Sense of humor useful for these area rabbis

Sense of humor useful for these area rabbis

So, there was that time when a well-intentioned non-Jewish member of Temple Emanuel of South Hills gave Rabbi Mark Mahler a canned ham for Chanukah.

“In my thank you note, I acknowledged that I am likely the first rabbi in history to receive a canned ham for Chanukah, and I will be happy to give it to

the South Hills Interfaith Ministries’ food bank, which will surely find a Christian family to celebrate Christmas with a traditional baked ham dinner,” recalled Mahler.

The canned ham story has brought the rabbi “decades of chuckles,” he said, adding that throughout his career “funny things happen all the time. Such moments occur weekly, sometimes daily, even hourly.”

Mahler is not alone. It turns out, when it comes to humorous happenings, the rabbinate can be a gold mine.

Like that time when a guest at a bar mitzvah at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, coming up to the bimah for an aliya, told Rabbi Chuck Diamond that his Hebrew name was “Sheket.”

“What do you mean your name is Sheket?” Diamond asked him. It means “quiet” in Hebrew.

“It’s Sheket,” the man told the rabbi. “That’s what my Hebrew school teacher always called me.”

“I was rolling on the bimah,” Diamond recalled. “The joke after that was that his Hebrew middle name was Bevakasha.”

For Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, a good sense of humor has come in handy over the years.

Bisno recalled being at a shiva house toward the end of his six-year tenure at a congregation in Philadelphia, when a woman approached, anxious to meet him.

“I’ve been dying to meet you,” she told Bisno. “Everyone speaks of you in expletives.”

Bisno not only got a good laugh from that instance, but he also was pretty amused the time a woman approached him on the corner of Forbes and Murray, as he was about to cross the street with his two children in tow.

“She comes up and says, ‘You look very familiar,’” Bisno recounted. “I said, ‘I get that a lot.’ The woman said, ‘No offense, but you look very much like Rabbi Bisno.’”

Mistaken identity has been the source of many humorous situations for Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills, as he has an identical twin brother, Shuey, who is a rabbi in Caracas, Venezuela.

“I once went to my brother’s son’s bar mitzvah in Caracas,” recalled Rosenblum. “It was huge, with about 800 people. I didn’t realize that I went into the hall before Shuey was there. Lots of people didn’t know he had a twin brother, and there was also this language problem. I was rushed by a huge mob of people, many handing me gifts. They wouldn’t accept that I wasn’t Shuey. So, later, I told them that I only kept enough of the checks to cover my trip.”

Observing traditional Orthodox laws of modesty has also been the source of some pretty funny scenarios for Rosenblum, who is prohibited from coming into physical contact with women not related to him.

“I usually politely explain to a woman who puts out her hand why I can’t shake it,” he said, “and I go into an ancient bow and tip of my hat instead. But one time, I walked into a shiva house, and a woman who was visiting put out her hand. The woman who was sitting shiva told the other woman that I couldn’t shake her hand. So the first woman said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and gave me a hug instead.”

Congregants are often a rich source of amusement for rabbis.

When Jamie Gibson, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, first came to the congregation in 1988 as a youthful-looking guy with a non-Jewish sounding name, he found that several congregants were inquiring either, “Why did Temple Sinai hire a bar mitzvah boy?” or “Why did Temple Sinai hire someone who isn’t Jewish?”

When Rabbi Daniel Wasserman was first hired by Shaare Torah Congregation 21 years ago, he was in the midst of a transition year during which he did not live in Pittsburgh, but traveled here frequently to lead services. The rabbi recalled Joe Foley, “a good friend of the Jewish community,” picking him up at the airport on one such visit, and telling Wasserman that he had asked an older woman who sat in the back of the sanctuary her opinion about the new rabbi.

“I don’t know about a new rabbi,” she said. “But the new cantor is something else.”

Foley then asked Wasserman if he had brought the cantor along with him on this visit as well.

Wasserman, with obvious affection for the congregants who make up his morning weekday minyan, joked that he called that group “the floor show,” and noted that it is made up of an amusing cast of characters.

“There’s the Time Guy,” Wasserman said. “He’s the one that’s always looking at his watch and telling us when it’s time to start davening. One day he said, ‘It’s time to start.’ I said, ‘The clock on the wall says we’ve got two minutes.’”

The Time Guy opined that the clock must be wrong, and advised Wasserman to get an atomic clock.

“I said, ‘It is an atomic clock,’” Wasserman recalled.

To which the Time Guy replied, “I guess the atomic clock is wrong, then.”

Sometimes the funniest things happen among rabbis and those in the community who aren’t Jewish.

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David in Monroeville remembered being in a ministerial meeting with other clergy while working as a rabbi in Massachusetts, sharing stories about funerals and beliefs about what happens after death.

A priest asked Symons about the Jewish story of Elijah going up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

“I told him, ‘Jews never choose that one,’” Symons said. “ ‘It’s too expensive.’”

Speaking of death, Bisno remembered conducting a funeral when he was a student rabbi with a part-time pulpit.

“I was standing at the back of the funeral home, and people were thanking me for a nice service,” Bisno said. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never been to a Jewish funeral before. I hope to go to another one soon.’”

For Rabbi Sara Rae Perman of

Temple Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, a particular summer Shabbat service stands out in her mind as the funniest, if not the most bizarre.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, an organization of nuns, were hosting their annual gathering, and a group of Korean sisters had come to Greensburg for the event. Sister Gemma Del Duca, founder of Seton Hill University’s National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, wanted the visiting sisters to experience a Shabbat service, and asked Perman if they could come to Temple Emanu-El. Perman agreed.

“I walked into the synagogue and saw this sea of nuns in white habits,” Perman remembered. “There were probably about 30 of them, and they definitely outnumbered my own congregants. Some of my congregants had to take a step back to see that they were in the right place.

“I did the service in Hebrew and in English, with one sister on the bimah translating the whole service into Korean,” Perman said, surmising that she is probably the only rabbi in the area who has had a service quite like that one.

Some rabbis have even found humor in the midst of prayer.

“There was this guy davening once, and someone else was making a lot of noise,” Wasserman recounted. “This guy was in the middle of the amidah, and the noise was becoming really disturbing to him. Finally, he was so frustrated, he turns to the other guy and says, ‘Jesus Christ! I’m in the middle of the amidah!’”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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