More stories of my grandfather, Louis Finkelstein
Coming to the Seminary
When Grandpa first applied as a student to the Seminary, he had an interview
with Dr. Solomon Schechter. ``Why do you want to come to the Seminary?''
Dr. Schechter asked him.
``To study Torah,'' was the obvious answer.
``No, Mr. Finkelstein,'' answered Schechter. ``You come to the Seminary
in order to associate with great men.''
A more detailed account of this is in Tales of the
Fathers of the Conservative Movement by Bernard Mandelbaum, New York:
Sheingold Press, 1989.
Introducing Maurice Samuel
My grandfather used to tell this story; it is also in Samuel's autobiography,
Little Did I Know. Maurice Samuel was
once giving a talk and was introduced by a certain Mr. Rohm, who blathered
on and on. When he finally yielded the floor, Samuel began his talk by saying,
"While Rohm was fiddling, I was burning."
A speech to the Jesuits
Grandpa was once invited to give a speech at a meeting of the Jesuits. He
began the speech with the statement, ``There are three adjectives in English
that are generally used pejoratively, but, if things were rightly understood,
would be terms of the highest praise:
`pharisaical', `puritanical', and `jesuitical'."
``And after that,'' Grandpa said in a satisfied tone when he told the story,
``they were putty in my hands.''
Counting for a M'zuman
When my mother was in her early teens, she asked my grandfather, ``Do I have to
say Birkat ha-Mazon?''
``Certainly,'' he answered.
``Then I should count for a m'zuman.''
``OK,'' he answered. And that became his practice for several years, until
Prof. Lieberman arrived from Israel, and became a frequent guest.
Niebuhr vs. Nixon
In 1969, President Nixon held an interdenominational series of prayer
meetings at the White House, organized by Billy Graham. My grandfather was
invited to lead one of the services. This was not a very appealing prospect,
but he consulted with Prof. Lieberman. Lieberman, who was a realist in
political matters, advised him that it was proper to go, and that it would
be unwise to decline. So he went.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian, had been a friend of
my grandfather for many years (and, as it happens, a neighbor --- he lived
in the same apartment building). He regarded this series of prayer meetings
with contempt, and, in one of the last articles he ever wrote, "The King's
Chapel and the King's Court"
(Christianity and Crisis, August 4, 1969),
criticized it harshly. In particular he wrote about my grandfather:
"A Jewish rabbi [Niebuhr omitted the name out of politeness], forgetting
I hope it is not presumptuous in me, in the presence of the President
of the Unites States, to pray that future historians, looking back
on our generation, may say that in a period of great trial and
tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving
him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and
opening the way for our coutry to realize the good that the century
It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the
When the article appeared my grandfather wrote to Niebuhr saying, "I didn't
say that I expect that future historians will say this. I said that I
that they will. We can all pray!" Niebuhr wrote back, "I have gotten
many responses to the article, but this was the only successful one."
Grandpa in the National Cathedral
Once when Grandpa were travelling with my grandmother on the ocean
liner The Queen Mary, he was approached by another passenger
who introduced himself as an artist, and asked whether he might sketch
him. Grandpa had no objection. When the sketch was complete,
Grandpa asked him what he planned to do with it. The artist answered
that he was commissioned to make stained glass windows for the National
Cathedral in Washington, and that he would use the sketch for one of the
At this point my memory of the story diverges from my brother's. My brother
memory is that Grandpa was rather pleased at the thought that the
early Christian saints were being portrayed as Jews. My memory is that
Grandpa was furious, and unsuccessfully tried to insist that his picture
could not be used in that way.
What is certain is that my grandfather's picture is indeed in a stained glass
window in the National Cathedral, depicting St. Matthew.
The Stone that the Builders Despised
When my grandmother, Carmel Bentwich, was preparing to marry my grandfather,
her father, Herbert Bentwich, brought out the family Bible. Each of his
11 children, when they came to be married, put a personal inscription on
the front page. Carmel wrote the verse,
(``The stone that the builders despised has become a cornerstone'' Psalms
118:22 -- ``Winkelstein'' means ``cornerstone'' in Yiddish.)
