In the Spring 2006 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine, there is an article of particular interest to me because it is about my own father, Rabbi Nachman Bulman, of blessed memory.
The article is by David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College–the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is from Newport News, VA — a city I remember with great affection from my own childhood. My father was the rabbi of the Orthodox shul there when I was a little girl.
I am particularly indebted to Menachem Butler and his American Jewish History blog, without which I never would have known about this amazing article. It was featured in his March 28 blog entry, entitled “Growing Up in Newport News,” which was sent to me by several friends.
R’ Bulman was one of the founders of NCSY and won the hearts and minds of many young Jews back to the Torah of their grandparents. But David Ellenson was not one of his success stories. Indeed, my father might well have been distressed by what became of that young boy he once taught. A Reform rabbi? The head of all the Reform rabbis?! No, that was not my father’s dream for his pupil.
Yet that former pupil wrote something that touched me deeply — and I thank him for it. Here it is:
Neuroscientists teach us that the most fundamental elements of our identity are forged in childhood, and I am surely no exception. My own values are inextricably bound up with my early days as a Jewish boy growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in a tightly-knit Jewish community in the largely Christian world of Newport News, Virginia.
One of my earliest lessons as a child was to esteem and emulate individuals who demonstrated knowledge, care, and concern for Judaism. My father instructed me over and over again to show our Rabbi Nathan Bulman–an Orthodox rabbi he revered–the utmost kavod (respect).
One day, as Rabbi Bulman and I were studying the first paragraph of the Amidah prayer, we came across the phrase, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Rabbi Bulman commented, as Jewish teachers have for hundreds of years, that each of us, no less than the fathers of our people, must strive for a personal relationship with God. I imbibed his words and looked at the text. “There is something that troubles me,” I said. I pointed out that the text said, “Abraham” and not “Abram,” the name his father Terah had bestowed upon him. In contrast, the first name of the third patriarch appears as “Jacob,” rather than his other name, “Israel,” which he earned as he struggled with the angel.
When I asked the rabbi why this was so, he broke out in a tremendous smile and rushed over and kissed me on my forehead. His answer to the question–which was that Abraham was the name given Abram when he became a Jew, while Jacob was born a Jew–was almost beside the point. What I remember most was his kiss. Through this single act, he displayed the passion and joy involved in the study of Torah, and he embedded a love for Jewish learning and discovery in my neshamah (soul) that burns at the core of my being to the present day.
I have thought of that kiss often. In every teaching and personal setting in which I have found myself over the years, I have attempted to display and transmit the same love of learning to my students that Rabbi Bulman did at that decisive moment in my own life.
[Excerpted with the permission of Reform Judaism Magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism — website www.reformjudaismmag.org ]