Last month, Rabbi Dr. Maurice Wohlgelernter passed away at age 92. Known admiringly as “the Reb” to thousands of students from academic institutions of higher education (including Yeshiva University, Touro College and Baruch College) where he taught with unremitting panache for more than five decades, the Reb epitomized the ideal of the committed, educated Jew and the energetic, creative scholar of the secular world. He served for more than 30 years as congregational rabbi in Inwood, New York, while pursuing a distinguished academic career as university professor. He authored four books and dozens of articles on literature, the theater, current events and Jewish issues.
It is doubly difficult to put in writing who the Reb was for me; not only did he play a pivotal role in my personal development, but I know he would not tolerate writing that wasn’t clear and well-crafted.
I first met the Reb in 1971 in my second year at Touro College, when I signed up for a modern American literature course at the encouragement of a good friend and classmate.
We were only a handful of students, and I quickly realized there would be no relaxing in this class.
The Reb told us that we would be reading a novel a week and that we would need to read with a pencil. I sensed that he was going to be quite demanding. I still have the marked works by Dreiser, Cather, Hemingway, Mailer, Malamud and others with the Reb’s insights comingling with my own comments.
For me as well as for generations of students, he was the consummate teacher. Needless to say, he displayed a breadth of knowledge.
More important, he overflowed with enthusiasm. Though “enthusiasm” doesn’t quite encompass the way he’d charge at us like a bull heading straight for that red kerchief – anything to get the ideas to penetrate us.
Even though I majored in philosophy rather than literature, I continued taking courses with the Reb, mainly because of his infectious personality.
I even wound up taking a few tutorials with him in poetry.
Although I was the only student in these sessions, his ebullience didn’t wane, nor were any concessions made: the level of screaming and prodding to prove his points didn’t subside, nor did his commitment to make sure that I absorbed the message.
Beginning in my junior year and increasingly from my senior year and onwards, I was privileged to become a family friend. I spent a number of shabbatot
and holidays in Inwood and gained exposure to the congregational Rabbi Wohgelernter.
I must confess that, while I found his drashot erudite, they seemed far more staid than his rambunctious literature classes. On all these occasions, Esther and their kids complemented the intellectual experience by providing warmth, hospitality and friendship – not to mention great food.
So it was only natural that when it came time to marry, the Reb was asked to be our mesader kedushin
One of the more memorable photographs in our album is him standing between us, finger pointed, orchestrating our dancing with a handkerchief.
Over the years, by means of various “couriers” (his term) dispatched from New York with envelopes addressed in his unmistakable handwriting, the Reb continued to send me articles, reviews, essays and news of new projects that he had initiated. He insisted on receiving my comments – when he found my insights not perceptive enough, he chided me for sloppy reading or shallow interpretation.
And although he took a great deal of pleasure in my professional achievements, he remained hopeful that one day I might pursue a more intensive academic career. His guidance to me as a college senior didn’t change when I was a middle-aged city planner: pursue two careers in tandem so you’ll always have a fallback.
After all these years, I am still awestruck by his decades of unflagging energy – his rigorous daily routine of half a day learning/half a day writing, well into his 80s. His unshakeable commitment for Torah learning and academic erudition serves as a personal mainstay.
But the Reb’s most striking legacy for me, as I think for so many others, will be his passion, ebullience and child-like wonder.An azkara for Rabbi Wohlgelernter will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at the Yeshiva University in Israel campus in Bayit Vegan.