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 Amos, declared:

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 offered mankind.
It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."

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 pray 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 saints.

At this point my memory of the story diverges from my brother's. My brother Joey's 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, אבן מאסו הבונים היתה לראש פינה (``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 information.

"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 answered.

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 the theophany.

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.

The Lady of the Lake

In school, my grandfather studied Sir Walter Scott's poem "The Lady of The Lake" and memorized a number of passages --- whether required or not, I do not know. He often used to recite these aloud when he was walking --- often enough that anyone who spent a lot of time with him also ended up learning them.

There were four of these passages. The one he was fondest of was from Canto IV, stanza XXX:

'A stranger.' 'What dost thou require?'
'Rest and a guide, and food and fire.
My path's beset, my way is lost,
The gale has chilled my limbs with frost.'
'Art thou a friend of Roderick?' 'No.'
'Thou dar'st not call thyself a foe?'
'I dare! to him and all his band
He calls to aid his murderous hand'
(That is how my grandfather used to recite it. However it was not quite correct; the third line is "My life's beset, my path is lost" and the last two lines are "... all the band // he brings to aid his murderous hand." It is possible that it is my memory that is at fault and not my grandfather's; but I don't think so.)

In reciting this, he used sometimes to spell out the last words of the lines:

'Art thou a friend of Roderick?' 'N-O.'
'Thou dar'st not call thyself an F-O-E?'
etc. Once, he told me, Muny (or Hadassah?) got so fed up with that, that she recited the entire passage spelling out every word.

The second passage was the opening (Canto I, stanza I)

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney's hazel shade;
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich's head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound's heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way.

The third was from Canto V, stanza XII:

This is Coilantogle ford
And thou must keep thee with thy sword.
He used to recite this often when he was walking with someone and they had to part ways in the street. In general, when he was making plans to meet someone or see them off, he would often mention Coilantogle ford.

More rarely he used to quote the couplet from Canto II Stanza XXXI.

There are who, at the midnight hour,
In dreams have scaled the dizzy tower.
Again a misquotation: the poem actually reads, "There are who have, at midnight hour // In slumber scaled a dizzy tower."

Piskei Din

These are halachic judgments that my grandfather either decided himself or enjoyed quoting.

Eight-month child

It is a rule in the Talmud that, though a child born seven months after conception is viable (בר קיימא), 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 " נשתנה הטבע ", (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 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 " הכל חולים אצל צינה ". 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 my father.

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 quite well.''

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. ]

Two graves

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 black beard.

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.

LF and Marilyn Monroe

In 1956 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 very lucky. I'm about to be married to a Jewish man and I should like to know more about his religion.'' 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 kosher. I 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.

Afterwards, I 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."

Outside, I 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.

French Cooking

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 so."

Cardinal Tisserant

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.

Parachute Jumpers

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