First Encounter: Twenty Years Ago



I was preparing the paperwork—to be submitted just weeks before graduation—writing an evaluation of my internship with Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, founder and director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism.  I could easily recount my duties, among them teaching prospective converts and leading monthly Sabbath services at his congregation. But it seemed somehow arrogant to evaluate my senior colleague, and I found the questions on the form to be so general that they invited only bland words about a rabbi who infused his teaching with such exotic flavors.

Not quite one year into our marriage, my spouse gamely agreed to accompany me on Sabbath visits to New Jersey.  We stayed in the Lerner’s guest room and enjoyed the home-cooked meals of Professor Anne Lapidus Lerner, with whom I had studied Modern Hebrew Literature.  Each month, we brought flowers while Steve brought his culinary wisdom to the table. His contribution to our first meal was offered during the salad course.

“Have you ever tasted a black radish?” he asked us. Neither of us had.

[An aside: my husband is a talented cook and was a budding “foodie” even then, before cable television built an industry around the interests of men like him and Steve.]

“They are hotter than red radishes.  Here, try one!”

Thus Steve inducted me into the gastronomic rites of his rabbinic curriculum.

Each month we became better acquainted with Steve’s family and with their tradition of eating symbolic foods at holidays.  Sampling Yankee Pot Roast and Pharaoh’s Chariot Wheel, I learned to enjoy risk-taking and variety at Anne and Steve’s table. These proved to be the most memorable and valuable lessons of my internship.

I decided to write an Appendix to the evaluation, to share my reflections on the extra-curricular course in which I had unwittingly enrolled.  This was my favorite writing assignment of my senior year.  Unfortunately, I cannot locate a hard copy of the “Foodie’s Log” that I submitted to the Dean; the original data is stored on a 3 ½” floppy disk that can only be read by a long-ago retired computer.

While my memory of every delicacy that I encountered with Steve may be blurry, the life-lessons of his mentorship are as sharp as that first bite of black radish.  I am grateful to my colleague for bequeathing his knowledge to me in delectable single-servings; it has been my sustenance in the rabbinate for nearly twenty years.


Comments (4)

though I don’t recall much of Rabbi Lerner’s cooking ( though he always seemed to have an interest and knowledge of many things) , I do know that he was instrumental in shaping the type of adult Jew I became. As our family rabbi during my critical adolescent years, he offered so much guidance and knowledge and an ear for all sorts of issues. Would love to be in touch with him.

Laurie, I had forgotten (or never knew) about your connection with Rabbi Lerner and that we share him as an influential rabbi in our lives. You can contact him through the Center’s website– I am sure that he would be delighted to hear from you– and I will email you his contact information directly. Thanks for sharing your words about him here!

Now the black radish makes sense. Well written article. I enjoyed reading it.

I guess somehow the black radish became a symbol for something else. I am always interested in how our 5 senses–especially smell and taste– trigger our memories. I guess the black radish was a kind of “hot button” (it was really hot, too!) for my brain.

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