We feel privileged to offer you the 1994 Rabbi Max Nussbaum Memorial Lecture delivered by Dr. Lewis Barth, Professor of Midrash and Related Literature at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.
This year marks the 20th Yahrzeit anniversary of Rabbi Nussbaum’s death, and it is a fitting tribute to him that the annual lecture in his memory was delivered by rabbi and Jewish scholar whose earliest Jewish memories were of Rabbi Nussbaum "saying very important things" from the pulpit of Temple Israel of Hollywood.
When Rabbi Nussbaum died in 1974, many of his congregants and friends at the College-Institute raised funds to establish an annual Nussbaum Lectureship bringing distinguished scholars to the Los Angeles Jewish community and also to sponsor an undergraduate Judaic studies course at the University of Southern California.
In special tribute to the memory of Max Nussbaum, Temple Israel asked Dr. Lewis Barth to edit a volume of Rabbi Nussbaum’s sermons and articles written over his entire career. Dr. Barth has produced, with editorial help from Ruth Nussbaum, a volume entitled Max Nussbaum: From Berlin to Hollywood-A Mid-century Vision of Jewish Life on which this lecture is based.
Lee Bycel, Rabbi; Dean, Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles
John L. Rosove, Rabbi; Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel of Hollywood
I am very grateful to Rabbi John Rosove for his introduction and warm welcome. John Rosove has brought his intelligence, warmth and graciousness to this pulpit, and Temple Israel has flourished under his rabbinic leadership. My thanks to Rabbi Rosove, and to Rabbi Lee Bycel, Dean of Hebrew Union College for the invitation to give this Nussbaum Memorial Lecture; and to Rabbi Lennard Thal, U.A.H.C. Regional Director, for his greetings. It also a pleasure to see so many members of Temple Israel, family, friends, colleagues and students, who are here this evening.
This occasion has very special meaning for me. Soon after Rabbi Nussbaum's death Dorothy Corwin and I began to discuss the creation of this lectureship. Dorothy, John Baer, George Hecker, Lester Ziffren, then Counsel General Wilhelm Fabricius of the Federal Republic of Germany, and many others helped establish this program. I am honored to be the Nussbaum lecturer tonight.
This is also an opportunity for me to thank Temple Israel of Hollywood for asking me to edit the sermons, speeches, and writings of Rabbi Max Nussbaum. I have had two stimulating years of reviewing the literary legacy of Max Nussbaum, and the privilege of working closely with Ruth Nussbaum. Ruth invited me in to her life and opened her world to me. I will always treasure our afternoons of conversation over iced tea; they were high-points in my week. This is a moment we share, and also with Hannah, Margaret and Jeremy, who flew in specially for this evening. It means more to me than I can really express to have the honor of telling what is, in so many ways, the story of Max and Ruth Nussbaum. Regarding the material: as I read and reread what he left to us--the words I recalled from my childhood--it all appeared to me so familiar, and yet so fresh and prophetic.
Recollection is so important. My first memory of Rabbi Max Nussbaum: it must have been during the High Holidays, 1943. I sat with my mother, father and brother in the Temple. In what I--a five-year-old--experienced as a massive cavernous hall of Temple Israel on Ivar Street, there appeared way off in the distance a grand white-robed figure high up on the bima. I began to get fidgety and to talk when my mother said, "Be quiet, the rabbi is saying something very important."
That is what I remember of him: powerful, imposing, and always saying something very important. In late August 1953, my confirmation met with him every morning for a week of study. He introduced us to the sweep of Jewish history, and spoke of the ideas of Maimonides, Judah ha-Levi, Theodore Herzl. Later, when the Hebrew Union College opened its Los Angeles campus, he was a visiting lecturer. This time, he introduced the first group of Los Angeles rabbinic students to selections from Sefer ha-Aggada--Bialik and Ravnitsky's anthology of rabbinic legends--and to the use of classical sources in preaching.
Many here tonight also remember the reports he gave to the community when he returned from trips to Israel or Europe, the surveys of world Jewry with which he often opened the Erev Rosh Hashanah service. Over many years, whoever heard his sermons or listened to him teach knew that my mother was right: he was always saying something very important.
