‘A Passionate Writing Life’

‘A Passionate Writing Life’

Joseph Kaplan’s new book draws on years of learning, watching, and thinking

Joseph Kaplan’s daughters worked with him to perfect the cover of  his book.
Joseph Kaplan’s daughters worked with him to perfect the cover of his book.

To be clear, Joseph C. Kaplan’s new book, “A Passionate Writing Life,” wasn’t written by the community.

The book — a compilation of essays from outlets for which he’s written, most prominently including the Jewish Standard, arranged by topic and contextualized with connective text — was written entirely by Mr. Kaplan and is the product of his widely ranging, broadly curious mind.

But — or should that be and? — it’s a clear product of the overlapping communities in which he is deeply rooted.

Mr. Kaplan spent his first few years in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, so close to Yankee Stadium that sometimes he could hear the crowd roaring. His grandparents stayed in the neighborhood after he and his family moved to Far Rockaway in 1952, when he was 5, so he visited it often. “One day, when I was about 13 or 14, I was walking down the Concourse, and I heard a roar,” he said. An incredibly loud one. Later, “I realized that it was when Mickey Mantle hit a home run in the World Series.”

The Kaplans’ new home was in the wonderfully named Far Rockaway, a suburban-feeling neighborhood on the far eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula, which puts it at the southeastern tip of Queens. It was home to a vibrant, well-educated, intellectually curious Jewish community, mainly but not entirely Modern Orthodox. The Jewish community there, in the 1950s and 60s — Mr. Kaplan is in his mid-70s now — was small enough for everybody to know almost everybody, but big enough for a wide range of Jews to flourish.

This was Mr. Kaplan’s first Jewish Standard column, and a good introduction to his thinking.

For the last 39 years, Mr. Kaplan’s been living in Teaneck, a community not unlike Far Rockaway in its concentration of well-educated, intellectually curious, mainly but far from entirely modern Orthodox Jews. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that he knows everyone in town, but not an overstatement to say that he knows a significant percentage of everyone.

What that has given him is a breadth and depth of knowledge that leaves him free to be Orthodox but not always orthodox.

Sitting in his house, filled with Judaica and books and toys and art and reminders of the four daughters and now five grandchildren that he and his wife, Sharon, share, Mr. Kaplan talked about how the impetus for his book was the way that he wants “my kids, and even more importantly my grandchildren, to know me.”

The book’s essays are divided thematically. There’s a section on Modern Orthodoxy — Modern Orthodoxy, with a capital M, as Mr. Kaplan insists it is properly styled, because it is its own thing. (The word “modern,” in lower-case, as it’s usually used in this newspaper, just modifies Orthodoxy; the word “Modern” changes Orthodoxy into something other than what it is when it stands alone, he says.) There’s a section on women and Judaism. (He begins the book by saying “I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. And a feminist.”) There is a section called Law and Judaism, as seems entirely logical coming from someone who is both a student of Jewish law and a retired lawyer. There is a section on family, and on memories of family. And as might seem surprising for someone as firmly ensconced in the Modern Orthodox world as Mr. Kaplan, he has a section on Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the Reform philosopher who was one of his mentors.

This is one of Mr. Kaplan’s earliest columns, from when he was an undergraduate at YU.

One of the themes that Mr. Kaplan stresses is how important it is to talk to your parents and grandparents; how once their stories are lost, they’re gone. He talked about his mother, who was born Katarina Gross but changed her first name to Gertrude when she got to America. Why? Who knows? She was born to Isaac and Regina Gross, who came from a part of Hungary that’s now in Ukraine, might have been in Romania, but probably was in Czechoslovakia when she left it.

“My mother came here when she was 13, in 1933, not speaking English,” Mr. Kaplan said. “But she was very good at languages. When she got here, they put her in first grade, but by the end of the year she was in eighth grade. She was so good that when officials would come to the school, she was the smart immigrant the administrators would pull out to show off, and they’d say, ‘Look how well we’re doing.’

“She was beautiful. She was sophisticated. She was European.”

But, Mr. Kaplan said, “I realized how stupid I was. I had this mother, who had strong memories of living in Europe. My paternal grandparents did not speak English well, but my maternal grandparents did.

