Circumcision, Berzerkeley, and the Power of Five Minutes –

Posted By on December 19, 2020

Rabbi Chanan Feldwas a towering fixture of my childhoodmy friends father, and my fathersfriend. He had the cuddly torso of a teddy bear, the magical beard of a wizard,and the twinkling eyes of a rebbe. This is how I remember him.

Chanan was a mohel, trained in brit milah - Jewish ritual circumcision. He was the best mohel Ive ever known. Ill never forgetwhen he performed the procedure on my younger brother. I wanted to punch him inthe throat. And when he opened his mouth and spoke to us afterwards, I wantedto hug him with every fiber of my being. Thats how easy it was to see that hecared.

I remember thetime he was driving our carpool home from school. Quick, dont look to theleft. Of course, what do all the children in the 15-seater van do? We all lookto the left. After some silent moments of puzzled scrutiny, we looked away fromthe windows and said, But Rabbi Feld, theres nothing there! With histrademark wry smile, he replied, Oh, thats OK. There was something you shouldnot have seen on the right.

He dressed in thegarb of a Chabad chassid and lived in Berzerkeley,California, a city garbed with iconic radical political tradition. But thatwasnt all that was surprising about him. From the way he spoke, carriedhimself, led the Hallel prayers on Jewish festivals and taught Torah daily, youwould have thought he was some scion of a multi-generational Chassidic dynasty.But he had been raised humbly as Cary Feld on the north side of Chicago.

Beforehe began working for tips (how he scorned that brit joke), Rabbi Feld hadplayed soccer semi-professionally in the NCAA Soccer league. Under hisgoaliship, the Indiana Hoosiers had made it to the 1976 NCAA finals. His coachTom Yeagley called him the man with the golden hands. His skills were lauded inthe New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and he was even offered a spot in aprofessional league.

Photo courtesy of IU Athletics

Then one day -through Divine serendipity - he walked through the doors of the Berkeley ChabadHouse and asked Rabbi Ferris, Is anybody here studying Torah? It was 1981. Rabbi Ferris recalls thinking,We got a live one! though the rabbi didnt realize at the time how aliveChanan would become. Years later, when asked by hisson Daniel if he ever had regrets about not pursuing the professional soccerpath, Rabbi Feld replied that once he found the world of Torah, he never lookedback, not even once.

Soon after hebegan studying Torah with Rabbi Ferris, Chanan met his bride-to-be at a Chabadevent, moved to Kfar Chabad, Israel, to study Torah, and eventually returned tosettle in Berkeley, where, many years later, his own firstborn son ended upmarrying Rabbi Ferriss daughter. Asmy mother taught me, They say its a small world. But its really a bigGd.

But let me cutthis saga short. (Another brit joke. I hear Chanan groaning). I said beforethat he was the best mohel I haveever known. I wasnt the only one to give him that title. The 8,000circumcisions he conducted over his 20-year career speak for themselves. In fact, as word spread of the kind and talented (andquick! don't blink or you might miss it) mohel,calls came from Hawaii, Alaska, the cannabis-growing forests of NorthernCalifornia, and other far-flung corners of the country. And Rabbi Feld would bethere, ready to do a bris for any Jewish baby.

Rabbi Feld wassteady with the hand and soft with the voice. He was a storyteller par excellence; I was enthralled by thestories of the many unconventional circumcisions he had done. But Chanan wasmore than just a mohel. His agendawas to bring spiritual warmth to those in need, whoever they may be.

Once, after doinga brit milah at the home of a singlemom, he noticed that there was no food in her refrigerator. He had broughtalong a friend to be the sandek and asked him tostay with the mother while he left for a short while. Leaving his black,leather medical bag in the womans apartment, Chanan left and returned half anhour later, his arms laden with food and groceries.

A young Chanan Feld. Daniel Feld

Ahomeless man came to our house asking for money, his daughter Rachelremembers. Abba [Daddy] had no money on him, so he took the man in his car toa nearby ATM machine to give him money."