But there are also many here tonight who did not know him, nor recall that it is twenty years this summer that he passed away. Ruth called my attention to the fact that fifty-four years ago to night, April 22, 1940, she and Hannah and Max celebrated the last seder they were to have in Berlin with friends and family. There is so much history. So we do well to ask about this man: where did he come from--geographically, intellectually and spiritually, how did he enter the life of this community, what was his task here and his message? Three questions to answer as there were always three point in his sermons.
Moshe Nussbaum--only later was he called Max--was born in Suceava, Bukovina in 1908. Suceava was a small town and a regional capital in the north-east corner of what became Romania after World War I. During the period of his early childhood Bukovina was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the capital of which was Vienna. The Jews of this area looked to the west. For Jews, German, not Romanian, was the language of culture and politics. These people considered themselves to be more "European" than other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Jewish life in the entire region was open to the currents of the modern world
The history of the Jewish community of Suceava goes back to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. By 1914 there were approximately eight thousand Jews in Suceava. Jewish community life flourished with Orthodox synagogues, a Reform temple, a Talmud Torah, a kindergarten and a Jewish high school. Hebraists and Zionists were active: from the leftist ha-Shomer ha-Tza-ir to the Revisionists on the right. Perhaps equally important for our story: the town was a center for wonder-workers and a focal point for thousands of Hasidic Jews in the entire surrounding area.
Max Nussbaum spent his childhood in this religiously and culturally intense Jewish environment. His own home life was one of extreme Orthodoxy. There is a family photograph showing Josef Nussbaum, his father, in traditional Hasidic garb. Young Moshe himself was required to dress in a caftan. He remembered his father as a devoutly religious man who rose each morning at 3:00 A.M. to study Talmud. As was typical in traditionalist communities, his parents enrolled Moshe in a heder when he was three years old.
In spite of a strict Orthodox environment, the Nussbaum home was also a window to the larger world. Typical of the area, the family spoke a dialect of German as well as Yiddish, but not Romanian. Books of Goethe and Schiller--the classic German writers--were found on the same shelves as Talmud and Midrash. This was the complex environment in which Moshe and his two older sisters, Malka Rosa and Channah, grew up.
By his early teens Nussbaum began to break away from Orthodoxy. He demonstrated an independence of thought and tenacity that were among his lifelong qualities. The first step was symbolic: he secretly arranged with his mother to purchase a Western style suit so that he could attend the social affairs of Jewish and Zionist youth organizations.
The second step: he had a major conflict with his father over his desire to go to the public Jewish high school. Josef Nussbaum feared that secular learning would lead to the alienation of his son from religion. Early the master of the dramatic gesture, Moshe climbed up on the roof of the house, wrote a long poem of lamentation, and went on a hunger strike. With the help of his mother, Rachel--whom he viewed as gentleness personified and a balance to a strict father--the young rebel prevailed.
By the time he finished high school Moshe had become Max. More had changed than the name. One could already see in this nineteen year old the people, images and values that moved him. He wrote a letter to his sister toward the end of December 1927. In it he expressed great disappointment that the one exciting event he had looked forward to in Suceava--a visit to the community by Chaim Weizmann, the great Zionist leader--was canceled at the last minute. Within a decade, as Rabbi in Berlin, Max Nussbaum would not only listen to Weizmann at Zionist Congresses but to work closely with him in Zionist activities. At this earlier point it was already clear that Max Nussbaum identified with a different world from that of his parents. Soon, after family discussions and with his father's approval he left Romania for Germany to begin his rabbinic studies.
In the fall of 1928 he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau and also at the University of Breslau. The Breslau Seminary, as it was generally known, was the first modern European seminary for the training of rabbis. It was a perfect place for Max Nussbaum's own religious and cultural development. The Breslau Seminary educated rabbis for the Orthodox and Liberal branches of German and European Jewry. In the framework of German Judaism prior to World War II, Nussbaum prepared himself to be a "Liberal Rabbi."
