On Tuesday, December 23, one of Hyde Park’s towering figures, Arnold Jacob Wolf, Rabbi Emeritus of temple K. A. M. Isaiah Israel, died, apparently of a heart attack, at the age of eighty-four. Arnold, however, was only one year into his adulthood, since (raised at a time when Reform Jews did not approve of the bar mitzvah) he had just celebrated his own coming-of-age, his bar mitzvah, at the age of eighty-three.And this was emblematic of Arnold’s later years. “Life begins at seventy,” he used to say, and indeed he seemed to become more joyful, more free of stress and inner tension, as the years went by.
It’s difficult to capture Arnold in words, because the reality was so much larger, so much funnier, so much more improbable, than any fiction could be, even one written by a writer far more gifted than I.Still, to try to put him before people who didn’t know him, and to remind those who did know him of what they loved and lost in him, seems like something that has to be tried.
If you saw Arnold for the first time, you might think you were looking at one of those trolls of middle-European fairy tales, a short, round, white-bearded Rumplestilkstin whose gruff, almost snarling voice seemed suited to a character of that cantankerous sort. But whereas Rumplestiltskin, consumed by dislike and envy, had, I imagine, dull guarded eyes, Arnold’s sparkled, and you could see in them such variegated colors of love, for all the people, young and old, whom he reproved, chastised, and even mocked. (“Religion is a serious business,” he would say, “but this congregation is a joke.”) Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, his contemporary, said at the funeral that Arnold was first and foremost a lover – and then he added, “To love Jews is no small accomplishment.”You saw that accomplishment in the eyes first, because it consisted above all in a willingness to see the other person as the person was, and, at the same time, in a willingness to be seen, faults and all. There was no critique of Arnold that he did not make first and most trenchantly himself.