One block from the dead-end of Light Street in South Baltimore sits a tidy, unassuming corner brick rowhouse, a small awning shading its front door and first-floor window. It is unremarkable in appearance, like thousands of other rowhouses lined up like sentinels along block after unremarkable block.
But that corner house, in the early decades of the 20th century, was both home and workplace for a family that was anything but unremarkable. Real estate photos of the interior show shiny hard wood floors and a modern renovated kitchen, but when the late world-renowned, interfaith and social justice leader Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum grew up there, the house had few creature comforts, yet was filled with love and joy and life.
It may seem simplistic to trace the kind of far-reaching accomplishments of a man like Tanenbaum back to his humble upbringing and say, “See, that’s where it all started. That’s where he learned to be the man he became.” In Tanenbaum’s case, that would be a man whose seismic ripples, especially in interfaith relations and social justice, are still felt today, almost 30 years after his death.
But Tanenbaum himself pointed to his early life in that South Baltimore rowhouse with his sister Sima and brother Ernie and what he learned there from his Orthodox, immigrant parents Abraham and especially his mother Sadie.
At Sadie’s funeral at Sol Levinson & Bros. in 1980, Tanenbaum read from a letter that his brother Ernie sent to his mother shortly before her death:
“I spoke with Marc last night, he just returned from Rome, where he met with the new Pope. Tonight, he flies out to California for a few days, after which, he flies to Germany to meet with the head of the German government, Helmut Schmidt,” he read. “You and Dad sure must have done something right on Light Street to have raised a boy who rubs elbows with presidents and popes. It just proves that it is not the neighborhood that matters, it’s the home.”
Also in the eulogy, while talking about his mother’s impact on his family and the larger community, Tanenbaum echoed his own impact on the world in building bridges between Jews and those of other faiths and cultures.
He referred to the late British architect Sir Christopher Wren and what his colleagues said about his work. ‘“If you wish to know him, look about you. His monuments are everywhere,”’ he said. “Our mother may not have built monuments of granite, she built more permanent, lasting monuments that are enshrined in the lives of Ernie, and Sima, myself, and… her family, in the Jewish community of Baltimore, and indeed, even in the lives of humble Christians with whom she lived, when we were together at 1850 Light Street.”
On June 25, the first full biography about Tanenbaum’s life of loving others and rubbing elbows with presidents and popes, “Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation,” by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober, is set to be released.
Tracing Tanenbaum’s life, starting with his parents, both of whom fled anti-Semitism and pogroms in their native Ukraine, the book is a trove of details of Tanenbaum’s growth and development and what shaped his expansive and empathetic belief system, one that would allow his work of reaching across religious, racial, cultural and social barriers to bring people together. The detail revealed about their subject by husband-and-wife authors Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober has an almost fly-on-the wall quality — as if someone had kept notes on every moment of Tanenebaum’s 66 years.
The book was originally conceived as an oral history, but as the Strobers began interviewing people and amassing anecdotes and histories, Tanenbaum’s widow Dr. Georgette Bennett suggested a different route.
“The idea for the book came about in conversation with Dr. Georgette Bennett. We had initially proposed an oral biography,” Gerald Strober said. “Once we had conducted many interviews, Dr. Bennett suggested that we do a full-scale biography utilizing Rabbi Tanenbaum’s archives. The book could not have been written without Dr. Bennett’s encouragement and support.”
The archives are a huge collection of Tanenebaum’s writings, photos and papers now housed at the Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Collection, American Jewish Archives, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Jerry worked with Marc for a number of years at AJC [American Jewish Committee], so he was a first-hand witness. I, too, was very struck with how dense [the book] was and the extraordinary amount of research that would have gone into that,” Bennett said. “The Strobers also had access to… all of my personal papers. About 26 years ago, I started writing a memoir and wrote the first 12 chapters. Among those chapters, were some that dealt with the part of my life that I shared with Marc. So the personal chapters that you see at the end, are drawing very heavily on that. They also interviewed me.”
The book is in five parts that break Tanenbaum’s personal life and career into: His early life in Baltimore, which he left at age 15 for New York, and influential years in college and yeshiva that shaped his global view; his time on the Synagogue Council of America and the American Jewish Committee; the years fomenting change with the Vatican Council II, Catholic Church dogma and anti-Semitic tropes; his work with powerful Christian leaders, including Rev. Billy Graham and Rev. Jerry Falwell; the civil rights movement and aiding Soviet Jewry; and his private life, including his first marriage and marriage to Bennett, as well as a reckoning of just who Tanenbaum the man and Tanenbaum the great humanitarian was.
The 416-page tome took about two years to research and write, aided, Gerald Strober said, “by the digitization of Rabbi Tanenbaum’s copious archive, the cooperation and candidness of our interviewees and the assistance of the American Jewish Archives staff.”