Though he had gravitated toward Zionism earlier in Suceava, in Breslau he was exposed to major Zionist thinkers, on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. Max Nussbaum, however, saw himself always as the rabbi and not the politician. He quickly began to conceptualize a new model of rabbinic service. In a student sermon, entitled "Modern Zionist Rabbis," he sketched his dream of a new breed of liberal Zionist rabbis--something almost unheard of in Breslau at that time. He argued that only such rabbis could reach out to young people to share the dream of a Jewish homeland.
In his parallel studies at the University he deepened his grasp of Western Culture. He read widely the modern German and Russian novelists and essayist and studied French. Nussbaum also became an expert in European and Jewish theater, worked as a theater critic on radio, and began his lifelong career of lecturing.
In order to be ordained by the Seminar, he also needed a doctoral degree. So he spent an academic year at the University of Würzburg studying philosophy. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, Kantianismus und Marxismus in der Socialphilosophie Max Adlers [ Kantianism and Marxism in the Social Philosophy of Max Adler].
Max Adler (1873-1937) was at that time an influential Austrian Marxist social theorist and professor at the University of Vienna. The decision to write on a contemporary thinker is significant. It required Nussbaum to confront the major currents of European intellectual and political thought of his day. Adler's sociological system was grounded in the economic determinism of Karl Marx and in the German philosophical Idealism of Immanual Kant. But Adler rejected the Orthodox Marxist view that only economic forces were central to the historical process. Instead, Adler understood that there was a deep ethical impulse in the social movements that shaped society.
This idea influenced Nussbaum's own thinking and coalesced with the message of the biblical prophets that spoke so powerfully to him. He began to view all history, not just that of the Jewish People, as a never-ending human struggle to establish a just society. We will see later how profoundly he could understand and identify with liberation movements of other oppressed peoples.
Toward the end of 1933 he completed his examinations at the Seminar and received ordination.
Nussbaum arrived in Berlin to serve as rabbi in 1934. He was employed by the Jewish community, and quickly worked his way up the ranks to become Gemeinde Rabbiner, Community Rabbi. It is important to stress that in German Jewish life, rabbis were employed by the Jewish community, not by a specific congregation. At the beginning of each month a rabbi would receive his preaching schedule for different synagogues; and the rabbi was expected to serve all members of the community.
Max Nussbaum's role in the social structure of the Jewish community of Berlin was unique. He was the youngest, and the only Ostjude--Eastern European Jew--of the young rabbinic generation. Because of his background, some of the bal ha-batim (leadership) had initial misgivings about him. It is possible that the fact that he was an outsider increased his attractiveness. Jewish crowds were drawn to hear the handsome, fiery, and scholarly newcomer to the community. But stop and think about the context in which he functioned as rabbi. When he first began preaching in Berlin in 1934 it was little more than a year after Hitler had become Chancellor (January 30, 1933). Consider what the Jews of Berlin needed to hear, but also what it must have meant to preach with members of the Gestapo and informers sitting in your congregation.
Max Nussbaum was one of the few rabbis who still remained in Berlin in the late 1930's. The Jewish Community kept him extremely busy with a heavy schedule, preaching and teaching. Because of his earlier interest in theater, he also became involved with the Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland. This organization offered theater and musical presentations from 1933-1942 to the Jewish community. It became especially important after the Nazis no longer permitted Jews to frequent public cultural events. The Jewish community asked him to teach Jewish actors and audiences--in many ways very assimilated German Jews--about the Jewish content of plays they were authorized by the Nazi authorities to perform or view.
In 1935 the Nazis still allowed Jews to go to public theater and opera. One evening at an opera, mutual friends introduced Nussbaum to Ruth. Three years later they were married by the civil authority in Amsterdam where Ruth was then living. Almost immediately after the wedding they returned to Berlin, traveling on Nussbaum's Romanian passport. On July 14, 1938, Rabbi Leo Baeck married them, this time in a religious ceremony in Berlin. In his wedding sermon, Rabbi Baeck stressed the symbolism of the meeting of East and West in the personalities of the young couple.