“There are a million questions that I wish I had asked my mother and my grandparents. The town that they came from — was it a small town? Was it a shtetl? Did they have indoor plumbing? How about electricity? What about the school there? What was it like? I never asked them those questions, and I think they would have answered them.”

Both of his parents, Gertrude and Simon, were born in Europe, but neither of them spoke with an accent. How did that happen? He doesn’t know, Mr. Kaplan said.

Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz

“There was a piece of information that I wanted, so I wrote to my brother and sister, asking if they knew,” he said. “I said I was so stupid, not asking Mommy and Daddy. And my brother, a college professor” — that’s Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, doctorate from Harvard, professor of rabbinics and Jewish philosophy at McGill, whose many academic credentials include translating Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Man” into English — “and his email back began ‘Dear Fellow Stupid Sibling.’”

He hadn’t asked either; neither had their sister, speech therapist Rena Spinowitz of New Rochelle.

“We had the opportunity to learn about them — and also about ourselves,” he said. “Part of the reason that I’m telling all these personal stories is so that even if my kids don’t ask me, I’m telling them. I’m being proactive.

Still, he stressed, “Ask your parents about their lives! You will regret it if you don’t.”

Far Rockaway was such a close-knit community that the bonds created in the 1950s and ’60s still hold today. Mr. Kaplan’s constantly running into old friends from the neighborhood. Some are classmates; they include, among many others, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism; Vivian Lazar, the director of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir; and Rabbi Alan Ciner, vice president at Touro University whose son is Rabbi Eli Ciner, head of school at the Frisch Academy in Paramus. Others are older — like Blu Greenberg, the Orthodox feminist, writer, and activist who is married to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and was old enough to babysit for little Joseph — or younger -— take, for example, Rabbi  Saul Zucker, head of school of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. The range of positions in the Jewish world held by people who grew up in this small community is striking.

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman (Bar-Ilan University)

There were two Modern Orthodox synagogues in Far Rockaway. The Kaplans went to the White Shul, so called because of its original white marble building. (Its formal name is Congregation Kneseth Israel.) The family was active there, and Simon Kaplan was its president. It was led by Rabbi Pelcovitz; “they call him Rafael now, but when we knew him, he was Rabbi Ralph,” Mr. Kaplan said.

“The other shul was Rabbi Rackman’s.” That was Congregation Shaarey Tefila. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who went on to head the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and became president of the Rabbinical Council of America and of Bar-Ilan University, is a near-mythic figure whose work with agunot brought attention to the situation of Jewish women chained to husbands who abandoned them without divorcing them.

“Rabbi Rackman led a Mizrachi Hatzair group — that was a Zionist group for high school and college students,” Mr. Kaplan said. “He attended every single one of those meetings. There could be six inches of snow, and he’d be there.

“What was most amazing is that many rabbis, if they are at this kind of meeting, they’re leading it. Rabbi Rackman took a back seat. He said, ‘You guys are leading it. You plan it. You’re in charge.’”

“It was for kids from both shuls.” But Simon Kaplan being the man he was, “he joined it. Because he said, ‘How can you go to a youth group led by Rabbi Rackman if I’m not a member of his shul?’”

Gary Rosenblatt

The group was open to everyone, and it was for both girls and boys.

“Rabbi Rackman had a big influence on me, because he taught us to think for ourselves,” Mr. Kaplan said. “You could disagree with anybody, as long as you did it civilly and politely, and you listened to other arguments.

“People ask me why I am a liberal, why I am so interested in civil rights. I think a lot of it came from Rabbi Rackman.

“For this group, it was one person’s job to go to Rabbi Rackman’s home every Friday morning to pick up JTA mailers.” Back in those way-pre-email — and for that matter pre-fax — days (“we were just past quill pens,” Mr. Kaplan said), the Jewish Telegraphic Agency would compile and mail a weekly newsletter. “It was that person’s job to give a 10-minute summary of the Jewish news. Rabbi Rackman told us that our families all got the Times, and many of us read it. You also have to know what’s going on in the Jewish world.

“There also would be topics that we’d discuss, like whether we are American Jews or Jewish Americans. There would be a presentation and a discussion. And then the third part of the meeting would be socializing; Rabbi Rackman said that the socializing was just as important as the news and the discussion. We’d sometimes get some criticism about boys and girls socializing, but Rabbi Rackman said, ‘Where else do you want them to meet? What could be better than this?’”