However, her father
was furious, and made her cross it out.
The actual meaning of the name "Finkelstein" is, broadly, a
shining stone or gem; specifically, pyrite or "fool's gold". However,
in the European Jewish community, pyrite was considered a lucky stone,
so the term had positive connnotations, unlike in American culture. My thanks
to my father, my brother Joey, and Prof. Miriam Ebsworth for this
"In my flesh I shall see God"
As an interpretation of the verse
(Job 19:26) "In my flesh I shall see God", my grandfather proposed, "Through
the sufferings of my flesh, I shall see God".
My grandfather was once talking to me about the padding of the list of divine
blessings in Dayyenu. What good would have been the use of splitting
the Red Sea if God had not taken us through it dry-shod? And what would have
been the use of bringing us to Mt. Sinai if God had not given us the Torah?
I don't think I had any answer to the first problem, but to the second, I gave
the answer I had learned at the Hebrew Day School: According to the Midrash,
a number of miracles were performed at Mt. Sinai before the giving of the
Torah --- people with physical handicaps and ailments were cured,
and so on. Grandpa smiled.
"If the Torah hadn't been given, there wouldn't have been any miracles," he
Today, I would give a more sophisticated version of my answer: At Mt. Sinai,
there was the theophany as well as the giving of the Torah. And I suspect that
Grandpa's answer would have been the same: The giving of the Torah was
Koussevitzky and Birkat Ha'Mazon
Towards the end of his life, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) wished to
strengthen his connection with the Jewish tradition.
At the advice of Ruth Nanda Anshen, he
got in touch with Grandpa, and they met some number of times.
One time, Koussevitzsky came to dinner, and when the meal was over,
Grandpa asked his son
Ezra to lead in the Birkat Ha'Mazon. Ezra started singing in the well-known
tune. When he reached the end of the first paragraph, Koussevitzky interrupted
him and asked him to stop. ``I'm sorry,'' he said. ``But the words are so
beautiful, and the melody is so vulgaire.''
The Vilna Gaon and the New Ordinance
A story my grandfather used to like to tell:
The Vilna Gaon was in principle the head of the Jewish community of Vilna,
but he had requested not to be troubled with day-to-day issues unless they
were considering a new ordinance. Once the community leaders came to him,
and said that they needed to consult with him. They wanted to pass an
ordinance that beggars should not go door to door; they should go to the
synagogue to receive assistance. The Gaon said, "Why are you consulting me
about this? That's not a new ordinance." "What do you mean, Rabbi?" they
said, puzzled. We've never had such a rule before," they said, puzzled.
"You think that's a new ordinance?" he replied. "They had that ordinance
in Sodom and Gomorrah!"
This story is also told of Rav Levi Yitchak of Berditchev.
These are halachic judgments that my grandfather either decided himself or
It is a rule in the Talmud that, though a child born seven months after
conception is viable
one born after eight months is not viable. (It was a common belief in
ancient medicine, also found in Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen.)
This belief has a number of halachic consequences, including the ruling
that one may not violate the Shabbat for the sake of the health of
an eight-month child. The Hazon Ish
(Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953)
issued a p'sak that, in our time, this rule did not apply. His justification
for changing the Talmudic rule was
", (the natural order has changed)
which, Grandpa felt, coming from the Hazon Ish,
was remarkably liberal.
(An extensive discussion of this can be found at the
DafYomi.org page for Bava Batra 20. )
Elevator on Shabbat
My grandfather lived in a seventh floor apartment. His judgment was that, on
Shabbat, he was permitted to ask the elevator operator to run the elevator
for him (or, later, to ask the doorman to push the button). He based this
judgment on a ruling by one of the Tosafists and in the Shulhan Aruch
that, on a very cold day,
one may ask a non-Jew to light the fire on Shabbat, because, in respect
to cold, everyone is considered in the category of a sick person
Grandpa felt that the same principle applied to climbing
six flights of stairs.
Stories from Philip and Hadassah Davis
The stories below come from my parents, Philip and Hadassah Davis.
The first person is
On a flight
On a flight to Chicago, LF took out a sefer and began reading.