Time does not permit to tell of Max and Ruth's escape from Berlin--they left on July 31, 1940--, nor of their harrowing adventures on the way to Lisbon, and their arrival in New York. They then spent two years in Muskogee, Oklahoma where he served as rabbi and taught on the faculty of the State University of Oklahoma at Norman. Suffice it to say that Oklahoma provided a unique introduction to life in the United States, quite different from the experience of the other German Jews who settled in New York or Los Angeles. Best of all, Max and Ruth succeeded in rescuing Hannah and Ruth's parents from Berlin and bringing them to Muskogee, and Jeremy was born.
Tragically, Max Nussbaum never saw his own parents again. On October 9, 1941, they, along with all other Jews of Suceava, were deported to Transnistria in the Ukraine. He learned later--and only through a Red Cross announcement--of their deaths from cold, hunger and typhoid fever. That news haunted him forever after. The fate of his parents, relatives and friends was so out of joint with the life that Max Nussbaum and his family were about to enter: the contemporary world of Hollywood, and this congregation.
Temple Israel needed a war-time replacement for Rabbi Morton Bauman, who was then serving as a military chaplain. The irony of the choice! Just a few years earlier in Berlin Nussbaum had been teased because he did not exactly fit the image of the traditional rabbi. Friends had said to him: "You should be Rabbi of Hollywood, that's where you belong, Charles Boyer-Kosher Style." Now the kidding turned into reality.
Just a word about the background of this congregation in the setting of Hollywood. Seven people organized Temple Israel in 1927. In an article Nussbaum wrote on the Jews of Hollywood he described the founders of this congregation:
All of them were, in one way or another, connected with the making of motion pictures. The first man was the head of the Fox Film Studios; the second was the head of production at Universal; the third was the president and owner of the Chadwick Productions; the fourth was a writer at Fox Studios; the fifth was a Hollywood talent agent; the sixth was an independent producer; the seventh, finally, was an MD, the doctor of the movie colony at the time, and thus a part of the social set of the industry.
The initial image of the Temple during the late 1920's and throughout the 1930's is reflected in the masthead of the Observer, the congregational bulletin. It read: Temple Israel of Hollywood, Filmland's House of Worship.
In 1942, the leaders of Temple Israel brought Max Nussbaum to this community to be their rabbi.
For the next thirty-two years as rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Max Nussbaum did have significant contact with "the industry." He performed the marriages of several "stars"--the best known: the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fischer. He officiated at nearly a dozen celebrity funerals, including those of Fanny Brice, Samuel Goldwyn, Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, and a memorial service for Michael Todd. He and Ruth also socialized periodically with the elite German and German Jewish writers and musicians "in exile" in Los Angeles, including Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger. On the level of American popular culture, our rabbi achieved his own kind of national recognition. One evening in 1959, Ralph Edwards brought him out before millions watching TV and announced: "Rabbi Max Nussbaum, This is your Life."
What kind of a congregational rabbi was he? He did have the reputation of being a strict rabbinic figure. Periodically he would stop in the middle of a sermon to stare someone down who was talking during services. Yet he was deeply involved in lives of member families. He sensed when people were in trouble and was often on the phone with congregants day and night. He was gifted with a memory for personal detail. The Temple archives contain hundreds of personal letters he wrote to members of the congregation for every occasion.
Regarding programs, he created the nursery school and an intensive adult education program at which he lectured. Long before it became the practice in other congregations, he led a study-minyan prior to the regular Shabbat morning service. Nussbaum joined with others in the Reform movement in the late 1960's to argue for the establishment of congregational day schools. American Reform Judaism, however, required another decade before this was to happen.
Nussbaum had a strong commitment to Reform Judaism and spoke again and again at local, regional and national conferences and biennials of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He served on the Administrative Board, later the Board of Overseers, which was responsible for establishing the Hebrew Union College campus in Los Angeles. He also had an intellectual reach which transcended the boundries of movements and institutions. For example, he became interested in the Reconstructionist movement and established a Reconstructionist group within the congregation. He invited its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, to speak at Temple Israel.
That was typical: he wanted his congregation to be exposed to the best of contemporary thought and experience. Nussbaum invited to the pulpit of Temple Israel several other leading figures in American and Jewish life, including the most important rabbinic figures in his life: Leo Baeck, whom he considered the most saintly man he had ever met, and Stephen S. Wise, the great Zionist leader, who had saved the Nussbaums' lives by arranging for the Muskogee congregation to offer a job and provide the necessary guarentees to the American Government. Two Reform congregations in Los Angeles are named for these same rabbis.
