Ann Birstein's thin new publication is neither fish nor fowl. It is not fiction, since it purports to be a true story. Neither is it true biography, since she interprets thoughts and recreates conversations of which she could not possibly have personal knowledge, except through secondhand family stories. This, however, is not the only perplexing element in "The Rabbi on 47th Street," which traces her Orthodox father's life from his turn-of-the-century education at the famed Eastern European Slobodka Yeshiva, to his spunky spiritual leadership of the off-Broadway synagogue at 47th Street and Eighth Avenue, which came to be known as the Actors' Temple.
Several of Birstein's previous novels, "The Sweet Birds of Gorham," "Summer Situations" and "Dickie's List," have been highly praised. She has been called wry and witty, "a seriously gifted writer," and "a satirist and writer to watch." Undoubtedly, too, this latest book is a work of love. Yet, it is shallow and careless. She rushes through her story without developing characters, situations, relationships, or even several conflicts which are hinted at and then dropped. She throws much extraneous information at the reader, but neglects to follow up on the circumstances of her father's death in 1959 at age 67.
Even more disappointing, since this is the public relations peg of the book, her tales of her father's relationships with the Broadway celebrities who flocked to his synagogue are virtually nil. Except for the composite portrait of the young, skinny actor-comedian Red Baxter, who was Rabbi Birstein's first "show biz" congregant, and the story of how he talked "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas," Sophie Tucker, into doing a benefit for the synagogue, most of the show business personalities show up in casual encounters or in name-dropping entertainment listings for the annual benefits the rabbi inaugurated to keep the synagogue afloat.
Bernard Birstein married twice, had five children and numerous cousins and in-laws. This remembrance by his youngest child seems perfect for their consumption. She supplies the fast breezy outline; they fill in the color and details. It won't work, however, for unaffiliated readers. We simply become annoyed with her changing points of view and focus, with her congested syntax, her overdrawn idiomatic constructions, and the small but glaring errors (such as saying that unleavened bread is chometz--forbidden on the Passover. Actually, unleavened bread, i.e., matzo, is the only kind allowed at Passover), not caught by the editors or Birstein herself.
One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with a tragic episode, which a bitter postscript recently brought back into the news. Birstein describes the impact of the 1913 Leo Frank case upon the small Atlanta, Ga., Jewish community of which her father and his growing family were a part. Frank, a mechanical engineer of German-Jewish ancestry who had moved from Brooklyn to Atlanta to manage his uncle's pencil factory, was unjustly accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old employe. His case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Rabbi Lekhem, Birstein's elderly mentor and dean of the Jewish community, visited Frank in jail. But, "it was a brief visit, especially since Leo Frank hadn't wanted the old rabbi to come in the first place. The jailers and the warden were mystified. Why didn't Frank want to see one of his own? Poor Russian Jews weren't his own, Frank in his pince-nez, the president of the local B'nai B'rith, explained. Further mystification. Jews were Jews, weren't they? Which was perhaps why, after the visit, the rabbi suggested to his congregation that all girls and women stay home at night, and go about as little as possible in the daytime . . . The women did their marketing quickly, glancing over their shoulders . . . The men went to shul in groups. No one was hurt except Bernard , and that for the most innocent of all reasons." What follows is a description of Bernard Birstein, and his little Yosele, out for a Sabbath walk, wandering into "dangerous redneck" territory where they were taunted with vicious obscenities and pelted with tin cans.
Birstein was in Atlanta because of his wife, Basha. Theirs was an arranged marriage, contracted at the age of 19 when he reached ordination and became a prime candidate for the hated military conscription--presumably in Russia. Basha was his one-way ticket to America; she had relatives in Atlanta who were willing to help them start a new life. In Atlanta, unable to find a rabbinical pulpit, Birstein became a shochet, an authorized slaughterer of animals according to kosher requirements. Between unhappiness with his job and the ugly ramifications of the Frank case, Birstein's disenchantment with life in the South grew stronger every day. His next move to Rome, Ga., also as an unhappy shochet, did not improve matters. On the day The Atlanta Constitution published pictures of Leo Frank's lynching, Birstein decided to leave the South immediately. This time they went to Basha's sister in Chicago.
From Chicago, where Basha died in the influenza epidemic, and after time on the road as a fund-raiser and a second arranged marriage to Clara (although the author's mother, she receives rather cavalier treatment in her daughter's story), Birstein finally worked his way to New York and a Brooklyn congregation. The next step after that was 47th Street.
It is sad that a book about such an engaging and dynamic personality should have so little flavor . . . especially one written by his daughter, the novelist.