Rabbi Ady Assabi

Troubled, wandering and often lonely voice of conscience

Ady Assabi, rabbi: born Tel Aviv 29 March 1947; ordained rabbi 1971; married 1967 Yael Marcus (died 1983; two sons); died Netanya, Israel 15 June 2003.

When George Steiner accepted the Börne Prize last month in Frankfurt, he gave a vivid picture of the Jew as a guest, a wandering voice of conscience in today's world. "I am convinced that this quasi-absurd survival and the continuance of living on of the Jews has a meaning," he said:

Because the Jew was always driven away, because he was nowhere at home, because his only true home was a text, the Torah, the Jew per definitionem is a guest upon this earth, a guest among all the people. It is his task to serve humanity as an example, as a model of this situation.

As a rabbi, Ady Assabi lived in the Bible. It was his homeland and, as he was born in Israel, it was his language. Why, then, did he wander the world, driven from land to land? Perhaps it was his family heritage. He was the last of a family very much involved in the life of German Jewry. Much of his family did not survive the Holocaust. His grandmother, aunt and other relations died in the death camps. His father had moved to Israel, where Ady was born in 1947. He was shocked when his father returned to Germany after Ady's 14th birthday. Rebelling against that decision, he moved back to Israel and attended school there.

Something brought him back to Germany, to study. He wanted to be a witness, to speak to the few Jews, the many Germans. Throughout his life, he possessed an almost child-like innocence, blending a powerful charismatic personality with the awareness of being an outsider. He believed in the possibility of change within others, within a world which would not accept him on his own terms. He made too many demands upon that world and also upon himself.

When he came to London to study for the Rabbinate at the Leo Baeck College, he was its youngest student. Viewed as "a brand plucked from the fire", he was sent back to Germany after his ordination in 1971. Even as a student, his rabbinic work at the Middlesex New Synagogue in London had convinced teenagers to strive for the rabbinate (Rabbi Jonathan Romain still thinks of him as an abiding influence in his life). And he became a guest in a world that was not ready for his sometimes discordant message.

Assabi had felt a sense of obligation to return to the Jewish community in Germany. It proved too difficult for his fiery temper. Nevertheless, as the Landesrabbiner of Nordrhein-Westfalen, he served seven small congregations until he and his wife, Yael, could return to Israel. Yael, a beautiful and rare woman, had a career as an attorney in Israel; but their ways parted; she died of cancer, still young.

His wanderings continued, and he went to South Africa, to Johannesburg, where, once again, he played a charismatic, often controversial role as the rabbi of a community under siege in that troubled land. In the process, he first enlarged and then divided the Reform community. Again, torn between his various worlds, he decided to return to Berlin, where his father had been a bar mitzvah in the Rykestrasse Synagogue. It was a renewed assertion of his German roots.

His new Israeli partner was Shoshana Breiner, a gifted artist. They built a house in Israel. Ill with a brain tumour and undergoing radiation therapy, Assabi forced himself to serve as a Liberal rabbi within the Berlin Oranienburger Synagogue. But he died in Israel (where he had returned in search of a nursing home for his aged father), still a guest in the eyes of the establishment, but a legend to those who had come to see the hidden aspects of greatness.

Rabbi Assabi participated in the writings of liturgies within the various communities in which he served (the Shalom Independent Synagogue in Johannesburg still uses the prayer book, Chadesh Yamenu, which he wrote in 1995), and had almost completed a PhD dissertation on the topic of Judaism and thanatology. However, it is likely that his true impact will be as a troubled, wandering and often lonely voice in the world. He made those he encountered uncomfortable and could turn a community from friends into enemies - in part because they could not follow his visions. He never changed.

During that same address in Frankfurt, George Steiner reminded his German audience:

The Baal Shem, the founder and master of Hassidism, was right when he taught that "truth is always in exile", that "the truth must continually wander on". It is the duty of the Jew to fight against the barbarism of nationalism, against chauvinism, against racial persecution. It is the duty of the Jew to prove that it is interesting to live anywhere in this world, to work and, above all, to learn.

Albert H. Friedlander

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