In the history of Temple Israel of Hollywood, two additional occasions deserve mention. The first was the Friday evening service on February 26, 1965, during which the Reverend Martin Luther King spoke. I will return to its meaning in a moment. The second was Erev Yom Kippur, Friday evening October 5, 1973. Gregor Piatigorsky, the world renown cellist, on the faculty of the USC Music School, played the Kol Nidre melody. It was an evening of extraordinary beauty. Piatigorsky had a massive head and hands. As he played his cello on this pulpit his face was transformed with rapture; the congregation was swept up in an experience of transcendence. Sitting in Temple, listening to the music, hearing the sermon--we did not know that at that same moment half way around the world, as the dawn of October 6 was breaking, Egypt and Syria launched their attacks against Israel and the Yom Kippur War began.
It was just at such times that Max Nussbaum could muster the full range of his experience as a national and international leader of Jewry--to connect us to the unfolding events and to deepen our sense of commitment to Israel and the Jewish People. And what an extraordinary range to Max Nussbaum's public activities! This includes his presidency of the Zionist Organization of America and national roles in the American Jewish Congress. In many cases, this man who had come from so far away in South-Eastern Europe now became the first leader of a national Jewish organization from the American West. He was among the first Jewish leaders to visit Germany after the War and a member of the first UJA Mission to Israel. The honors he received were legion: he was presented with the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award by the State of Israel Bond Organization. He and Ruth shared the Brandeis Award of the Zionist Organization of America. In both cases, this was the first time these awards were presented to Jewish leaders in the West. Perhaps his proudest moment was when he and Ruth were invited to Dinner at the White House as President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson hosted the prime minister of Israel, Levi Eshkol (Monday, June 1, 1964.).
How did this congregation feel about all these national and international activities? The congregation loved to talk of his rising reputation, but was not always happy with his being away. There were periodic conflicts with the Board of Trustees over his frequent trips to Jerusalem, New York or European capitals for the organizations in which he held leadership positions. Yet the Board eventually came to understand something of Max Nussbaum's self image as a rabbi. His conception of the rabbinate continued to reflect an aspect of his earlier experience as a Geminde Rabbiner: certainly he was the rabbi of Temple Israel, but he also had a responsibility to the Jewish community and the Jewish People.
Nussbaum's rabbinic task was the shaping of a new American Jewish identity, for himself and for his people. In relation to this, I want to focus on themes he discussed over and over again: racism, ethnic identity and Zionism. The issues he confronted are still with us. Max Nussbaum had experienced the worst of politically supported racism in Germany. He spoke about its dangers from the moment he arrived in the United States. In Muskogee he again experienced racism--this time American style. He could not abide the signs on the buses in Oklahoma and when he traveled in the South--Negro or Colored to the Back. He determined to fight racial prejudice from the pulpit and in the community, and already encountered opposition to his views from his Jewish congregants in Muskogee.
Years later in Hollywood he spoke of the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King as "Zionism in Black." This metaphor reflected his view that both Zionism and the movement for black equality aspired to the same goal of human and group liberation. He argued that both drew inspiration from commonly shared biblical imperatives rooted in the Passover motif: the journey from slavery to freedom. He pressed for Jews to understand and identify with the black struggle. He spoke of values in it that I doubt were uttered from any other synagogue pulpit. In response to growing ethnic and racial tensions within American society, Max Nussbaum took a major risk. He appealed to us, as Jews, to view ourselves as an ethnic-religious group. He said we should use the emerging consciousness of the Black and Chicano communities as a model and not as a threat.
These were not new ideas for him. Already in May 1943, he published an article in a Yiddish newspaper, Dos Yiddishe Folk, entitled: "Der Veg Tsu a Tsionistisher Masen Bavegung [The Path to a Zionist Mass-Movement]." He wrote:
We should explain that the surest way to assimilate in America is to be or become a normal national minority group in this country, true to its tradition and its culture. The best way for a Jewish youth to be considered a full-fledged American is to identify with his own ethnic group, to be true to his religion, to study Hebrew, help build eretz yisrael as a Jewish homeland, and to be like all other nations. This type of Zionism they will understand.
