Ex-CIA official shares Judaism, Chabad through poetry

Randy Crosby: “In this exhibit, people see the soul of creation instead of just the form of the events as described in Scripture.” 

 A portrait of David Goldberg and his late wife, Gail, hangs in the mixed-media exhibition at Milwaukee’s Ovation Senior Living Communities residence. (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID GOLDBERG)
A portrait of David Goldberg and his late wife, Gail, hangs in the mixed-media exhibition at Milwaukee’s Ovation Senior Living Communities residence.

David Goldberg never set out to be a poet. But then neither did he envision himself becoming a religious Jew.

Following a career that spanned the US Navy, the CIA, and decades in the private sector, 80-year-old Goldberg, a native of Chicago, has been writing poetry that, together with paintings by his late wife, Gail Pinchot-Goldberg, has been shining new light on time-hallowed Judaic and hassidic concepts.

His journey to Judaism was long and personal, involving pain and discovery, loss and growth, as well as an encounter with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, widely regarded as the most influential rabbi of modern times. 

Randy Crosby has curated a widely appreciated mixed-media exhibition at Milwaukee’s Ovation Senior Living Communities residence that features Goldberg’s poetry alongside his wife’s paintings. Titled Creation, it displays seven poems, one for each of the seven days of creation, paired with corresponding paintings. 

“The art is abstract, which allowed people to take it in and then interpret it in a way that spoke to them,” says Crosby, who curated the exhibition as part of the “art/ovation” program. “And then after they took in the paintings, David’s poetry gave them context and meaning. 

 The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (credit: REB MENDEL/WIKIPEDIA) The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (credit: REB MENDEL/WIKIPEDIA)

“In this exhibit,” Crosby continues, “people see the soul of creation instead of just the form of the events as described in Scripture.” 

“In this exhibit, people see the soul of creation instead of just the form of the events as described in Scripture.”

Randy Crosby

A CIA operative's journey to Judaism and Chabad

Goldberg’s story begins in Chicago’s western suburbs, which were solidly middle class but not very Jewish. 

His parents kept a kosher home, in part to please his grandmother. He would occasionally accompany his father to synagogue, but he did not see Judaism as a big part of his life. 

In 1961, he graduated from the University of Chicago in just three years with a major in economics. While there, he had rubbed shoulders with the likes of [renowned economists] Milton Friedman and George Stigler but concluded that he would not remain in academics. 

Even as he scaled the peaks of academia and saw the promises of financial success, he knew something was missing. Only years later would he recognize that the missing piece was the soul, the divine element that is at once within everything and beyond it all. 

Scholarship and learning that is devoid of God and the soul can be traced to the outsized influence of Nietzsche, the German philosopher, poet, and cultural critic, who famously declared that “God is dead.”

While Goldberg may have accepted Nietzsche’s approach, which had become a tenet of academic discovery and the arts, he hungered for something deeper and richer.

In the words that he would pen much later in life:

Without a soul, what is man?

Nothing but an ant in kind

Whose life has no purpose or meaning

Thus, he turned down an offer to join the university’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, which would support him through his doctorate on the condition that he “produce a significant contribution to human thought.”

Instead, he turned to the US Navy, where he joined a reserve program located in Glenview, a suburb of Chicago, and then Denver. His primary focus was on helping stave off the threat posed by Soviet submarines. 

“At that time,” he recalls, “I had no interest in either Yiddishkeit or the arts.”

One day, he received a call from his high school sweetheart, Gail Pinchot, an art student at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1964, following the expiration of his term of duty, he returned to Chicago, and the two married the following year.

“We were living the life of young marrieds, the time of our lives, and we anticipated kids as a matter of course,” says Goldberg.

But a first pregnancy that ended in stillbirth tempered their expectations. The couple then moved to Washington, where David took a job with the CIA and Gail became a bartender and sales clerk at a hardware store. 

Upon learning that they were once again expecting a child, they chose to make their home in Southeast Washington, primarily because there was a synagogue there, Southeast Hebrew Congregation, and they wanted to raise their child with Judaism.

But that pregnancy also resulted in stillbirth, and Gail was driven to dementia and depression.

As David climbed the ranks in the CIA, Gail also took a job there, using her artist’s eye to prepare briefing boards for the director. 

But their home remained empty. After months of soul searching and draining doctor’s visits, they decided to adopt and returned to Chicago so that they could do so with the benefit of family nearby.

The couple settled in the city’s Hollywood Park neighborhood and prepared to become adoptive parents. 