Far Rockaway is on the ocean. During the summers, parents would “hire a smart college student to teach us in the morning, and then we would get our bikes and go across the street to the beach,” Mr. Kaplan said. “On Shabbeses in our high-school years, we’d go to the boardwalk. We were a very social group. A very beachy group.” Probably for that reason, “I am not a beach person anymore. It was enough.”

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

Mr. Kaplan, like just about all of his friends, went to the Hebrew Institute of Long Island — HiLi — which later merged with the Hillel School to become the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway — HAFTR. (Far Rockaway is just west of Nassau County and its Five Towns.) That was for elementary school, and the beginning of high school. He left those friends, starting his sophomore year, to go to MTA, the Yeshiva High School for Boys, in upper Manhattan. He lived in YU’s dorms during the week, but he went home to Far Rockaway every weekend.

Next, Mr. Kaplan went to Yeshiva University. He doesn’t remember having a choice of colleges, he said. No one did. It was assumed that you’d go either to Brooklyn College — which had the huge advantage of being a city school, and therefore tuition-free, so you could learn at a yeshiva during the day, and go to college at night — or to YU. He went to YU, where he majored in math.

That’s where he got his start as a writer.

“I started writing news and reviews for the college newspaper, the Commentator, in my junior year,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I told the editor in chief that I wanted to be on the governing board, but because I’d just started at the paper, he didn’t put me on it right away. Instead, as a consolation prize, he gave me a column.

“Sometimes, when you think you lost, you won.

“Four months later he moved me up to the governing board, but I still had the column.”

The White Shul was at the center of the Kaplan family’s life in Far Rockaway.

Next, Mr. Kaplan went to law school. It was pretty much a default decision, as he describes it. He didn’t want to be a doctor, an academic, or a rabbi. “I liked Perry Mason, so I took the LSATs, and I did the best in YU that year.”

He got into Columbia, and accepted the offer. “I loved law school,” he said. “I loved the intellectual stimulation. Some of the professors were first-rate. Outstandingly good. It was my first non-Jewish experience. I made my first non-Jewish friends.

“It was eye-opening for me.

“I started Columbia in September 1968. I remember walking across the campus, starting at the front of Low Library, thinking that this was where everything had happened. Where Mark Rudd had stood in spring 1968.” (Mark Rudd is the onetime Columbia student who led the SDS protests at Columbia; he also is Jewish, was born in Irvington, grew up in Maplewood, and went to Columbia High School there before moving on to the unrelated Columbia University.)

“This was during the war in Vietnam,” he said. “The professors at the law school weren’t afraid to grapple with the issues. And interestingly enough, my gemara background was very helpful to me.”

Sharon and Joseph’s two oldest grandchildren, Ezra and Aviva Goldberg, are at summer camp.

During his time in law school, Mr. Kaplan wrote an article for the student-run Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems that later was reprinted in the New York Law Journal and in Studies in Jewish Jurisprudence.

He also got married in the middle of law school. His wife, Sharon Penkower Kaplan, earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from Columbia’s Teachers College.

Practicing law was less intellectually stimulating than studying it had been, Mr. Kaplan learned soon after graduation. “Some of it was dull work, just pushing papers around,” he said. He was a commercial litigator; his career included work for large firms, a stint as in-house counsel of JCPenney, and then 25 years with a small firm. And some of it was fulfilling. “Making oral arguments in court was great fun,” he said. And of course being a lawyer involves a great deal of writing.

“And then my first daughter was born,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It was 1974. I was very interested in feminist issues, and we decided to have a simchat bat,” a welcoming ceremony for a newborn girl, “which was not done very much then in the Orthodox community.

“Some people were doing things. We decided to have a formal one. We spoke to Rabbi Riskin about it” — the Kaplans lived on the Upper West Side then, their rabbi was Shlomo Riskin, and their shul was the Lincoln Square Synagogue.

“I had read Sh’ma magazine since law school” — Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, was a nondenominational journal created and edited by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a Reform theologian who taught at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. “So I thought, why don’t I write it up and send it to them? It was called ‘An Orthodox Simchat Bat.’ I sent it over the transom, and he published it.”

