Through book or bima, Kertzers a fascinating family

We Jews are such a small part of the world’s population, I probably shouldn’t be as surprised as I always am by personal connections I never anticipated.
Case in point: I’ve learned that there are, here in our North Texas community, members of the Kertzer family.
Many years ago, when I was regularly teaching teenagers in several congregations’ religious schools, one of my most useful books was What Is a Jew? by Rabbi Morris Kertzer. Its subtitle is “A Guide to the Beliefs, Traditions and Practices of Judaism That Answers Questions for Both Jew and Non-Jew.” My well-used copy is still a favorite basis for understanding Judaism, just as useful today as it was at its publication back in 1953.
Kertzer wasn’t a pulpit rabbi, but was often called upon to fill in for congregations needing a substitute. So imagine my happy surprise when I learned, back in the ’70s, that he’d be coming to my own suburban Chicago temple for the six months of our rabbi’s sabbatical in Israel. He knew, because I had written to him, that I was a journalist as well as a Jewish teacher; when he was struck with sudden appendicitis on his first Friday evening with us and wound up in the hospital instead of on our bima, I was one of the congregants called on to lead the service. And he phoned me as soon after surgery as he could. “What do you like better — writing or the rabbinate?” he asked. Who could ever forget a moment like that! He later returned to our area after the death of another local congregation’s rabbi, serving there until a successor was chosen; during that time, we were in frequent touch.
The rabbi’s son definitely chose writing. David Kertzer, a professor at Brown University, won the Pulitzer Prize in biography last year for The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. Earlier — in 1997 — he was a National Book Award finalist for The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, described by Joseph Esposito of Biographers International as “…about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials, who later joined the priesthood…”
Rabbi Kertzer was 73 years old when he died in late 1983 — a good decade after our last in-person meeting. But I never forgot him, and would often mention him and his book when the subject of explaining Judaism — to non-Jews, and to our own Jewish children — came up in conversation. And it was during one of those casual moments when I learned that there are cousins right here…self-effacing folks who don’t want their names mentioned because they’d prefer I devote all this bit of space to Morris and David.
The latter actually came to Dallas for a family bar mitzvah not too long ago, but I — sadly — was unable to attend. However, I have great hopes that I’ll be able to forge a connection with the son, as with the father, this time through a relative of my own: My niece Joan, my sister’s older daughter, is now a Brown professor herself.
This little exercise in “Jewish geography,” wrapped as it is in a blanket of pleasant memories, makes me think that soon I should write a column about the goodly number of books currently forming a too-tall pile on the central table in my office. I could call it “My Favorite Books that I Haven’t Read Yet,” but I’m sure at least some of them are destined to merit permanent places along with the ones I already treasure most. Rabbi Morris Kertzer’s What Is a Jew? is definitely one of the latter, occupying a prominent spot on my bookshelves’ Judaica section, handy for quick and easy reference.
Today, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara has finally risen to the top of that other carefully assembled group. And when I have finished that, I’ll be ready to tackle The Pope and Mussolini.

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