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Boston Magazine Article

Boston Magazine: “Shtick Figure”

A wisecracking theologian resuscitates a moribund synagogue in Brookline. By Doug Most

“I need to hear people laugh,” Rabbi Moshe Waldoks says as the drizzle falls outside his office at Temple Beth Zion on a Friday afternoon. “If you don’t laugh, your heart can’t be open. Jokes can open you up.”

That this Toledo, Ohio-born son of Holocaust refugees appreciates a good laugh is no surprise. Waldok’s Big Book of Jewish Humor, compiled with William Novak back in 1981 and now in its 23rdprinting, has become a bible of sorts for Jews and other readers, a collection of cartoons and essays, jokes, and one-liners from Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, and others. What is surprising is how this rebel rabbi has used humor to repopulate this once-dying Brookline synagogue in the three years since he took it over. “I’m a bit of a loose cannon,” he admits. I’m a real advocate of joy. Jews are into the oy, not the joy.”

Wearing a green baseball cap and jeans, Waldoks tells his tale with his feet propped up on his cluttered desk, his girth protruding through an untucked blue shirt. The getup doesn’t fit the stereotype of the somber, buttoned-down rabbi who speaks I carefully measured words and acts more like a stern father than a friend. But Waldoks, 52, isn’t your typical career-track spiritual healer. He was ordained only five years ago, after an earlier life teaching Jewish intellectual history at Wellesley, Hebrew College, Brandeis (where he earned his Ph.D.), and elsewhere. He didn’t make the switch to full-time rabbi until 1998, and even then only reluctantly, given that Temple Beth Zion’s membership was basically 52 elderly members so rooted in tradition that women were discouraged from participating in services. “The youngest member was 65,” Waldoks recalls, building to a punch line. “They made him wear Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.”

Waldoks, who has three daughters with his wife, Anne, a psychologist, took over the congregation, and within three years he’d boosted its membership nearly tenfold, to 500. His plan was simple: Attract young people with services that are in equal measure religious and spiritual, by combining chanting with meditation. At first his methods alienated the traditionalists – “After a year, we lost a few misogynists,” he says – but those who stayed, like those who were drawn in, were lured by the way Waldoks refuses to stand at the front of the room on a pedestal. This rabbi prefers to sit on a stool placed down on the floor, eye-level with his flock. “I wasn’t going to be a pulpit rabbi,” he says. “It had been the same service here since 1946. I’m with then, not above them. The major word is ‘accessibility.'”

That also explains why, even during probably his darkest service, Friday, September 14 [2001], he didn’t hesitate to mix some humor in with the reflections and prayers. Spontaneous quips, that’s all, but enough to relieve the tension on a night when everyone was still in disbelief about the terrorist attacks there days before. “It was the great challenge for all humor,” he says of the night. “We had to be careful about it.”

For Waldoks, the appropriate wisecrack is never far away. Asked for a personal favorite, he rubs his fingers through his salt-and-pepper beard. “They’re all my children,” he says, laughing. Still. . . 

The census taker comes to the Rabinovich house. “Does Abram Rabinovich live here?” he asks.

“No,” replies Rabinovich.

“Well then, comrade, what is your name?”

“Abram Rabinovich.”

“Wait a minute – didn’t you just tell me that Rabinovich doesn’t live here?”

 

“Aha,” says Rabinovich. “You call this living?”

Jewish humor, Waldoks says, defines modern Jews, which is why he gives his book to people who are converting to Judaism, “to help them understand that Jewish humor is a tool Jews have used, the use of parody.” The best Jewish joke, he explains, is one that’s got bite to it. “It’s gotta have a jab to puncture the pomposity. Has to have a little truth. And some chutzpah.”

Wed, April 24 2019 19 Nisan 5779