Orah Lewis Lipsky always suspected that her father, Rabbi Al Lewis, would end up becoming the subject of the next Mitch Albom book. A leading American conservative rabbi and president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Lewis, known as “the singing rabbi” for regularly bursting into song, led Temple Beth Sholom in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, for 44 years until his retirement in 1992.
“When we found out Mitch was meeting regularly with our father, my siblings and I started joking around that his next book was going to be Wednesdays with Al,” laughed Lipsky, who grew up with Albom and now lives in Jerusalem’s North Talpiot neighborhood.
“We weren’t sure a book was going to come out of it, but we knew that there was a nice relationship developing. And we knew that since Mitch is a writer, and even when he writes about sports, he’s able to bring humanity and depth to it, that something was going to eventually evolve in writing out of their meetings.”
Once they were informed that, indeed, Albom had decided to write about his relationship with Lewis, Lipsky, her sister Gilah Lewis Sietz and her brother Rabbi Shalom Lewis were confident that he was going to portray their father fairly and accurately.
“Mitch gave each of us the galleys, and said whatever needs to be fixed, go ahead and fix. It turned about to be basically dates and names, and there were one or two lines that we asked him to rework. And he was fine with it,” said Lipsky. “We know that Mitch loved my father and we had confidence in him.”
For his part, Albom expressed gratitude to Lewis’s family for their openness and trust in him.
“I don’t think anyone realizes unless they go through it what it’s like for a family to see a loved one – let alone their father – appear in a book that’s not their own. It is asking an enormous amount of trust and patience, and an enormous amount of assuming that things are going to be okay,” said Albom.
“One of my biggest, if not my biggest concern, was that this book would in no way cause the Lewis family any embarrassment or undue tension or discomfort.”
The Lewis family’s confidence in Albom also stemmed from the fact that he did, in the end, deliver a stellar eulogy at the rabbi’s funeral, which despite the nine years of preparation, he “ended up writing on the plane with a pencil and piece of paper,” laughed Albom.
“My father knew Mitch would write the eulogy in a way that would inspire people and in a way that was true,” Lipsky said.
“My father loved the way Mitch wrote, the way he was able to glean out the humanity essence of a sports article,” added Sietz. “He always marveled at how beautifully he wrote. My father enjoyed reading all his articles, even though he wasn’t a big sports fan, but he developed an enjoyment of sports because of that little neshama part of the sport that was being captured by his writing.”
Albom still doesn’t know exactly why he, admittedly not the greatest shul goer, was asked by Lewis to write the eulogy, but he has a couple of theories.
One is that the eulogy may actually have been a way for Lewis to draw Albom back to his Jewish roots, but Albom likes his second reason better.
“My guess was that I think the rabbi was confident as to how effective
he had been as a rabbi. But I think he also liked to test himself. There
was something about the challenge of saying, ‘I’m going to trust a
congregant; he hasn’t always been a great congregant, and I want to see
how much I got through to him. I’m going to see what I meant to someone
who sat out there.’ Because to a large degree, a rabbi’s life work is
dedicated to his congregation – and in his case it was one congregation.
– can his work be measure by how it affected his congregation?”
Albom recounted that after he had finished delivering his long-gestating
eulogy at the funeral, someone popped a cassette tape into the
synagogue’s sound system, and the familiar sing-song voice of Rabbi
Lewis filled the room.
“Hello friends, this the voice of your past rabbi speaking,” said Lewis.
In a short message, Lewis answered the two questions he said he had
been asked the most by congregants during his rabbinical life – do you
believe in God and what happens when we die?
“To the first question, he answered with one word – yes,” said Albom.
“To the second, he said, ‘My friends, the good news is that by the time
you hear this, I’ll know. The bad news is now that now I can’t even tell
you, you’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves.’ I think
what he was trying to say is you have to have a little faith.”