I’ve been rummaging through the attic of my life for a media project I’m involved with. A cousin just found a picture of my father, smiling, handsome and so full of young promise, at age 23 in 1948. When my partner in this project asked who she could speak with about me in Israel, I naturally thought of Rabbi Joe Lukinsky. He’d been my teacher in 1969, when I attended the Camp Ramah program in Nyack, NY. Later, he’d been my teacher when I studied in Israel on a junior year abroad program at the Hebrew University.
With deep sadness, I discovered that Rabbi Lukinsky died of cancer in 2009 at age 78. In Jewish tradition, when such a man dies you say: zichron tzadik livracha (“may the memory of this righteous one be for a blessing”). Joe truly was a tzadik, a saint. Of course, that is a huge weight to place on anyone. But you could place it lightly on his shoulders because he was such a modest self-effacing man. He didn’t win you over by erudition or intellectual presence or spellbinding preacherly oratory. He won you over with a smile, with his charm, with his love of humanity.
Joe went through the 60s, the era of long-hair, psychedelia and relevance as the straightest of straight arrows. He sported a crew cut and always informally dressed in short sleeves, which revealed those muscular arms that could hit home runs over rooftops. He looked like a Marine Corps drill sergeant, albeit a very gentle one. I remember a twinkle in his eyes and a ready smile that at times turned into a hearty laugh.
I was a troubled 17-year-old from a dysfunctional family when I met him at Nyack in 1969. Back then, the world appeared to be coming to an end. The Vietnam war raged, campuses burned, Martin Luther King had died a few months earlier. I was a rebellious teenager who dared Judaism to be relevant to my world. I didn’t see how it could be.
Camp Ramah was known for its rigorous Judaic curriculum including courses on Tanach, Midrash, Jewish philosophy, and liturgy. Until this summer, frankly, I’d found these classes to be wanting. So when they laid out the Jewish curriculum for that summer and asked us to choose our classes, nothing inspired me. As I recall it, Joe was the educational director. He met with me and asked what I was choosing. I told him nothing appealed to me. I’m certain I was probably quite morose in the way only teenagers can be.
But Joe did something both brilliant and devious at the same time. He threw the question of what I would study back and me and said: “If you could study about any subject, what would it be?” I must’ve thought it was a trick question. How could I study any subject I wanted when I was seemingly bound by the courses offered which I’d already told him didn’t appeal to me?
Two years before, the 1967 War had happened. It had a big impact on many American Jews of the time. It must’ve disturbed me in some profound way because I told Joe that I’d study about Israel and the impact of the Six Day War on Zionism. He said: “Great. Why don’t you make your own course. I’ll work with you to develop a reading list, we’ll meet to discuss what you’re reading and you’ll write a paper at the end of the summer.” I probably thought the idea was a bit nuts at the time. How could I create my own course? But by God, that’s what we did. That’s how I first learned about Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Brit Shalom. That’s when I first read Arthur Hertzberg‘s The Zionist Idea. That’s when I first became a thinking Zionist. By that I mean the critical Zionist I am today.
You have no idea what this did to the self-esteem of a troubled young boy. It taught me that I had ideas of value. It taught me how to take on a big topic, research it carefully, and come up with a coherent, articulate critique into which I could put all of my intellectual self. This was huge.
Joe knew far more about this subject than I, and he suggested that I send my final paper to Prof. Ernst Simon, one of the few surviving member of the original Brit Shalom circle. I was a 17-year-old pisher. What did I know? I thought it was an odd idea for me to be sending my work to an eminent 80-year-old retired professor who’d stood at the brink of the Zionist era. But that was the power and brilliance of Joe. He looked at you with that magnetic smile and chuckle of his and said: “Why not?”
I remember that my paper warned of the dangers that the Occupied Territories posed to Israel. I discussed the likelihood of Israel turning into an apartheid state. South Africa was in the air in those days and I compared Israel to that country’s systematic discrimination against its black majority. It was probably also a bit of chutzpah for this teenager to tell someone like Ernst Simon that Israel was like one of the world’s pariah states. I remember that Simon actually did me the favor of replying. As I remember it, his reply was gracious, revealing none of the sense of chutzpah that he might’ve felt for the sharpness of my ideas and expression.
In 1972, I finally got to Israel and studied in the Hebrew University’s special program for Jewish educators. It was my first academic year in Israel. My first experience studying in Hebrew. It was intense, it was challenging. Joe Lukinsky was himself on a sabbatical year from his teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was one of the faculty for the Hebrew University program. I wrote another challenging paper for him that time as well. It was the first time I addressed the conflict between Israel and Diaspora under the terms of classical Zionism. I suggested that the standard approach of Zionist thought, which demeaned the galut and treated it as a phenomenon that would wither away as Israel assumed its rightful and primary place in Jewish life, was absolutely wrong.
Instead of Israel being primary and Diaspora being secondary, I suggest a co-equal relationship between the two: that the Diaspora would never die as long as Jews lived. I said that the Diaspora enriched Jewish identity as much as Israel did, and that the two should have a complementary relationship. This was the first time I grappled with the idea of Diasporism. In my paper, I also rejected the secularist notion that the Diaspora was primary to Jewish life, and that Israel was alien. I think it was all pretty radical for its day. But it was the beauty of Joe Lukinsky that he didn’t care where your ideas took you as long as you arrived at them honestly and with real intellectual rigor.
Joe Lukinsky was one of my Jewish mentors. He encouraged me to bring out of myself things I didn’t even know I had, things I didn’t even know I was capable of. This is a gift, a gift beyond measure. I wouldn’t be who or what I am today without him. Thank you, Joe.
Now a few words about his life. As a teenager, he was a powerful baseball player who could hit the ball a mile. He was offered a tryout with the Chicago Cubs and could’ve played minor-league ball. But he didn’t. When he married Betty in the 1950s they were struck by tragedy. Those were the days before genetic testing, when Tay Sachs was a dreaded word in Jewish families. They had at least one child who died of this fatal condition. I can remember someone telling me of the tragedy of having a healthy, beautiful newborn baby, who withered away before their very eyes after a few years. Two of their other children died at an early age. As an obituary I read, said about him: he led a Job-like life full of immense tragedy.
But you never felt that from Joe. He was all heart, all warmth, all soul. So my partner won’t get to meet one of the truly great American rabbis. Won’t get to interview him and hear stories of what I was like as a sullen teenager. What a loss. To her, to me, to us all. May his memory be for a blessing.