Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Rabbi and the Mechiza

When a retired politician, professor or clergy starts talking, it’s time to pack a lunch. Lacking audiences they once commanded, he or she knows no time clock when you are in their presence. For example, I missed the 25-minute eulogy by a former state official for her colleague that was obviously as much about her as the deceased. A retired Northwestern professor, at a book signing by the reporter who interviewed me for a Kansas City Star feature, talked extensively about his younger days as a New York Giants baseball fan (Charlie “King Kong” Keller once told him, “Go to Hell, Kid!” after he asked for an autograph before an exhibition game) and then left without buying the book. This leads me to a relative, Rabbi Morton Berman.

After a long and distinguished career as the rabbi at Temple Isaiah Israel on Chicago’s South Side, he and his wife Elaine, my mother’s first cousin, made aliyah in 1957. I remember one return visit, when he held court at my grandparents’ apartment.  His voice was seemingly the only one heard all evening, opining on several subjects and the famous people he knew. Rabbi Berman mentioned Cong. Adolph J. Sabath, the third Jewish member of the U.S. House of Representatives and, when I said that his papers had just been donated to a local museum, he went off on a long rant about a more appropriate repository.

Don’t get me wrong: I understood Rabbi Berman’s dilemma. Morton Berman was born in Baltimore in 1899 and graduated from Yale during the era of Jewish quotas. He studied at the New York School of Hebrew Union College, as well as in Jerusalem and Berlin. After working at Hebrew Union, he was appointed rabbi at Isaiah Israel in 1937, replacing Rabbi Gerson Levi, who had joined Isaiah Israel after a decade-earlier merger (see “There Used to be a Synagogue Here: South Side” for details). Rabbi Levi was a disciple of Rabbi Emil Hirsch at nearby Chicago Sinai Congregation, which eschewed rituals, Zionism and even the Sabbath. 

Upon arriving at Isaiah Israel, located at 50th and Greenwood, Rabbi Berman set out to bring the congregation back into the Reform Jewish mainstream. He reinstated Friday night services and dropped Sunday morning worship. Jewish rituals and ceremonies returned, and the congregation strongly supported the growing Zionist movement. Membership swelled to more than 500 families. As a leader in the community, he joined Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern and Arthur Rubenstein in opposing the appointment of Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during World War II, to be primary conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Rabbi Berman also served as a Navy chaplain during World War II, which included landing with the Marines at Okinawa. He joined Protestant clergy there in a rare interfaith service eulogizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt (the Catholics wouldn’t take part). His second marriage was to Elaine, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago and 23 years his junior. 

Rabbi Berman retired in 1957 and moved to Israel, I’m told, because Elaine had tired of being a rebbitzen. He was succeeded by Rabbi Hayim Goren Peremuter, who officiated at my father’s funeral (we were between congregations at the time), and Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, the first rabbi at Congregation Solel, which my parents helped develop in the 1950s. (Note: KAM, the oldest congregation in the city, merged with Isaiah Israel in 1971.)  Dr. Berman took an important position at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, while Rabbi Berman, unable to officiate as a clergyman, stayed home with the young children and wrote books and articles. One can see why he relished opportunities to provide his wisdom and commentary.

Rabbi Berman, for better or for worse, may be known more in death than in life. He was buried on the Mount of Olives after passing away at age 86 in January 1986. Almost immediately, a group of ultra-Orthodox erected a fence – considered a mechiza, the barrier that separates men and women at ritual services – around Rabbi Berman’s grave. These zealots did not deem him worthy of a Jewish interment there. Elaine Berman and the American Jewish community protested vigorously, and the fence was taken down. This incident leaves me with lingering suspicions about the motivations of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel today. Again, that’s one man’s opinion.  I may be wrong.


  1. Just discovered your blog. Morton Mayer Berman, "Mickey," was my second cousin. I would like to chat with you about him (I just discovered your interesting post). Please contact me at

  2. Uncle Mickey was the brother of my mother, Calie Berman Loss.
    I am in touch with Elaine's and his children whom I see often when I am in Jerusalem.