“We had been told that before we adopt, we should speak to a rabbi about it,” says Goldberg. “Gail’s brother, Roy, recommended that we meet a rabbi named Solomon Hecht, whose congregation was nearby.” 

After Goldberg introduced himself and laid down his plans, the rabbi invited him to return to his home weekly to learn more about Judaism. As to Goldberg’s query regarding adoption, his reply was simple: “I want you to meet a rabbi in New York.”

“I want you to meet a rabbi in New York.”

Rabbi Solomon Hecht

The rabbi was the seventh Rebbe of Chabad, universally known as “the Rebbe.”

“He did not tell me this was the world-famous Rebbe, one of the most profound thinkers and social architects of Judaism, a man revered all over the world,” says Goldberg, “just a ‘rabbi in New York.’”

And so, in December of 1969, accompanied by Hecht’s father-in-law, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, the Goldbergs flew to New York to meet the Rebbe.

He still recalls the shock of learning that their overnight accommodations would be an outdoor porch with just sleeping bags and space heaters for warmth. But they were there for a purpose. 

Their appointment was scheduled for well after midnight; as the delays continued, the couple feared that they would soon miss their early morning flight out. 

Finally, their turn came to meet the Rebbe face to face. Clutching a Hebrew note Hecht had written outlining their challenge with starting a family, they entered the Rebbe’s wood-paneled office crowded with Torah books. 

“The Rebbe looked at us, and it felt like he was looking right through us,” says Goldberg. “He was looking at our souls; there is no other way of describing it.”

“The Rebbe looked at us, and it felt like he was looking right through us. He was looking at our souls; there is no other way of describing it.”

David Goldberg

The Rebbe’s words to them, as Goldberg recalls, were: “You will have a boy, and you will have a girl. Conceive them in love, raise them in Yiddishkeit, and come back to me in one year with good news.” 

An economist by training, Goldberg calculated the odds of the Rebbe’s words materializing and termed them as “very long odds!”

But, against all odds, they soon discovered that Gail was pregnant and, confident in the Rebbe’s assurance that they would have a boy, they began discussing boy names. 

Feeling that their son was a gift from Above, they wanted to name him after a Jewish leader, but Hecht encouraged them to select a name that spoke to them and reflected their son’s soul.

In August of 1970, just over nine months after their visit to the Rebbe, a boy was born, and they chose to name him Lev Yitzchak. They were stunned to discover that the Rebbe’s father, who had died while exiled for his heroic stand for Judaism in the Soviet Union, was named Levi Yitzchak. 

And as promised, they made sure to send word to the Rebbe that his blessing was actualizing. 

In 1974, he was followed by a sister, Batya, which means “daughter of God.”

“I continued to wrestle with Jewish belief and practice for years,” says Goldberg, “mostly because I was ignorant of the basics. But in time, my life began to revolve around Torah study, synagogue attendance, kashrut, and living a meaningful Jewish life.”

He says many of his Jewish-themed poems are an attempt to articulate his journey to belief and serve as a clarion call for others to do the same. 

“For many years, mainstream thought has disregarded God and the existence of the soul,” he explains, “looking to find the answers to all questions in science and mathematics. Art is a vehicle through which I can gently introduce what I have discovered in a way that people can appreciate and digest.”

This is most evident in Coming Full Circle, a slender volume of poetry and art. Unlike his previous volumes, which did not speak in overtly religious terms, this one contains a series called “Poetry of Chassidus.”

In it, Goldberg distills lofty hassidic concepts formulated by the rebbes of Chabad into poetry that can be read and understood by both longtime students of hassidic thoughts and neophytes. 

Perhaps “The Life to Choose,” the opening poem of the collection, best articulates the turning point in Goldberg’s life in the following lines:

Miracles are strange events

With happy endings at long odds

Like life itself amid the void,

Given by a gracious G-d. 

He explains that a major message of his is the concept of hashgacha pratis, the hassidic concept that everything that happens in life is purposefully orchestrated by God, who remains an active force in creation. 

The book is dedicated in memory of Gail, his wife and co-collaborator, who passed away in 2021.

As to why he chose to write poetry as he enters his ninth decade of life, Goldberg states in the book’s preface that “until the last two years, I never considered myself a poet. I had been a Naval Reserve Officer, an industrial engineer, an intelligence officer with the CIA, and a business executive. Poetry was ‘merely’ a self-taught hobby. But my life experiences gave me something to say. And I found poetry the best way to say it.” ■

Menachem Posner, a resident of Chicago, serves as staff editor of the website Chabad.org.