congress; he was a scholar who documented the strains of anti-Semitism in western culture; and he was a pioneering participant in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.
In the memoir, Hertzberg recounts his formative years in East Baltimore, and the influence of his father, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Herzberg, a Hasidic rabbi so revered that when he died, his synagogue refused to name a successor for a quarter century.
Hertzberg's East Baltimore neighborhood of the 1930s, centered on East Baltimore and Lombard streets between Patterson Park Avenue and the Fallsway, was a vibrant community of East European Jewish immigrants, its streets lined with kosher butchers, bakers, delicatessens and synagogues, and filled with the sound of Yiddish conversation.
"For us, this was a cohesive neighborhood, and it was a community," Hertzberg said on a recent visit to Baltimore, where for the first time in decades, he walked streets of his childhood. "It was an East European, Yiddish-speaking Jewish ghetto."
Today, that neighborhood is vastly different. The Jewish community had largely moved out by the 1950s. Now, only vestiges remain: the delicatessens on Lombard Street and the synagogues around the corner on Lloyd Street.
Parts of the neighborhood have been hit by blight and decay, but the neighborhoods of Washington Hill and Butcher's Hill are seeing revitalization as houses are renovated and businesses, like corner markets and chic restaurants, begin to move in.
Hertzberg stood outside a rowhouse in the 2100 block of E. Baltimore St., one of several homes in the area his family occupied. He admitted to some trepidation at revisiting such old memories.
"This evokes for me, chiefly, poverty," he said.
"I remember walking from this house to the Jewish parochial school, 1709 E. Baltimore St., with a hole in my shoes," he said. "And covering it with matchbox covers because I wasn't going to make my mother cry to tell her that I needed a pair of soles."
But on being invited inside, Hertzberg discovered that what had been cramped, drab quarters during his childhood had been renovated into a gentrified urban sanctuary.
"This house is part of the early immigrant struggle," Hertzberg told the woman who now owns it. "And I'm very moved that you have made something of it."
Hertzberg's family later moved to an apartment on Patterson Park Avenue, across from the park, where he lived through his high school years. He recalled being awakened by his father before dawn so together they could study the Talmud, the commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, before he left for school. The rabbi was tutoring his son in the kind of classical education he would have received had they stayed in Poland and he attended a yeshiva instead of City College.
"He taught me every day, straight through high school and college," Hertzberg said. "During the summer, we studied with our shirts off. We studied the Talmud up there, baking under the roof."
Hertzberg's boyhood friend, attorney Melvin Sykes of Upper Park Heights, recalled the elder rabbi as a gentle soul, but also as a classic scholar who disdained much of what passed for Jewish learning.
"When I visited occasionally, he would play with me," said Sykes. "I was going to Baltimore Hebrew College, and he would say, 'What tractate [portion of the Talmud] are you studying now, Melvin?' And whenever he did that, I started to quake, because I knew what was going to happen."
Although a traditional rabbi, Hertzberg said his father was not ignorant of modern scholarship. Behind his holy books were volumes of Marx, Nietzsche and other philosophers. Although he didn't agree with their conclusions, he read their works and respected their intellectual achievements.
His father demonstrated this openness, Hertzberg said, the day he left for Johns Hopkins University from the rowhouse on North Collington Street.
"On the morning I left home for my first class at college, my father waited at the door," Hertzberg writes in A Jew in America. He told his son he knew he would not be associating with pious Jews, "but he asked me to promise that I would seek out the company of intelligent Gentiles."
Hertzberg's father looms large in the narrative, as he still does in Baltimore's Jewish community. The elder Rabbi Herzberg (he retained the older spelling of his surname, never adding the "t," as did his son and many other relatives), was descended from a line of Polish rabbis who could trace their origins to the founders of Hasidism, a movement born in late 18th century Eastern Europe that stressed mysticism and religious fervor above and beyond adherence to ritual and law.
The family moved to the United States from Poland in 1926, when Arthur Hertzberg was 5. His father failed at several business ventures, including a Yiddish newspaper and a dry cleaners, because he refused to work on the Sabbath. He eventually worked as a rabbi at one time or another for about a half dozen small synagogues in East Baltimore.
His father had a fierce streak of independence and was given to clashes with his congregations that led several times either to his resignation or firing. Hertzberg recalled an incident he once recounted to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about a black man who came to the door of a synagogue led by Hertzberg's father in the 1930s, saying he was a Jewish cantor and carrying a certificate from a Toronto rabbi attesting to that fact. As was his right, the man asked to be given the privilege of chanting the service.
Reflecting the reality of a racially divided Baltimore, the members of the synagogue refused to recognize the man as a Jew. Hertzberg's father took the visitor by the arm, led him to the door, and his father announced to the congregation he would never return because "they'd insulted a human being made in the image of God."
A decade later, Hertzberg's father was fired from another synagogue when he criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a 1941 Yom Kippur sermon for not doing enough to help Jews being massacred by the Nazis.
"Within an hour there was a rustling at the door," Hertzberg, still emotional at the memory, recalled. "They had shoved a letter under the door saying that the board had an emergency meeting immediately after the service and had decided to fire him summarily because of this disrespect of the president of the United States.
"And he said, 'To hell with these bastards. I'm never again going to be subject to their will.' And he founded his own synagogue in his own house, of which he was the lord and master," Hertzberg said. "What I learned from him was, 'Never budge on a principle.' "
That synagogue later moved to Forest Park, and then to Park Heights. Although officially named Beth Abraham, it is known to this day as "Herzburg's Shul."
After graduating from Hopkins, Hertzberg left Baltimore, for good as it turned out, to study for the rabbinate. But instead of the Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution, he went to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the New York City training ground for rabbis of the Conservative movement, considerably more liberal than Orthodoxy. His choice, he says, reflects a tension he felt growing up in Jewish East Baltimore between the traditions of his father and the pull of modern ideas and culture he experienced when he left the neighborhood for school.
Ordained a Conservative rabbi who served in Conservative pulpits his entire career, Hertzberg, who describes himself as a "non-fundamentalist Orthodox Jew," says he still cherishes his Orthodox roots, although he has clashed throughout his career with the Orthodox movement.
"Most people identify Orthodoxy with rigorous observance," he said. "My father used to say, eating kosher and saying your daily prayers should be as natural to a Jew as breathing. And don't take yourself too seriously if you obey these rules.
"For him, being an Orthodox Jew meant, 'What have you done to make others' lives possible?'" he said. '"What have you done to contribute to Jewish learning?' And to loving kindness."