Memories of my first rabbi: Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory

Dr. Epstein and Rabbi Plaut

Bertha Heilbron, Minnesota Historical Society, presents copy of original Mount Zion Temple charter to Dr. Irvin Epstein (my grandfather) and Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut. Photographer: St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press Photograph Collection 1952

The year was 1955. My 31-year-old mother, of blessed memory, walked into the office of the new rabbi and told her story. She had just moved from New Jersey back  into her parent’s home and was going to need the rabbi’s help in getting through a very difficult time in her life.

Rosetta had grown up at the congregation, Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, as had her father and his father before. But having gotten married and moved to the east coast, she did not know the new rabbi, nor did he know her. But she wanted, actually needed, him to get to know her. Her husband of seven years, my father Maurice,  had died of cancer just the previous March. She had recently taken her two boys, ages 2 and 6, and had come back to live with her parents in St. Paul. It was not simply the loss of her husband she was having to deal with; she herself was suffering from breast cancer. She had already had one mastectomy while back in New Jersey and was going to need more surgery. Her prognosis was not good. (It is unclear whether or not she knew she was terminal at the time, which she was.)

“I am going to need your help with all this,” my mother told him.

“I’m sorry,” Rabbi Plaut told my mother, “but I don’t do these things very well.”

In a moment of rabbinic honesty, Rabbi Gunther Plaut did something that most of us rabbis are too insecure to do: he admitted that he was not able to do everything that was asked of him. Most of us either think we can do everything equally well or are afraid to admit to anyone that we actually may have professional inadequacies. (We needn’t worry – the people we work with already know.)

“I don’t do these things very well,” he said, “but my wife Elizabeth does.”

And so she did. During the time that my mother was ill, Mrs. Plaut spent hours and hours with her and was of great comfort. Mom died in August of 1957. I had just turned 4.

Years later, at CCAR Conventions, Elizabeth and Gunther, Fran and I would sit together, often in services, and chat. It was during these special moments that I learned things about my mother and her experiences that my grandparents either did not know or simply did not want to think about or talk about. Their way of coping with the deaths of a son-in-law and a daughter was, as my grandfather told me once, “never to look back.” Elizabeth and Gunther helped me to look back and introduced me to my own mother.

When I heard the story of that first meeting between my mother and Rabbi Plaut, I was a bit surprised, but on reflection, not so very much.  Most of us rabbis (men?) think we can do everything equally well.  We are afraid to admit to any kind of inadequacy or to perform such acts of “professional triage.”  Knowing himself, Gunther knew that his strengths lay not as a pastor but as a scholar and community activist; and it is difficult to think of any of our colleagues who deserved the either title more, on so many levels. I never thought any less of Rabbi Plaut because of this. Of course, I might have had he simply turned her away and had not provided the support she needed.  I will be forever grateful to him and especially to Elizabeth, for what they did for my mother and my family during that difficult time.

Our families were close during the Plauts’ years in St. Paul. My first memory of a Seder was at their home. (The afikomen was taped under a green waste paper basket – or at least that is what I remember.) Jonathan (since Rabbi Jonathan) was my Hebrew school teacher and my brother Larry’s Bar Mitzvah tutor. Although the Plauts had moved to Toronto by the time I became a Bar Mitzvah, they were there for my ceremony and he offered the final family blessing. My grandfather, Dr. Irwin Epstein, was their dentist. Gunther told me once of how he had to go to a dentist in Italy once. Remarking at the excellence of Gunther’s dental work, the dentist ask him where he had gotten his dentistry done. When Gunther told him it was in Minnesota, the dentist responded, “It looks like Epstein’s work.”

We twice had Rabbi Plaut as scholar in residence at Temple B’nai Or and our congregants still remember his lively talks and skilled tennis game. But what I remember are the private talks we had and the guidance he imparted. Our congregation continues to reap the benefits of his wisdom, not only through his Torah commentary which we use so much but also from the way he shaped our early years here.

As I mentioned, few rabbis have accomplished a fraction of the scholarly and literary achievements which W. Gunther Plaut did in his long and exemplary career. He blessed me with a familial and collegial friendship – and some very important lessons in the rabbinate and in life – which I will forever cherish.

In my rabbinate, I know that I can never attain a fraction of what he did in terms of scholarly, literary or social achievements. I have tried to be the rabbi to others that he was not with my mother, not because he was wrong in not serving her in ways he could not, but because he was right in focusing on those areas in which he could make a difference and doing those as best he could. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut was one a kind, as are we all.

Post-script: One of my favorite stories about Rabbi Plaut is how he had his secretary respond to phone calls between 9:00 am – 12:00 pm. Reportedly he had her say, “I’m sorry, but Rabbi Plaut is not available right now. He is thinking.”

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