“We wanted to tell the dramatic story of Rabbi Tanenbaum’s life both for its intrinsic worth as well as to inspire readers to join in the efforts that so characterized his career — the breaking down of the ethnic, racial and religious barriers that divide contemporary society,” he said.
Inspiring readers to “join in the efforts,” comes at a time when American and indeed global society seems as fractured and divided as ever. In recent days, at 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, there was much talk of courageous acts and of allies coming together in the face of Nazi and totalitarian expansion during World War II. But the talk may seem hollow to some, as many of the United States’ former allies are being challenged by current policies.
For Bennett, who married Tanenbaum in 1982 and spent ten years with him before his death in 1992, watching the world’s divisiveness often has her considering WWMD — What Would Marc Do? She sees the book as a primer on how today’s leaders could use Tanenbaum’s tested and successful strategies for crossing all kinds of divides today, from the clamor over Ihan Omar statements to Syrian refugees and white supremacy.
“I think it’s so important for this story to be told. The book is full of the techniques and methods that Marc used. The importance of it is the blueprint for how do you deal with these kinds of issues,” Bennett said. “First of all, he was driven by a particular set of core Jewish values, which informed his approach to everything that he did. He cited that every human being is made in the sacred image of God, and is worthy of dignity and respect. That, in fact, is one of the greatest contributions that Judaism made to civilization. Another one that drove him was Leviticus 19:16: ‘Thou shalt not stand by idly while the blood of your brother cries out from the earth.’”
“And then the idea of tikkun olam,” she added. “That Jews are chosen, not for special privilege, but for special responsibility to repair and perfect the world. He was a universalist rather than a particularist, which was very important in terms of his effectiveness. Also very important was that while he was very committed to Jewish identity, he was not about Jewish insularity. That’s why he was able to build the bridges he built. Marc was very quick to call out anti-Semitism. But he was slow to accuse individuals of being anti-Semitic. That’s a very important distinction.”
For example, Bennett said, in the case of voter suppression and white supremacy, Tanenbaum would have “mobilized the moral authority of clergy across religious lines to protest voter suppression in a national movement.”
“He would have addressed using religion in the public square…and would have held to account politicians who wear their faith on their sleeve claiming to be good Christians. And he would have organized a national program with a heavy focus on media to debunk historical myths.”
Considered a “major architect of modern Jewish-Christian dialogue,” as his bio in the American Jewish Archives says, Tanenbaum had an impressive career of bridge-building, reminiscent of those monuments he said his mother Sadie left as her legacy.
“Both nationally and internationally, he was one of the most widely respected representatives of the Jewish community on interreligious affairs in the late 20th century,” says the AJA. “Throughout his career, he forged close friendships with Christian leaders from a wide range of denominations including Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He worked to change nearly 2,000 years of mutual animosity, ignorance and suspicion by helping Jews and Christians understand each other better. Over the years, Tanenbaum found himself at the center of most major Jewish-Christian controversies and agreements.”
While writing the book, the Strobers, although they knew Tanenbaum, were still struck by the rabbi’s wide reach and his continued influence on not just Jews and Judaism, but people of every religion.
“This son of Baltimore, and its vibrant Jewish community, tirelessly travelled the post-Shoah world demonstrating prodigious intellect, profound Yiddishkeit, winning personality and a fearless capacity to take on both haters and hateful teachings,” Gerald Strober said. “Marc Tanenbaum remains a crucial role model, one who put deep commitment to Jewish values into actual practice. While most of his career was spent away from a traditional ministry, he touched multitudes of people of all faiths and backgrounds by the personal example of what a selfless, faithful Jew could contribute to the world beyond the synagogue.”
At Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, where Tanenbaum’s sister Sima is still a member, Rabbi Steven Schwartz said “Baltimore has always had a very healthy interfaith community and interfaith dialogue has always been an important part of Baltimore’s religious landscape.”
“You could easily make the argument that interfaith dialogue is needed more today than it’s ever been,” he added. “So, the work that [Tanenbaum] in some ways was a pioneer in has not grown less important, in fact the opposite, it is more and more important.”
About a year after Tanenbaum’s death in 1992, Bennett created the Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Foundation to continue the work and vision of the man whose moral and ethical roots, planted in that South Baltimore rowhouse, used his considerable knowledge and presence, confronting hate and cultivating compassion and understanding around the world.
“He always had the facts at his fingertips and he used them. I was always astounded at the history,” Bennett said. “Another technique was his voice, both literally and figuratively. He had a powerful voice and he had a revival-preacher style. He was an extraordinarily powerful speaker.”
And even though Bennett hesitated to use a cliché in reference to her late husband’s legacy, she said, “I don’t know how else to put it. He always spoke truth to power. He did not pull punches.”