Inspired by a Kiss

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 ]

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5 Responses

  1. Mordechai says:

    Fine article. While Rav Bulman’s gesture was spontaneous, it was not unprecedented. The gemara (Talmud) mentions that precise gesture – of Rabbis kissing students on their heads after hearing something that particularly impressed them from their mouths. Rav Bulman was following in their footsteps.

    Nevertheless, despite the gesture not being unprecedented, it is not an everyday occurrence either. I wonder how rare it is (note – a general generic kiss is not what we are talking about – it must be a Rebbe to talmid, mouth to forehead kiss upon hearing something special, to qualify). Maybe readers can comment if they have ever seen or experienced it themselves. Perhaps Rebbetzin Katz can also comment if she saw or knows of her father employing it at other times as well.

    I guess we could also wonder about other types of Rebbe-talmid kisses or other demonstrations of affection in the course of limud haTorah as well. Presumably such kisses exist more with younger students, as they may not be too PC these days among older students. However we may study this, we should keep in mind that the kiss focused on was not an unearned gift intended to bolster self-esteem or what have you (which may or may not have a place of it’s own), but rather a reward for a good Torah thought. Presumably the idea of kissing the head/forehead in particular, is because that is where the Torah thought that earned it emanated from.

  2. Dov W says:

    I recall an article by a student of Saul Lieberman at the JTS extolling Lieberman’s devotion to his students, which he said Lieberman had inherited from his Rebbe the Alter of Slobodka.

  3. Moshe Feldman says:

    I’m sure that it’s quite a lot of nachas for your father. My impression is that David Ellenson has caused Reform Judaism to become somewhat more traditional, and certainly more open to Orthodoxy. See, e.g.,

    “I feel it’s important to cross denominational lines,” said Rabbi Ellenson, “and reinforce a message to my students that they are part of a larger Jewish community.” Rabbi Ellenson is an anomaly – a Reform leader with close personal and intellectual ties to the other branches of Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy, and a deep respect for and understanding of the tradition. Given his role, he is a rare bridge between two extremes of religious life. …

    He is also a traditionalist in his firm belief that Jewish day schools “are crucial for the Jewish future” and his goal to “spread Jewish literature and common Jewish culture.” He opposed the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent in defining who is a Jew, but believes it is now irreversible.

    As Rabbi Buchwald has noted, Jewish identity provided by the Conservative and Reform movements often serves as a springboard for baalei tshuva.

  4. HESHY BULMAN says:

    On the subject of holy kisses bestowed upon worthy recipients, my father, Z”L, often recounted the story of a spontaneous kiss he himself received from the sainted Kapichnitzer Rebbe “Lifne kall am v’edah” at the conclusion of a major address he gave at a major Torah convention.It was clearly one of the highlights of his life.

  5. zvi freund says:

    I have many memories of Rav Bulman, ZT”L, who was my uncle. Now that I think of it, I think I received such a kiss when I was in sixth grade and asked a good Kasha on a Gemara. His answer went way over my head.
    I remember the occasion vividly. Perhaps it did not leave that deep an impression on me because I hated being kissed.
    I have another memory of him kissing me at the airport, seeing me off to Israel to learn for a year.
    On another occasion I told him an original Vort and he praised me to his rebbetzin, TBL”Ch, for several minutes. He couldn’t have kissed me then, as I was driving at the time.

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