Nearly thirty years later, early in the seventies, he would call for "A Redefinition of the American Jewish Community." He wrote in the Observer, November 12, 1971:
As long as America was the "melting pot of the world," where the "huddled masses" were welcomed, accepted and integrated into the larger society of the nation of immigrants, our definition of ourselves as a religious community was in keeping with the spirit of the time.
But America has changed radically. The melting pot idea is as good as dead, and what is emerging before our eyes is an America of cultural pluralism….
In an age in which "black," "brown" and "red" are "beautiful," why should Jewishness not echo the same vocabulary of beauty and dignity, of identity and rootage? It is honest. It is straight. Most of all, it is the historic truth. It will easily be understood by our own children as well as by our neighbors, and will allow for the growth of the American Jewish Community within the evolving pluralism of contemporary society.
The message was simple and perhaps for a simpler time than ours: to function in a pluralistic society we needed to be better Jews. Thus he would speak over and over again of "integration without assimilation" and "commitment and identification."
His concept of Zionism relates to the same basic ideas of the importance of Jewish Peoplehood and the preservation of Jewish life. Naturally, he worked for and publicly defended the young State of Israel. In a constant stream of sermons and speeches he spoke of the courage of the Israeli population and its need for material and political support. He lashed out, when he deemed it necessary, at the US State Department's dealings in the Middle East, and at what he considered false steps in American policy. His descriptions of the dangers of supporting the recalcitrant dictators of Iraq--going back to the fifties and early sixties--are simply prophetic, as the American government sadly had to learn.
At the same time, he did not hold back from criticizing the actions of Israel's political leaders from the pulpit and from conference platforms. He deeply resented the denigration of the World Zionist movement and the dismissive attitude of some Israeli government officials toward American Zionist leadership soon after the establishment of the State. In addition, he felt that Ben-Gurion was unnecessarily creating divisions between Israelis and American Jews. Max Nussbaum was also one of the first to focus attention on emerging social issues in the new Jewish state and on the problem of coercion by the religious parties in the government.
Ultimately, for him there was only one purpose to the whole Zionist endeavor. In profound pain over arguments between Israeli government officials and the world Zionist movement, he wrote:
…in our Zionist history we did not create a state just for the trappings of ministries and armies and navies and flags--but … we created the State as the best instrumentality for the preservation of the cohesiveness and the unity of the Jewish People. The State was created for the People, not the People for the State. The Jewish People was organized to create the Jewish State, so that the Jewish State could be organized to preserve the Jewish People. This is the classic Zionist philosophy. Not the other way around.
The inner tensions facing Israel and the Jewish world have not changed since he wrote those words.
So, after sketching his background, seeing how he functioned in this Temple and Hollywood, reviewing some of his most cherished ideas, we come now to our conclusion.
Friday, July 19, 1974, was a warm summer day in Hollywood. Nussbaum was working in his study preparing his notes for that evening's talk. He planned to report to the congregation--as he had done so many times--on his recent trip to Israel and the ZOA Conference there. His young granddaughter Margaret was playing with a hose in the garden, watering the flowers and splashing herself to keep cool. Nussbaum came down for iced tea and went out on the patio to watch. It was a beautiful scene--grandfather and granddaughter in a moment of pleasure. Ruth quickly found her camera and took a snapshot she still possesses.
That evening at Shabbat dinner Max Nussbaum was stricken with a heart attack. The next morning he died.
Some say that only true zaddikim die on the Sabbath; others say that Max Nussbaum ascended to give his report biy'eshiva shel ma'ala, in the Heavenly Academy.
"In this spirit"--a phrase he always used to conclude his sermons--"in this spirit," let me just add: He was our window to a larger world. We are all heirs to Max Nussbaum's prophetic words. Soon his major writings will be available to all of us. He will again challenge us--as he always did--to read, to think, and especially to act in the light of a higher morality which he believed God demands from the Jewish People in every generation.Lewis M. Barth Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion 3077 University Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90007 firstname.lastname@example.org