Today, March 17, is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 110 today. One of the best ways to remember dad is to tell his story, as well as mom’s.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan and Celia Drazin
My dad passed away in 1976 at age 70, but his story remains. He was a remarkable man.
Nathan Drazin was one of eight children, including an adopted son taken in by his philanthropic parents. Grandfather and grandmother had a successful real estate business in Canada. They devoted their free time to three pursuits: Torah study, worship, and acts of living-kindness. They established three institutions in Israel to further these pursuits: a school wing, a synagogue, and a free loan society.
Dad was born in the United State but spent his early years in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, where his father hired a private teacher of Jewish studies for him and his brothers. While in Ottawa, Dad joined practice to theory. He acquired the skills and rights to act as a shochet and became a volunteer ritual slaughterer for fowl. While still a teenager he taught an adult Talmud class.
Although offered a lucrative career in his parents’ real estate business, Dad – who brilliantly memorized Malbim’s long Hebrew commentary to the Book of Esther at an early age, while devouring books on astronomy, psychology, and other sciences – chose a scholarly and community service vocation. Later, dad memorized the entire Torah, the Five Books of Moses, in Hebrew.
He received his M.A. from Columbia College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. His rabbinical degrees, including the prestigious yadin yadin, were secured from Yeshiva University. A yadin yadin degree is rarely given to rabbis. It authorizes its recipient to serve as a judge.
Dad was just above average height but looked very tall because of his stately figure. He was clean-shaven except for a closely clipped mustache. Always well dressed, even at home, he wore tailored suits and rimless glasses that sharpened his scholarly appearance. His bearing and look commanded respect, although he never asked for it or seemed to need it. Those of us who observed him closely saw a twinkle in his eyes.
Starting in 1933, he was the rabbi of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore for thirty-one years, then president of the Talmudical Academy in the same city for five years. He was president during the period that this Jewish day school reached its zenith in number of students and in quality of its education. Talmudical Academy taught Jewish and secular subjects. He was responsible for building its expansive and impressive campus. His final position, when he settled in Israel, was as director of the Institute for Judaism and Medicine. In this capacity, in which he served for seven years, he edited a Hebrew manual for physicians on ethical questions.
Dad’s accomplishments during his forty-three years of community service are well-known. Among other things, he helped found the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, served as the head of its education committee for years, and taught homiletics to its graduate students. Although he achieved rabbinic prominence and improved the Baltimore day schools, Dad refused high-paying positions elsewhere – including being the Chief Rabbi of South Africa and professor in one of its universities – because he felt that Baltimore had the best Jewish schools for his children anywhere outside of New York.
With his book Marriage Made in Heaven, he brought the subject of sex into the open even in the most pious homes. Rabbis did not write books on sex before he wrote his book and after he paved the way, other rabbis followed in his footsteps. He started the group that still oversees kosher laws in Maryland and secured civil legal authority for the enterprise. Although institutions that certify whether a product is kosher receive money for their work today, Dad took no money for this work. He felt that this was his duty as a Jew and as a member of the general society.
Like his father who established institutions in Israel, dad was always zionistically inclined. He was the president of the Seaboard Region of Mizrachi. It was he who suggested to the Israeli government that it persuade rabbis to appeal for Israeli bonds during the High Holy Days, when Jewish sentiments are high and synagogues are filled. His suggestion, known as the Baltimore Plan, was accepted worldwide and resulted in many millions of dollars for Israel that would never have been collected otherwise.
Dad was a Renaissance man, who, in a Maimonidean fashion, had broad intellectual and cultural interests encompassing the full spectrum of available knowledge. The books in his home library, in several languages, three walls side to side and top to bottom, reflected his interests: Bible and Talmud classics faced the ancient works of Greece and Rome, England, Russia, France, and others. There were volumes on psychology, philosophy, mysticism, history, education, astronomy, medicine, and sex. He was a scrupulously observant Orthodox Jew who sat and studied the Talmud in his library at least several hours every day, in an atmosphere of silent piety sometimes punctuated by the traditional chant used by Talmud scholars who vocalize the text. He also spent hours daily studying with another rabbi. His desk was surrounded by more than a sprinkling of books by religious scoffers, modernists, biblical critics, and even two versions of the New Testament in two different Hebrew translations. Upon settling in the holy city of Jerusalem, he expanded the scope of his studies to include the Jerusalem Talmud, a text rarely studied by rabbinic scholars.
Recognizing that a sound mind requires a sound body, he combined his daily exercising of his mind with a half-hour session of physical exercise each day. He enjoyed exercising with his grandchildren, and could be seen with them early in the morning stretched out on the floor.
Dad wrote hundreds of scholarly articles in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and several books. In addition to the above-mentioned Medical-Ethical Guide and Marriage Made in Heaven, he wrote History of Jewish Education, Isaac Levinson’s Genealogy, and Legends Worth Living. I edited the Legends and published it after his death. He wrote a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, which is lost. He was a brilliant speaker. He had a remarkable ability to focus on the point at issue and articulate it clearly. He is included in Who’s Who in World Jewry.
And he loved to tell stories, and did it well. Looking back, I realized that it was a device used by this agile-minded scholar to make points that we, with lesser minds, could not otherwise understand. He could grip one with his stories and hold their attention. We listened because of the plots and the way he told them. We realized that they were guiding lights, illuminating the creases and crevices of life’s hazardous road.
Dad died a month after his seventieth birthday from an incurable cancer that he knew was terminal. He was careful at the end not to place any burden on anyone. He rose from his sick-bed to put his affairs in order.
It is not surprising that the story of Dad’s life is remembered and retold.
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Mom too was a Renaissance person. Dad was born in 1906 and mom in 1908. Unlike most women of her age, she had an extensive Judaic education, attended a teachers training school, and secured a diploma in teaching. Her siblings included community leaders and educators, the world-renowned biblical scholar and historian Sidney B. Hoenig, and the well-known lawyer Moses H. Hoenig, an organizer of Young Israel of America.
During the depression, while her brothers and sisters attended school, she added financial support to her family. She taught in a New York City public school daily from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; and 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., at the English Department of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, including Sundays. She helped the youngsters in her public school classes learn to read Hebrew by having the neighborhood synagogue open its doors for her during the evenings after 8:00 p.m. Mom charged 10 cents a lesson, feeling, correctly, that it would give the children an incentive to learn if they paid for it. She returned the money to them in the form of Purim and Chanukah gifts.
Due to financial difficulties caused by the depression, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath never paid Mom six months of her $60 a month salary. With interest, this debt of now over sixty years would be quite a sum.
Mom’s dad, my grandfather Joseph Isaac Hoenig, also donated free services to the Yeshiva, as a leading member of its board of directors. The Yeshiva noted his and her service by giving Mom a set of silver candlesticks as a wedding gift. She gave them years later to my wife Dina, who lights them on Sabbath eve.
Mom’s dad died when I was only six weeks old, so I do not remember him, but I remember his wife, Mom’s mom, my grandmother. She had a marvelous sense of humor, and she was an articulate raconteur.
Mom left teaching to marry Dad in 1933. She had an alert and practical mind and read several books a week until she died at age 91. She advised me well when she suggested that I pursue a secular career in addition to Judaic studies.
Even at age 91, Mom stood erect, dressed well, and looked young for her age. Mom was offered several marriage proposals after dad died in 1976. She was 68 at the time. She refused them all, unable to imagine that another husband could possibly be as good as dad. She died on the very day that the two of them married, December 26, and the two reunited.