The man sitting next to him turned out to be Jewish. He saw the book and
asked LF if he was a rabbi and if so where. LF answered that he was
at the Seminary.
The man responded, ``Oh, the Seminary, that is where Finkelstein is, right?''
LF answer, ``That's right.''
The man then said definitively, ``Yes, Finkelstein, I know him
A problematic passage
One time after benching, Rabbi Jerry Abrams asked LF,
"Dr. Finkelstein, now that I have the opportunity, how do you explain
the sentence, 'I have not seen the righteous
abandoned, or his children begging for bread.' "
LF answered: "Jerry, is that the only thing in the Siddur that bothers you?"
[ Thanks to Jerry Abrams for his emendation. ]
LF's friend Judge Rifkind once said to him, ``When they bury you, they'll need
two graves: One for Louis the saint, and the other for Louis the hustler.''
LF and Harlow Shapley
Harlow Shapley was a famous astronomer at Harvard, LF went to see him,
probably to ask him to contribute to his conferences on science,
philosophy and religion. In the early 40's
men with beards were very rare. LF had a very prominent
LF appeared in Shapley's office. His secretary took one look at LF and
then said to Shapley; "Professor Shapley, Our Lord is here to see you."
LF and William Albright
Hadassah and I were present at a lunch that included William F.
Albright, the famous biblical archaeologist, and the conversation was a
discussion of his findings. When the meal was over, LF said that he would skip
saying Shir ha-Ma'alot because words of Torah had been spoken.
LF and Cary Grant
On one of LF's trips to Los Angeles, one of the local Jewish millionaires gave
him a tour of the houses in Hollywood. At one point, his guide pointed to a
house and said, ``That house belongs to Cary Grant.'' ``Who's she?'' asked
LF and Marilyn Monroe
LF was on the plane flying home from Los Angeles, and a young
woman was seated next to him. LF, naturally, took out a sefer,
opened it up,
and began to study. The young woman saw the Hebrew letters and asked
LF if he was Jewish. He said that he was. The young woman said ``That's
I'm about to be married to a Jewish man and I should like to know more about
LF said ``Give me your name and address and I'll send you a book.'' She said
Marilyn Monroe, such and such an address, Hollywood.
The story sounds too good to be true, but I am told that in the archive
there is a copy of the cover letter LF sent with the book.
The Kedassiah Restaurant
The Kedassiah Restaurant in London was located close to the Hotel Kingsley
and the British Museum where LF used to stay. It was really a dump -- but
was there once or twice with LF and Frank (my first trip to
England). The waiter came over and handed us an extensive menu. We selected
such and such --not available. We selected this and that -- not available.
"Well, what is available?" "I'll bring it," said the waiter. A piece of
boiled chicken appeared.
asked the waiter what the point of the menu was if
nothing on it was available.
"Mister, I'll have you understand that this is a first class
kosher restaurant and appearances and presentation are important."
asked LF whether he had had any success with the menu.
He answered that over the years, he simply went in and they served him
whatever they had around.
LF was in Paris. He looked around for a kosher restaurant, and found one. It
must have been like the Kedassiah in London. Afterwards he said to someone,
"What's all this about Parisian food being so wonderful ? I didn't find it
LF knew and corresponded with Cardinal Eugène Tisserant (1884-1972)
for a number of years. Cardinal Tisserant
was as philo-semitic and as knowedgable about Jewish
matters as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic
Church could reasonably be. How did this
come about? When he was a small boy, he and his parents lived in a house
in which Jews had previously resided. They left behind a mezuzzah on a
doorpost. The young Tisserant found it, wondered what it was, opened it up,
found the strange writing, and that sparked his interest greatly.
LF used to tell the following story about Alan Stroock, who was chairman
of the board of the Seminary.
Stroock was asked by one of his colleagues "Since you don't know much
about Jewish theology etc., why do you hang out with those guys who do ?"
Stroock answered as follows: "There was once a man who used to hang out with
parachute jumpers. "Are you a parachute jumper?" he was asked. "No, I'm
not," he answered, "but I like to be seen around them."
Other material about my grandfather