A lifetime's ambition is achieved as Israel gets book published... at 79

Doreen Wachmann chats to a remarkable writer with a fascination for prayer, inherited from his father

AS he approaches 80 and has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, Israel Rubin has finally fulfilled a lifetime's ambition and published his first book.

The How & Why of Jewish Prayer evolved from Israel's teaching notes during the many years he worked with baalei teshuva (returnees to Judaism) in New York and New Jersey.

He inherited his interest in prayer, the subject of his book, from his father.

Recalling his childhood days in Kiryat Chaim, near Haifa, Israel recalled: "For Papa, the concept of time always revolved around his obligations to Hashem.

"His biological clock prodded him out of bed and into shul by 5am every weekday morning - about an hour before others would start coming in for morning prayers.

"He would unlock the door, knock three times to alert the angels that were within the shul, and then enter.

"At the door he would pause, bow and recite a prayer. Papa would explain that you just don't barge into a shul and begin asking Hashem to grant your wishes.

"You first have to ask Hashem for permission to enter his holy abode. Papa held firm to the belief that a shul is truly a miniature holy temple."

Israel's religious outreach work began at university in the USA where his family had immigrated at the start of World War Two. He joined a Jewish fraternity, but found it was completely devoid of any religious content.

He said: "Friday evenings were supposedly big events at the fraternity house. It troubled me that a Jewish fraternity would schedule events on a Friday night.

"Much as I tried to bring about some Judaic element, I was voted down. Only later did I realise that this was a microcosm of what was happening to the American Jewish community."

He explained: "Many of the early Jewish immigrants who came to America shed their religiosity.

"Their children and grandchildren distanced themselves even further from any meaningful connection to religious observance.

"The more open American society meant that being Jewish was no longer an all-embracing way of life. This was especially evident at colleges and universities."

He continued: "What attracted me to the fraternity was its emphasis on helping other Jewish students cope with stresses, both personal and academic.

"While other fraternities would go to the local bar for drinks, the boys at Alpha Mu Sigma would trudge up three long flights of stairs to help others with their homework. Close friendships were made.

"Two of the boys came from religious homes, but had dropped their observance.

"We had long talks and I was persuasive in convincing them that they could balance religious observance with the strenuous academic workload."

An engineer by profession, Israel always loved writing. After editing a university student magazine, he was approached in the early 1950s by American poet and psychiatrist Dr Merrill Moore, who was dying of cancer and wanted his book of sonnets, The Dance of Death, published quickly before his imminent death.

Israel published the sonnets, together with a recording of its author reading them.

His contact with Dr Moore led him to be approached by someone from Massachussets Institute of Technology's Centre for Soviet Studies to translate and publish a secret document detailing the horrors of the Siberian gulag forced labour camps nearly 20 years before they were revealed by dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Israel had been chosen by his mysterious contacts because they know that, as the son of two Russian-born parents, he spoke Russian.

They also knew that Israel's mother, the late Rebecca (nee Zilberman) had been imprisoned by the Bolsheviks soon after the Revolution.

A gifted pianist born into a wealthy Kishinev Jewish family, Rebecca had been both the first Jew and the first woman to be admitted to the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music.

But her very promising concert career was cut short by the Russian Revolution which objected to her Zionist activities.

As one of the first madrichot of Hashomer Hatzair, Rebecca was the only political prisoner then sent to Siberia along with prostitutes and criminals.

After attempts to brainwash her against the evils of Zionism failed, Rebecca was given less than two weeks to leave the country, from where she made aliyah.

She met her more religious husband Eliyahu Rabeinu (Rubin) when, after living on a kibbutz, she wanted to return to her musical career.

The only work available was as a pianist at a Haifa silent-movie cinema. She rented a room with Eliyahu's Crimean-born family - and the rest is history.

The Rubins left Palestine in 1939 because of the Arab uprising which had disturbed the previous good relations between Arabs and Jews in the Haifa area.

En route to the USA, where Eliyahu's brothers lived, the family toured Europe and miraculously were able to leave Cherbourg for the USA on the day World War Two broke out.

After receiving the secret manuscript at MIT, Israel showed it to his mother.

He recalls: "As she read page after page, she began to tremble.

"I had never seen my mother so troubled. Suddenly, with an unsteady hand, she frantically put down the manuscript.

Obviously disturbed by what she read, she was even more alarmed about the danger of possessing such a document.

"Her composure uncharacteristically disturbed, Mama began to explain how the tentacles of the Soviet Police could reach anywhere in the world. Mama was very frightened. Her parents and brother were still living in the Soviet Union."

Later, in a voluntary capacity, Israel was president of a network of religious schools for under-privileged Israel youth and president of the Crimean Brotherhood of American Jews, as well as being active in the International League for the Repatriation of Russian Jews in the early 1960s, a co-founder of the Tel Chai chapter of Red Magen David and of the Religious Zionists of America.

On his retirement, Israel and his wife followed their two daughters and their families in making aliyah.

In Bet Shemesh, he threw himself into writing, mainly media defence of Israel. He also embarked on writing books, the first of which has now seen the light of day.

Just a few days before Yom Kippur this year, Israel was hospitalised with a blood clot in his lungs to add to his existing kidney condition. I asked him how his book on prayer had formed his response to his condition.

He said: "As I lay in Hadassah Hospital on the days before and after Yom Kippur, I had much time to reflect on my life.

"My immediate concern was for my wife of 52 years. How would she, our daughters and their families cope?"

But he continued: "I was determined not to yield to feelings of anguish and gloom. For the first time in my life I missed the haunting tunes of Kol Nidrei. My task was to cleanse my personal slate.

"It is not for us to criticise the judgements of Hashem. As Yom Kippur was coming to a close, I prayed Ne'ilah in the hospital room I shared with two Arab patients. I felt good about the outcome."

The How & Why of Jewish Prayer is published by Arba Kanfot at by Arba Kanfot at

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph