I got to know my father-in-law, Dr. Sam Friedman, well before I became acquainted with his daughter Debbie, whom I would eventually marry.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to Sydney, Australia, with nine other rabbinical students to establish the first ever Rabbinical College in the beautiful seaside metropolis. My father-in-law was the president of one of the largest Orthodox congregations in Sydney, Southhead Synagogue. I would occasionally speak there on the Sabbath and over time a friendship ensued between us.
It wasn’t long before he and his wife Eva, my mother-in-law, started lending me their home to conduct large seminars on Jewish subjects, which the larger community was invited. They would also invite prominent members of the community to meet me and my fellow rabbinical students. For many, it was their first introduction to Judaism. Debbie, as a young Chabad seminary student, had gone to study in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to be in the Rebbe’s court.
After a few months, I started a regular, near daily class with Dr. and Mrs. Friedman at our yeshiva, in the evenings. I would teach them Tanya and the Rebbe’s hassidic discourses. We shared a love for Torah, Israel and being Jewish.
Dr. Friedman, or Sam, as all the students affectionately called him, was also the personal physician to our yeshiva and looked after our various maladies. He was a regular presence in all our lives and we all came to love him greatly.
After two years elapsed, I returned to New York with my classmates to do our rabbinical ordination in the Rebbe’s yeshiva and headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. A rabbi from the Sydney community reached out and asked me if I was ready to date. I wasn’t. I was only 21 years old. But when he mentioned it was the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Friedman, I readily agreed to go out because I was so impressed with the warmth of the family and I was already so close to the parents.
Debbie and I dated in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Receiving the blessing of my parents and Debbie’s parents, we got engaged a few weeks later and married in Sydney. It was an amazing thing to return to the community where I had served for two years as a communal activist to wed. The wedding was electrifying, as the community showered their love and affection on a local girl who was marrying a member of the first group of shluchim the Rebbe sent to Sydney.
My father-in-law was still the president of Southhead Synagogue and I remember his witty speech, as he made the weekly announcements incumbent upon the president. “I want to wish my wife and myself a Mazel tov on the upcoming marriage of our daughter Debbie to Shmuley Boteach.”
That was thirty four years ago.
In all that time, what I have witnessed about my father in law is a humble dedication to communal service that eschews attention and repudiates thanks. My father-in-law is old-school, believing that you give of yourself to the Jewish people quietly and totally, without making any fuss.
Sam served as president of Southhead Synagogue for some 20 years, which has to be a record for anyone leading a shul in a lay capacity. He raised the money to build a shining new building, a mikveh and hired the shul’s long-serving rabbi. In all that time, he invited no recognition and asked for no reward. Keeping a shul going and navigating all the challenges was the price one paid for the privilege of being Jewish.
My mother-in-law was born in Prague to Holocaust survivors, who miraculously found each other right after the war. They had married two years earlier in Slovakia and were nearly bayoneted by enemy soldiers, who were trying to discover whether there were hidden under the straw of a farmer’s wagon.
I LOVED my grandmother-in-law. She spoke with a thick Slovakian accent, always smiled and preferred living joyously rather than relive the unspeakable horrors she had experienced, which included watching her younger brother, Solly, deported to Auschwitz and murdered in his early twenties. When I later dedicated my book Holocaust Holiday to his memory, my wife Debbie teared up reading the words I consecrated to her murdered great uncle’s sacred memory.
I tell you this because you can imagine that my mother-in-law, as the only child of Holocaust survivors who narrowly escaped death, needed to marry a man with a unique capacity for love, understanding and total devotion. In Sam, she got this in spades and of all the things that I honor my father-in-law for, it’s his service as a husband that has inspired me the most. His wife is the center of his world, the apple of his eye and the spring in his step.
Perhaps this is what drew me to the Friedman’s home, when I was young rabbinical student of 19. My own parents divorced when I was but a boy and I, amid my extreme closeness to my parents and siblings, I yearned to see uplifting examples of romantic love and family togetherness.
My wife Debbie tells me that in all her childhood years she remembers only one fight between her parents. Whoa! Is that even possible? But knowing my in-laws, it has to be true. For them, marriage is a unique act of consecration. It’s the two of you, along with your children, who create a bubble of elevated existence that rises above the noise of the world.
Which brings me to my most important point. Of all the things I am grateful to my father-in-law for, it’s perhaps his comfort with giving me his daughter.
My in-laws, and I love them very much, could not be more different. Where they are traditional, understated and old-fashioned – in the best sense of the word, while I am loud, provocative and a disrupter. No doubt, when Debbie and I started dating they feared that a crazy man was taking their daughter away from them.
I still remember when, as rabbi at Oxford University, I published Kosher Sex some twenty years ago. It wasn’t the most common thing for a rabbi to publish a book on carnal love. My father-in-law called me up from Sydney. “Shmuley, there is this rumor going around town that you published a book on sex. We told all our friends that it couldn’t possibly be true. Right?” “Of course not, Sam,” I said. “You know me better than that. I would never do such a thing.”
But when the worst gossip later proved true and the book started circulating in Sydney, my father-in-law called me up, “Good on you, Shmuley. It’s an important subject and an important book.”
He didn’t mean a word of it. He was still in a state of catatonic shock. But I was his son-in-law and he was going to support me no matter what. And support me always he has done, with love and unflinching devotion.
Anyone who is acquainted with my wife, Debbie, knows she exhibits an uncommon warmth and decency. There isn’t a person alive whom Debbie does not treat with respect and courtesy.
On my father-in-law’s eightieth birthday, I want to finally tell him I’m not in any way surprised that Debbie is like this, as the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And my parents-in-law’s quiet decency and goodness - salt of the earth people who exhibit the best of Jewish values - is what has most inspired their daughter to follow in their footsteps.
Sam, happy birthday. May you live until Moshiach comes and witness the final triumph of the Jewish nation.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author or 36 books, including most recently, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.