I love it when people ask why I moved to Ashland. I love it because I get to say, “My rabbi told me to.” And then, with the gates of inquiry open, I get to recall aloud the stories about the man who was my best friend, Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, the founder of the Havurah Shir Hadash, who died four years ago.
We were walking through Lithia Park, just past the lower duck pond on a sunny springtime-tease of a day in March in 2003. Rabbi Aryeh, who had been presiding for several years over a congregation in Portland, had insisted I join him for a weekend “shabbbaton” led by his teacher and rebbe (spiritual teacher) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I’d flown to Oregon from my home in Montana and we’d made the drive south together.
By the way, he didn’t have to explain how important it was that I meet his Rebbe. According to the Torah, a person who teaches you its wisdom is considered a spiritual father. Since Reb Aryeh had been that to me, Reb Zalman was nothing less than my spiritual grandfather.
This happened on a Thursday, a day before the event was to begin. Rabbi Aryeh had just tucked away his cell phone after checking in with his wife Beth, when, beside the rushing water, he stopped abruptly and turned to me. After waiting a beat or two, he cocked his head, narrowed his dark eyes and nodded as though something had suddenly become clear. “You should move here,” he said. “I don’t usually do this. I don’t tell people what to do, but you should move here.”
I laughed, maybe the way Abraham laughed when an angel suggested his 90-year-old wife would bear a child. “You’re crazy. You’ve been to my house. Why would I want to move?” It really was a good question. For a dozen or so years, I’d lived with my wife and two sons on 20 acres of a forested mountainside, off the grid in a gorgeous house with a view to die for. Move? Why?
He didn’t flinch. He nodded. “You need community.”
What he meant was, while I could be Jewish anywhere, to really live Jewishly, to put the commandments into practice, I needed to be in community. And while he knew—and often envied—the sweet natural setting of our home, we were surely isolated, miles up a steep dirt road that was hell in winter and mud season too. Our friends were few and our neighbors were folks with whom we had little in common.
So I pulled out my phone, called home and asked, “What would you think about moving to Ashland?”
A few years later, the family completed the move, with no regrets.
Recalling that morning in Lithia Park, there was one obvious and amusing question I never did pose to my buddy: Why, if we were such good friends, did he tell me to move to Ashland and not Portland where we could be closer?
I confess that, at first, my feelings were hurt. But as Rabbi Aryeh toured me through the park, past places where he’d presided over bar mitzvahs and weddings, where he’d been married, in fact; as we hiked around Howard Prairie Lake and other favorite haunts, and as I witnessed his love eyes for this town, its wild lands, and his oldest friends, I understood and felt only gratitude. Directing me here was an unselfish act. He merely wanted for me what he wanted for himself, to be back in Ashland. (Retirement, he hoped, would bring him back.) In a sense, I think, he enjoyed my move vicariously.
I’d met him the first time on a wintry Friday night in October of 1996 in a living room where he was leading a service for the small Jewish community across from Flathead Lake. He was sitting on a pillow on the floor, strumming his guitar and singing “Wings of Peace,” one of scores of songs he’d composed as prayer and, thankfully, recorded. A small wiry guy with a trimmed beard, wearing a silk shirt and a woven yarmulke, he struck me with his intensity, his joy and a wry sense of humor. (One of his favorite films was Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs.” And his Jackie Mason routines were to die for.)
He was nothing like any rabbi I’d known or could have imagined. The Judaism he lived and espoused, as practical as it was mystical, was foreign to my experience. Yet it instantly felt like returning home. The religion I had grown up with in Brooklyn had been dry, didactic and, frankly, bloodless. Like so many of my peers, I had gone elsewhere, to the eastern practices for spirituality, while envying those whose belief in Christ have them a ticket to churches where worship was song-filled and even deliriously, deliciously raucous.
And here was this guy born a few boroughs north in The Bronx, with a familiar accent, energy and mien—who played a helluva tough game of basketball—showing me what I’d been missing. I’d called home even before the service was over to say that I’d fallen in love.
The next morning, with the temperature 10 below, he and I walked hip-deep through the snow, breaking trail around the lake, kibbetzing, comparing notes about our families, finding in each other a kindred spirit. When we looked up, we saw a pair of eagles and a red-tailed hawk. I got used to that happening with him. In fact, over the years, when he visited us in Montana, we would hike in Glacier National Park or someplace closer to home. And always, we would see raptors. He had a knack for finding their feathers, too, and, religiously, he would leave a pinch of tobacco in thanks. (No, he didn’t smoke or chew the stuff; he just blessed with it. And when Reb Aryeh blessed, he blessed BIG.
You may have noticed that I never referred to my friend as “Aryeh,” but always preceded his name with the title Rabbi or Reb. I used to do that when we were together too. As close as we became, as silly as we could be together, I never wanted to risk forgetting that he was my teacher too. And, though he eventually got used to it, in the beginning it used to drive him nuts. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the reason he told me to move to Ashland and not Portland.
Note: At age 88, Reb Zalman, who’s based in Boulder, Colo., is returning to Ashland the weekend of April 12-14 for another spiritual journey. You can still sign on by calling 541-488-7716. Reb Aryeh would have insisted I mention that!
(Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg is a Realtor with Real Estate Depot in Ashland. You can reach him at 541-778-8949 or at firstname.lastname@example.org