For 25 years, legendary baseball announcer Mel Allen was the voice of the New York Yankees. He called games with the descriptive skills of a novelist and the lyrical cadence of a storyteller.
But in the summer of 1996, when baseball was in full bloom, Allen’s iconic delivery went silent.
His funeral was held at Temple Beth El in Stamford, where Rabbi Joshua Hammerman stood in front of the congregation while the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford sat with 700 others paying their respects.
During Allen’s eulogy, Hammerman spoke of an important legacy: “Mel Allen’s life was one long, extended, exhaustive, exhilarating, triumphant prayer. It was a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind.”
The first seasonal shifts of the wind, indeed.
Life has always been about seasons, Hammerman understands, from the birth of children and the loss of loved ones, to the moments in between that make us human — and the opportunities they extend us to be a menschMensch is a Yiddish word, one that largely resists definition. But a consensus would agree that a mensch is someone who is selfless, decent and kind, a person of character, wisdom, integrity and humility.
Someone like Mel Allen. Someone like Joshua Hammerman.
This month, Hammerman’s most memorable and inspired writings have been collected in a new book, “Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi,” published by Health Communications, Inc. The 240-page book is available at local bookstores and through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.
“I always try to look for common themes when I write, keeping things real and down to earth,” Hammerman said in a recent telephone interview. “I like to go beyond the masks we wear and reveal who we really are, so we can help one another repair the world.”
At a time when differences have fractured a collective identity in America, Hammerman writes with a prescriptive catharsis. After more than 30 years as a rabbi — first in New York’s Hudson Valley and later in Stamford — Hammerman offers a theme of universality to his congregation and others who have read his work in the Stamford Advocate, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine.
Ultimately, Hammerman puts it this way, succinctly and spot on: “These are untethered times.”
The rabbi looks to shore up this sentiment with essays and sermons over six themes in his book: Work and Worship, Loving and Letting Go, The Nobility of Normalcy, Pain and Perseverance, Belonging and Becoming, and Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness.
Through his own life lessons — the victories and the failures, the celebrations and the sadness — Hammerman has written a softcover road map for today’s hard-knock world.
“I’ve tried to set an example in everything that I do,” said Hammerman, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from New York University after earning a bachelor’s degree from Brown University. “I’ve never felt like I’ve been a shepherd, but rather, a fellow traveler.
“Writing is my lifeblood. It’s always fed into my work as a rabbi. My work with people, with congregants, had fed my writing. I honestly don’t think one can exist without the other. I write constantly as a way to spread a message of love and hope.”
But this message only works if it’s shared with others in abundance. Those people who reach out to pollinate the planet with love and hope do the calling of a mensch.
“The word mensch goes so far beyond being just a good person. You know how Eskimos have 50 words for snow? It’s the same thing with mensch, but with even more words,” Hammerman said.
“Everyone talks about the lack of civility today. Given the state of our world, we need to turn the word mensch — and what it represents — into something that is not a foreign import, but rather, a word that is trending, something that is the ‘Word of the Year’ that people adopt in the English language just like bagel and chutzpah.”
Hammerman grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. His mother, Miriam, was a gifted pianist. His father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, was a renowned vocalist and the dean of New England cantors. Together, their influence shaped him profoundly in his journey to become a rabbi.
Hammerman was a first-year rabbinical student in New York when his father died of a heart attack. Today, at 62, he is slightly older than his father was on that New Year’s Day in 1979.
“There comes a point when you want to make sure your life message is heard loud and clear,” Hammerman said. “You don’t have many opportunities to get that right.”
For Hammerman, “Mensch-Marks” is one of those opportunities, the chance for one book to speak volumes — some of it even in Yiddish.
Brian Koonz is a freelance writer and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.