The Jewish world has lost one of its most colorful, exciting and challenging rabbis and teachers. Rabbi Dr. Maurice Wohlgelernter, known popularly among his students as "The Reb," passed away on Saturday night June 22, 2013.
I first met The Reb in September 1963, as a freshman in his English 101 class at Yeshiva College. He was an astonishing teacher. He demanded clarity in our writing, marking each of our papers with an overly active red pen. He crushed our egos with his harsh grades--but he taught us, and taught us very well. To get an A from The Reb made it all worth while!
His career was multi-faceted. He served for many years as Rabbi of a synagogue in uptown Manhattan. He taught English writing and literature at Yeshiva College, Baruch College, and later at Touro College and NYU. No one who took The Reb for a course can ever forget him.
He was devoted to the study of Torah and Talmud. He was in the first class of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he was the one who coined the title "the Rav" for Rabbi Soloveitchik. The Reb studied Talmud all through his lifetime, and always saw himself as a bahur yeshiva.
He earned his Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University, and went on to author books and articles on literary topics. He was a master stylist who valued the power of words. Well into his 80s, he was writing and publishing significant articles, including several in our Institute's journal, Conversations.
The first wedding the Reb performed as a young rabbi was for one of his classmates, Paul Schuchalter and his wife Dorothy. Rabbi and Mrs. Schuchalter are my wife's parents--my in-laws. When Gilda and I were married in 1967, The Reb recited one of the Sheva Berakhot. We retained our friendship over the years, meeting regularly for a cup of coffee, some literary discussion, analysis of issues in the Jewish world etc. It was a singular honor and privilege to have enjoyed this friendship for just about 50 years.
I always thought that "The Reb" had another significance: the Rebel. And that is what he was. He rebelled against nonsense and hypocrisy. He had no patience for p.r. glitz and inflated egos of overly comfortable establishment figures. He was a source of agitation to those who feared his sharp tongue, his utter unpredictability, his energy, his intellectual restlessness. Perhaps he was such an amazingly popular teacher precisely because he was a rebel who brooked no nonsense, who was committed to truth at all costs. He had a phenomenal sense of humor, but he took life and ideas very seriously.
His wife, Esther, and their children and grandchildren were great sources of joy to The Reb. They were more important to him than anyone or anything in his life.
So we say goodbye to The Reb--our teacher, our rabbi, our friend. We are grateful for having had the privilege of being part of his world. He was one of a kind, unforgettable. He will always remain--for all of us who knew him--a source of blessing, strength and wisdom...and he will always be prodding us to follow his inspiration in being devoted to truth, in being a rebel against shallowness, mediocrity, and hypocrisy.
Rest in peace, Reb. We will truly miss you.