He was a Torah scholar and spiritual mentor to hundreds. He always had a sefer (Torah book) in his hand or, as he crisscrossed NorthernCalifornia doing brit milahs, a cassette player blaring some Torah-tape or complexanalysis of Scripture. He was a road sage and his holy of holies was abeat-up old blue Honda civic. He saw himself nodifferent to anyone else, and once signed a letter, "from the Jew wholoves you, Chanan."

Feld did not golooking to become a mohel, it came tohim. He was often the first Torah-observant Jewish man many of the families hevisited, and their guests, had ever met. His trick for putting people quicklyat ease was to exude love. He often traveled with mezuzot in his trusty black bag, to put on doors of homes thatdidn't have any. Many of the families called upon him later in life during theirtimes of crisis and joy.

He was just puregoodness, Rabbi Ferris told Jweekly magazine in 2009. He touched more peoplein the community than anyone else. The Feld Shabbat table was a mosaic ofJewish life, with guests from all over the world and from all differentbackgrounds.

He co-founded the(now-defunct) popular East Bay center for Torah study, Beit Midrash OhrHaChaim. And he taught me my favorite Torah teaching about Purim, the one Ivesince repeated to everyone else.

Ill never forget how it happened.

It was the night of Shavuot, when we stay up all night and study Torah. So the JewishCommunity Center in North Berkeley hosted an all-night Torah-learning programwith guest speakers, workshops and classes. One of them was being offered byChanan. My father brought me along as he made the three-mile trek, across townto attend.

I was young at the time, maybe 11 or 12 years old. I dont rememberthe topic or even the title of his class. All I remember is one snippet towardsthe end (once again, I hear Chanan groan). Rabbi Feld started talking about thestory of Purim. After reviewingthe basics of thestory behind the holiday, he concluded, So Gd saved us from the plotof the evil Haman and everyone lived happily ever after. Correct? Everyone inthe audience responded in the affirmative.

Wrong, he said softly. There was one person who never got to livehappily ever after, who never got to celebrate as joyously as the rest of ourpeople, and who never got to taste sweet liberation?

I racked my mind. Who is hetalking about?

Chanan leaned forward in his chair. He stroked his magical beard. Hepaused the perfect beat before giving us the answer. It was Esther, he said.She never got to return home to her family. She remained imprisoned, as Ravateaches in the Talmud, Megillah 14a, as a servant of Achashverosh, all the restof her days. And she did it all for five minutes.

I straightened up in my chair. So did everyone else. Chanan continued,Sometimes, redemption can happen in five minutes. Redemption for you.Redemption for the other. Redemption for the entire world. Chanan closed the sefer (holy book) he was teaching from,and kissed it, as he concluded his lecture. Esther willingly gave away the joyof the rest of her life for those five minutes when she entreated the king andbrought redemption to her entire people. Dont give up your life in death. Giveaway your life in service. Thats a Queen. Thats a heroine. Thats why theentire Megillahis attributed to her name. She teaches us that we too can change theentire worldeven the lot of our destinywith just five minutes. Although heused no microphone, Chanans full-throated voice could be heard throughout thelecture hall.

He tragicallypassed away less than a decade later after a terrible battle with throat cancer. He was 53 years old. Ashis body was lowered into the ground on Mt. Olives in Jerusalem, the heavensopened and cried. There are moments in life when words are of no use. At thatmoment, the rain poured down upon us and I stood silently next to my father,who had never been to the Holy Land, as we escorted his beloved friend to theend.

Chanan was morethen a friend, he was a luminary.

His prematuredeath shook my faith to the core. But his life of service was a mature tapestryof time well used. Five minutes to bring a child into the covenant of Abraham.Five minutes to stick a Torah tape into his cassette player. Five minutes tochange the world.

He definitelychanged mine.

The rest is here:

Circumcision, Berzerkeley, and the Power of Five Minutes -

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