From The Holidays
BY ROBERT A. ALPER SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
PHIL JACOBS EDITOR
uring my first two years
at the rabbinical semi-
nary, I taught at a local
school. Four of us car-pooled
Our group included a fellow
named Arnie who is now a well-
known and beloved West Coast
spiritual leader; Herb, who
earned his Ph.D. and now heads
one of New England's largest,
most prestigious congregations;
David, who made aliyah and co-
ordinates a major internation-
al youth program; and yours
truly, who immodestly thinks
he's no slouch.
But back then...well, we were
four guys in a car pool. A boring
car pool, until one day we pulled
up to the Clifton Avenue inter-
section just as the light turned
red. Someone yelled "Fire Drill,"
and as if part of the most grace-
ful ballet, four doors flew open
and four future rabbis sprang
from the car and began circling
the vehicle in a well-timed trot.
Someone shouted "Reverse,"
and, in perfect synch, each of us
did a neat half turn and contin-
ued the trot, this time counter-
Nearby motorists looked puz-
zled, then amused, and finally
rather impressed as we man-
aged to leap into the car, slam
the doors, and lurch forward at
the very moment the light
Twenty minutes later I
walked into my classroom to dis-
cover some two dozen mildly un-
ruly 6th graders.
I told them to act their age.
Those were interesting days
at Hebrew Union College. Guys
(and one woman) in our 20s, still
young but preparing ourselves
for careers that would depend
on maturity and wisdom. One
fellow was obviously a devotee
of the old school of rabbinic af-
fectation: He would practice
walking up and down the side-
walk stooped over, as if concen-
trating on a heavy textual
problem in the book he held. He
dropped out of school in his sec-
But most of us persevered
and ultimately became rabbis.
And along the way, probably the
best single piece of advice I ever
heard was, "Don't take yourself
too seriously. Take your work
seriously. But take yourself
It makes good sense. And I
never saw a better example
than I did last December when
I spent some time with Herb of
"Fire Drill" fame at his New
Rabbi Robert Alper lives in
Vermont, serves part-time at
a synagogue in Philadelphia,
and performs internationally
as a stand-up comic.
Some time last fall, after Hur-
ricane Andrew devastated Flori-
da, Herb decided to organize a
fund-raiser for Florida relief.
With co-sponsors from the com-
munity, Herb put together a
comedy night at his synagogue.
I was happy to volunteer my
services (I'm also a profession-
al comedian) and the event
raised more than $5,000, sent
directly to relief agencies.
But it is not the fund-raiser
that caught my attention that
night. Collecting money to help
others is a tradition. Good, de-
cent, caring people like Herb do
rows around the auditorium.
I went back to my hotel to
dress and have dinner with
some other local friends.
That evening I drove back to
the synagogue and parked in
the lot. As I walked to the build-
ing, I saw a large van in the cen-
ter of the drive just opposite the
entrance doors. The driver was
assisting 8 or 10 elderly people
into the building.
As I drew closer I was star-
tled to realize that the dri-
ver...was Herb. A big smile on
his face, he gently helped his
charges negotiate the step and
Artwork from the Los Angeles Times by Catherine Kenner. Cogynghte 1993. Catherine Kanner. DMInbut ad by Los Angeles Imes Syndicate.
it all the time.
Something else happened
that night, something above and
beyond happened that inspired
me and made me smile.
Herb and I met at the syna-
gogue on the afternoon of the
performance. He gave me a
tour: a beautiful sanctuary,
So Herb drove the
of an 800-family
became a chauffeur
for an evening,
men and women
back and forth to a
night of comedy.
magnificent facilities, and a
huge, tastefully appointed rab-
binic study, an appropriate of-
fice for the spiritual leader of
such a prestigious institution.
I was impressed.
We spent an hour testing the
sound system, adjusting the
lights, and, along with Herb's 6-
year-old son, shooting nerf ar-
steadied them as they got their
bearings on the pavement.
A few minutes later, after he
parked the van, we spoke in his
study. "What was that all
about?" I asked.
