Fanfare for The Common Man (12/20/2001)
Rabbi Daniel Brenner sanctifies the simple gifts of Judaism & America.
Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor
Did Reb Nachman, back in 18th century Europe, ever notice the sky was Tarheel Blue? Maybe not, but God always knew of North Carolina and that rebbes can come from the Piedmont as surely as from Poland. Rabbi Daniel Brenner, native son of Charlotte, N.C., is a storyteller, as surely from the Southern tradition as from the Jewish one. A southern boy, no less a scholar for that, he has none of the aristocratic and academic affect that some rabbis adorn themselves with, as if pretense were fur pelts. No, this rabbi is about as majestic as Royal Crown Cola, as unpretentious as the rotary phone on his desk — yet conscious that this rotary phone speaks of something precious: a call from the past, a sense that any child of God ought see beauty in the commonplace, in a “Chew Mail Pouch” sign on the side of a barn every bit as much as in the glass case of Judaica chotchkes in the lobby of a temple. Rabbi Brenner, 32, says, “I’m drawn to something I’ve gotten from the South; the importance of being a common man and living a simple life. I think it keeps you rooted. I take great pleasure in those things.” As he says in one of his theatrical works — for he’s also a playwright and performer — he comes from a world that’s a montage of “red earth and frozen bagels,” yarmulkes “tucked quickly into pockets ... alcoholic neighbors who smoke long brown cigarettes, eat ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread while washing their motor homes ... and red-haired girls and proms and Bojangles, fried chicken, gentility — charming and false … manicured lawns, ACC basketball, and yes, real pit barbecue.” Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says, “Daniel is among the most creative, playful and compassionate teachers and rabbis that I have ever met.” Rabbi Brenner, who teaches for Clal, is a nice fit for the think-tank. For though Clal’s original mission was premised on denominational and religious tolerance, it was always more than that. After all, tolerance evokes the word “tolerate” whereas what Clal really does is to celebrate; seeing the fingerprints of God where folks don’t think God’s been; telling the self-deprecating Clark Kent that he can have and use amazing powers by just imagining a deeper, if once secret, Jewish identity. Rabbi Brenner’s father was from New York City, says the son. “He had the rhythm of Brooklyn, so I’ve always been drawn to the city and to spend some of my life here. Clal is an extension of my hybrid identity. In New York I don’t have to negate any part of the Jew that I am or the American that I am.” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the great rebbe-sages of the Jewish Renewal movement, says of Rabbi Brenner: “There are some people who when they ‘do Jewish’ forget American; when they ‘do American’ forget Jewish. There is such a beautiful blend, in which he brings the images of our tradition and the general culture together in an amalgam that is always inspiring and makes access easy.” Rabbi Brenner has crafted blessings and meditations to help Jews sanctify not only the Jewish holidays but every American holiday, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July among them. Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Brenner did chaplaincy and led a small congregation in New Jersey, where he lightly saw himself as “the chief rabbi of Exit Seven.” He remembers not only the people but also the “five-and-dime shop with dusty, nearly barren shelves holding eyeglass pads and athletic supporters. ... Being a rabbi in a small town has its advantages. You get to ride in the clergy float in the Fourth of July parade.” With a love for the theater, he turned these experiences into performance, a gentle humorous shmooze akin to Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor. He’s written and performed in plays about the ghost of an old bar mitzvah tutor; about desire, discipline and a kosher butcher shop. He participated in “From Slavery to Freedom,” a collaboration of African-American and Jewish writers retelling the story of Exodus. His autobiographical musings about the sacred and the surreal have been performed on campuses and in New York’s Goldman Theater. He’ll fuse his gift for teaching, writing and the rabbinate by reimagining a translation for the Kaddish, that describes his own soul as well as reinvigorating the old English, an attempt, he says, “to put the Kaddish into “slang, street.” “Make the God-name big. Big and holy. Do it in this world, ... Do it fast, soon, in our lives, in the days ahead, in the life of the people we call home. Everybody join with me: May the name be blessed forever and ever! Yes, blessed. Blessed, whispered, sung out, shouted, honored, this holy name. The name is beyond any song, poem, or comforting words we could ever speak. Everybody say: That’s the truth! ... Make that peace in the heavens, great Peacemaker, great One who brings wholeness to our people. Stop. Everybody pray: May it be true.” There’s power in common words, power even in his daddy’s way of looking at a Torah. “We hold the Torah like a baby, gently cuddling it to our breast. We dress it carefully; we touch it lightly. We honor it like an elder, standing before it, honoring its history. We treat it like a jewel, hiding it away except for special occasions.” At his home in Montclair, N.J., he sees his toddlers play with their blue stuffed Torahs. “And at times, when they are not whopping each other over the head with them, I see them using the objects as dance partners. They hum a chasidic-like melody that often spins off into a Barney tune, or march the Torahs around the room in a big circle.” You play with something as a child, you keep it forever. He carries with him the spirit of old comics — the world of “Raw” and Art Spiegelman. His computer’s “wallpaper” features the display ads such as were found in the back pages of comic books, items like “X-Ray Specs,” or a joy buzzer. “I like looking at this every day,” he says of his screen. At long last, have we found something, like a joy buzzer or X-ray specs, that are meaningless? Perhaps not. For those ads take us back to a different and distant time of endless afternoons, imagination and a juvenile’s wonder, a spirit of wonder that leads us through the desert like the pillars of cloud and flame. The grown man carries the child within. In Carolina, Rabbi Brenner remembers, “We were one of the most traditional families down there. One of the biggest influences in my life was Chabad. My mother’s sister became a baal teshuvah when she was in college and moved to Crown Heights. So, the first Chabad shliach [emissary] in Charlotte stayed over in our basement while he was getting set-up. “Our relatives lived on President Street. We’d go to 770 [Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher rebbe’s shul and headquarters] whenever we could. I remember the last time I saw the rebbe daven. He looked at everyone. I mean he looked at everyone. Never in my life had I seen anything like that; the way he could look into a soul. Chabad was such an important part of my childhood because it taught me Judaism did not have to be the boring experience it was in my shul back home.” Raised in a rainbow of denominations, Rabbi Brenner has a goodly worn ArtScroll prayerbook over his desk. “I can daven out of anything. I prefer to daven out of an old siddur.” He picks up a small book of Psalms. “This here, this Tehillim? This is the best.” It was printed in Vienna, 1927, and Rabbi Brenner found in a Philadelphia thrift shop. He was drawn to its hoary old brown cover, the frills and swoops in the design, the embossed Ten Commandments. “I’m crazy about that cover. And the thing about it is this was a book that people had. Even if they owned only two or three books, they’d have this Tehillim. If I really have to say something, this is the Tehillim to say it out of.” Ritual objects have power, he says. “We invest power in ritual objects; it has a history.” Daniel Brenner thumbs through the worn pages before coming to a favorite: “Psalm 30 is where it’s at. It’s the Psalm of someone who’s naturally cynical but then recognizes that there’s something beyond, that his life comes from some place beyond,” where souls are blessed, whispered, celebrated, and secret identities are revealed.