Most of the Kaplan family gathers for the brit milah of its newest member. From left, Micole, Daniele, Jason, Raquel, Gabrielle, baby Devin, Allen, Sharon, and Joseph. Liora and Aiden are in the front.

Soon, Mr. Kaplan saw that Rabbi Borowitz was beginning a program for fellows, who would work directly with him. “I showed it to Sharon, and I said that I would have liked to have done that when I was in graduate school. And she said — not in these words, she said it very nicely — but basically what she said was, you idiot, apply for it. So the idiot applied.”

It turned out that Rabbi Borowitz remembered Mr. Kaplan, and offered him a fellowship. “I was older than most of the other fellows, and I was working 9 to 11, but I took it very seriously.” He began to write book reviews for Sh’ma. When Rabbi Borowitz offered the fellows the chance to guest edit an issue of Sh’ma, “no one else took him seriously, but I did,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I picked the subject — taharat hamishpacha.” Family purity. Not a subject many people outside the Orthodox world would have chosen.

Two of the rabbis who influenced him the most were Rabbis Rackman and Borowitz, Mr. Kaplan said. “Gene Borowitz opened up the non-Orthodox world to me as a serious Jewish world. In the Modern Orthodox world, we did not take it seriously. The idea was that if you’re not Orthodox, it’s because you want to have things easy.

“Gene taught me — not explicitly, but through his actions — that people who are not Orthodox have principles, and those principles can be as important to them as halacha is to us. And we have to respect that. We don’t have to agree with it, but we have to respect it. We have to understand that sometimes they can bend — and sometimes they can’t.”

Judith Kaye, New York’s chief judge on its court of appeals — counterintuitively, that’s the state’s highest court — was another of Mr. Kaplan’s most revered teachers. “She was a wonderful person, a wonderful lawyer, a wonderful writer, and a great teacher,” he said. Legal writing is a very specific form, and it takes real craft to do it well. Words matter, and Ms. Kaye taught Mr. Kaplan a lot about how to use them.

During this time, Mr. Kaplan began to write for Gary Rosenblatt; the two men have been close friends since they met at YU. Mr. Rosenblatt went to Baltimore “to revitalize the Baltimore Jewish Times,” as Mr. Kaplan put it; later he moved to Teaneck, took over the New York Jewish Week, and decades later retired from that position.

“There was a big Supreme Court decision on whether YU faculty could unionize, and Gary asked me if I would write about it,” Mr. Kaplan said. He did. “I must admit I really liked seeing it in print, so I started writing for him without being asked.”

As good friends, they came to an agreement — Mr. Kaplan was free to send columns in to Mr. Rosenblatt, and Mr. Rosenblatt was free to accept or reject him, no questions asked, no feelings hurt.

And that’s how Mr. Kaplan came to the Jewish Standard (and now, through the Standard, to the New Jersey Jewish News). Rabbi Borowitz died in 2016; Mr. Kaplan wrote an appreciation of him and sent it to Mr. Rosenblatt, but Mr. Rosenblatt already had accepted another piece about Rabbi Borowitz. So Mr. Kaplan sent his column to us. That was approximately 125 columns ago.

Mr. Kaplan now fills his time studying at the Beit Midrash of Teaneck, which he loves; it’s a place for serious Jewish study with smart, mostly retired people who have lived full lives and have insight, wisdom, and understanding. They also have full schedules, grandchildren, and lots of doctor appointments, so it’s flexible. “It’s terrific,” Mr. Kaplan said. And, of course, he writes his columns.

This book was to some extent a project shared with his family. Mr. Kaplan’s daughters, Micole, Daniele, Raquel, and Gabrielle, read each of his columns and comment on them, and then so does their mother, before he sends them off to be published. They read the new book, and they worked hard on the cover, from its clever concept to its precise implementation.

And in the end, as much as the book is for the world, it’s for them — for Sharon and their daughters, for his sons-in-law, Jason and Allen, and for his grandchildren, Ezra, Aviva, Liora, Aiden, and Devin. “If they’re okay with it, I’m okay,” Mr. Kaplan said.

His book is available at Judaica House in Teaneck, and online at judaicahouse.net.