Tuesday, December 30, 2008

arnold jacob wolf

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf died last week, although the obituary appeared in the NY Times today. Wolf, the emeritus rabbi at KAM-Isaiah Israel in Chicago, received most attention for having been an early supporter of his neighbor, Barack Obama, whose house apparently abuts the synagogue in Hyde Park. I knew him as the Yale Rabbi in the late 1970s, when I was in law school, and he was between stints at different Chicago synagogues. (He changed both congregations and wives with some frequency, although that's another story). Even then, he was known as a live wire, having helped to found Bereirah [Choice], an organization devoted to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at a time when it was less than popular; having invited the Chicago Seven to speak at his then North Shore Chicago synagogue, whom he supposedly introduced by saying "under Jewish law a woman who is being raped is obligated to scream; America is being raped and these people are screaming"; and, for good measure, leveling a parting shot at Yale in 1980, which he accused, no doubt corrrectly, of harboring a high degree of antisemitism behind its Ivy facade. (I think the immediate cause was the scheduling of commencement on Shavuot but there was obviously more behind it).

What was striking about Arnold, as everyone called him, was what a kind and modest person he was behind this political facade. I personally remember him most for taking a full hour to counsel me, a budding reactionary, on problems I was having with my first serious girl friend, who had committed the unpardonable sin of being kind and loving to me and whom I accordingly broke up with shortly after the meeting. (He asked me if I was proud being seen with her, and when I hesitated, he said, there's your problem.) I also remember him for his sense of humor, which I suppose one needed to be a leftist in those days, although I never made the connection. At his Yale farewell event, various colleagues droned on about their exploits in the movement and the future of the Jewish left. Arnold began to look bored and somebody asked him why. "Too much theory," he told them. "Talk about me more."

Let's hope that some of his energy, and his humor, rubbed off on his neighbor.


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