Rabbi Dr. Twerski: a truly great Jew

I much appreciated Rabbi David Glickman’s memories of the now-late Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski — surely one of a kind in the vast annals of Jewish leadership. I have some of my own — very different — that I want to share with you here, as well. 

As I write, I have beside me copy of Rabbi Twerski’s 1985 book, “Generation to Generation: Personal Recollections on a Chasidic Legacy.” It’s my treasure now and forever, because he signed it to me personally. You see, I benefited immensely when my son married into a family of this truly great human being’s friends. 

That was in Pittsburgh, where this truly great man, truly great doctor, truly great Jew, was practicing psychiatry at Western State Psychiatric Hospital. I met a colleague of his, a child psychiatrist named Joan Ammer, on our first day in college; we have been close friends ever since. How very lucky my own life has been!

In his book, Rabbi Twerski reveals the patient wisdom and understanding of his beloved father through true stories. This is my favorite: As a young boy, Abraham learned to play chess, and became very good at it. Visiting rabbis often stayed at the Twerski home, and one of them asked the boy to play chess with him. It was a minor holiday, and Abraham didn’t know what to do: He didn’t think a game was appropriate, but it was a rabbi who had challenged him. So he took the challenge… 

Afterward, he was summoned into his father’s office and asked why he had chosen to play a game on a holiday, and of course he answered that it was at the invitation of a rabbi; how could he refuse? His father scolded him gently, but with reasoned understanding, suggesting that the next time something similar came up, Abraham should politely refuse, and then dismissed him. But as the boy walked toward the door, his father called out: “Did you defeat him?” When the answer was affirmative, the two shared a laugh together. Every lesson was taught in that logical, corrective, but gentle fatherly manner that became the son’s own. 

And here is how he applied it: When a teenage addict came to him for counseling, Twerski’s first action was often to offer his new patient a candy bar, and encourage that it be eaten immediately, before they began to talk. When this had been done, the young person looked around for a wastebasket to throw the wrapper into, but saw none. When asked about it, the rabbi’s response was simple: “Eat it!” And when the startled adolescent asked “What? Why?” the response was simply this: “It will be better for you than the junk you’re used to ingesting!” Logic, tailored to perfection for those who received it, was this rabbi’s hallmark.

From my friend Joan, I learned how Lutherans welcome Christmas by singing a little-known carol called “The Birthday of a King.” From my son’s in-laws and Rabbi Twerski, I learned of a small synagogue where the descendants of priests blessed the congregation in complete anonymity, with feet bare, their heads and faces and upper bodies completely covered by tallitot. The best lessons are simple and taught simply, requiring little explanation. 

I also share Rabbi Glickman’s memories of Rabbi Twerski’s Dallas visit, and especially his powerful message to Jewish women that shalom bayit — peace in the home — in no way means that wives must suffer in silence at the bidding and hands of abusive husbands. I think of my Lutheran friend’s song of a birth, and of the death of a sort of Jewish “king” …

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