"Oh," Herb replied in his
somewhat wry, self-depreciat-
ing way, "we have a van for
some of our elderly members.
Since this is a holiday weekend,
we couldn't get anyone to dri-
ve it. I didn't want them to miss
out on your show."
So Herb drove the van. The
distinguished rabbi of an 800-
family congregation became a
chauffeur for an evening, shut-
tling elderly men and women
back and forth to a night of com-
To Herb...no big deal. This is
just part of what he does. This
is who he is. But I saw a pow-
erful message in action. Here
was a man who doesn't take
himself too seriously, but quite
obviously takes very seriously
his work as a rabbi. And be-
cause of that delicious combi-
nation of who he is, and what
kind of rabbi he is, hurricane
victims received help and a
group of octogenarians spent a
delightful evening laughing.
"Don't take yourself too seri-
ously. Take your work serious-
ly, but take yourself lightly."
A helpful, healthy resolution
for the new year.
When I was a
child, I used to
tease my parents
should be re-
cause all that I
saw was my fam-
ily rushing around getting shul
tickets purchased, food bought,
finding old, dog-eared index
cards with recipes on them,
phone calls made, friends and
relatives coming over.
But that was just in my imag-
Because that really never hap-
pened, at least in my house.
Growing up in a Jewish neigh-
borhood, I used to dread the
High Holidays. All of that rush-
ing around, with ladies dressed
in beautiful dresses and my
friends in suits, happened in the
houses next door and across the
street. Our small, tree-lined
street became so crowded with
cars that it was difficult for my
father to find a place to park his
car when work ended that night,
well after sundown. Well after a
shofar was blown.
I remember the embarrass-
ment of being the only Jewish
kid at school the next day. I re-
member the feelings of not un-
derstanding this time of year,
only that I fasted even in school
until my parents were able to get
home from work. I didn't know
why. We were assimilated.
There were no High Holidays. It
wasn't until I met the girl who
later became my wife, and her
family invited me over for Rosh
Hashanah dinner, that I felt part
My memories bring back a
certain excitement of being in-
vited somewhere, anywhere for
Rosh Hashanah. To break the
fast at my future in-laws also
quietly meant so much. I was
concerned that because I couldn't
read Hebrew, someone might
find out and hold it against me.
My girlfriend's father, now my
father-in-law, joked back then,
"Don't worry; we'll make a Jew
out of you yet." He said that be-
cause I didn't know the blessing
over wine. "Boray, paree, ha-
gafen." He joked. But it wasn't
such a joke.
Embarrassment gets in the
way of so much, and at holiday
time there are many Jews who
aren't getting together for big
meals, and who aren't going to
synagogue, who don't know
about repentance, and who are
basically alone with the televi-
sion set on Rosh Hashanah
while right across the street are
signs of Jewish life — prayers
and songs going on around the
It's not abnormal to not un-
derstand the shofar. It's not a
mark against you if you don't
know what Rosh Hashanah is.
There is no embarrassment if
you need to send your children
to school during these days be-
cause of a work schedule or day-
Please don't let lack of knowl-
edge get in the way of learning.
If we maintain our solidarity, we
do so as a total people. We only
hope and pray that those that
don't know, who aren't taking
part, feel comfortable enough to
learn, to ask for help.
If there is someone you know
who is going to be alone during
this holiday, walk across the
street and invite him to your
table. If you build a sukkah, in-
vite someone to share the expe-
rience. Explain what a lulav and
etrog are and what they mean.
Sense if a person is afraid to
ask the question, "What is this
all about?" and offer him your
It's not abnormal to
It's not a mark
if you don't know
There is no
you need to send
your children to
because of a
knowledge or the knowlege of a
rabbi or teacher in the Detroit
No Jews should sit out these
Days of Awe. No Jews should be
embarrassed, and no Jews
should be alone. And those who
know a little more shouldn't get
caught up in the "rush" of Rosh
Hashanah to the point where we
forget how important our
friends, loved ones and even the
"quiet" family across the street
are to all of us and the greater
Jewish family. ❑