Some people celebrate birthdays with cakes. Others hang streamers and signs. For Robert “Bob” Adler’s 95th birthday, he led Shacharit and Musaf services and chanted the Haftarah.
While family and friends gathered on Saturday, May 9, at Ahavath Achim Congregation (The Carnegie Shul) to hear Adler’s performance, the birthday boy dismissed all praise.
“Don’t make me the hero,” he said in an interview, “because I’m just a plain person who was brought up and knows just as much as any rabbi.”
Adler grew up in Fulda, Germany, to an observant family. As a child, he intensely studied Jewish texts. Nine decades later, Adler boasts about his earlier schooling and recalls that he was asked by a community rabbi to regularly recite Kiddush on the rabbi’s behalf many Shabbat mornings.
In 1937, at the age of 17, Adler came to New York. His family had secured an exit visa for him, making Adler the sole member to survive the Holocaust.
“I was born in Germany, lost my family. It’s the same story like everybody else,” he said.
But what differ are the details.
While a child in Germany, Adler remembered seeing Adolf Hitler standing nearby. Adler was studying Chumash with a group of fellow students when the Fuhrer arrived in Fulda. Upon his entrance, the boys’ mothers rushed into the study hall, gathered their children and left.
Adler also remembers carrying a very small Torah with him. The scroll, which was handwritten, only contained Bereishit, the first book. It had been a gift from his parents. Adler still possesses the rare item.
These days, a conversation with the nonagenarian — he lives alone, still drives and keeps his Mercury Sable in pristine condition — often features anecdotes about life in Fulda; yet, in the same breath, Adler punctiliously recites esoteric Jewish laws.
“I got more stories than The Jewish Chronicle,” he quipped, “[but] I’m only going to tell you one-tenth of my life.”
Adler’s son-in-law, Carl Schiffman, filled in some of the details about his spirited father-in-law.
“He was cast upon the streets of New York, had to learn English and played semi pro soccer,” Schiffman revealed.
Adler also became a skilled dancer. While attending the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, he met a girl named Ethel. The two were married in 1946. Adler became a cabinet-maker and worked with his brother-in-law until 1979.
Their business, Clifton Woodworking, was located in a less than ideal area. Situated in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Adler “had to buy his tools back from the locals who stole them,” said Schiffman. “They had to pay people to watch their cars while they were working.”
In 1985, the Adlers moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to their grandchildren. At that time, Bob and Ethel Adler established the South Hills Cancer Group.
To this day, Adler visits patients at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon. He has a red coat with his name on it.
“I do a lot of volunteering,” said Adler. “It’s a mitzvah.
“There are certain things you do from your heart,” he added. “When I visit patients it’s from my heart.”
Adler has always gone his own way.
“I do what I want to do, and I don’t do what I don’t want to do,” he said. “I’m a tough son of a gun.”
In other words, a New Yorker, said Rick D’Loss, vice president and gabbai of the Carnegie Shul.
“You can hear it in his demeanor,” said D’Loss. “I don’t know how to describe it other than you know a New Yorker when you meet one. … He says what he thinks whether you want to hear it or not.”
D’Loss, however, cautioned against mistaking Adler’s candidness for heartlessness.
“He is sensitive to people’s feelings,” he explained. Often, in relation to distributing aliyahs for the Torah reading, Adler will tell D’Loss, “You might have hurt this person’s feelings, because you honored this person and not that one.”
“Maybe this is the whole New York thing, that he’s assertive,” said D’Loss.
Schiffman described the recent birthday fete as “doing everything from soup to nuts.”
Said Adler, “That’s the way I was brought up.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.