Rabbi Moshe Carmilly of the Upper West Side is celebrating his birthday early and often, and internationally, this year.
The first birthday party was thrown last month in Romania by a Jewish studies institute at the University of Babes-Bolyai in Cluj that bears his name.
A second event, a festive Kiddush, will be hosted on Saturday at Congregation Shearith Israel, Rabbi Carmilly’s synagogue.
Imagine the celebration on his actual birthday, next April 7, when he turns 100.
An active scholar since retiring as a Yeshiva University history professor in 1975, he continues, at 99½, his lifelong schedule of research and writing. In recent weeks he traveled, accompanied by two younger friends, to Cluj, the Transylvania city where he once served as chief rabbi, to take part in the institute’s annual academic conference. During a week there of meetings and media interviews, he delivered three academic papers. The conference also marked the publishing of his autobiography, “On Three Continents” (Editura EFES, Cluj), which he wrote over the last six years, part by longhand, part on computer.
Age, he says, “doesn’t make any difference” in the level of his activities. “I have my health.” And his memory — he quotes, verbatim, passages from the Talmud he learned eight decades ago.
“Every morning I thank God that I remember my name,” in other words, that his intellectual faculties remain intact, he says in the diploma-lined study of his apartment. “That is my greatest blessing.”
Now a widower for the second time, since his second wife, Rhoda, of more than three decades, died this summer, Rabbi Carmilly lives alone, heating the meals prepared by an aide, reading the books a friend brings from the New York Public Library and going for daily strolls, leaning on a walker, across the street in Central Park.
Retirement? He scoffs at the idea. “That is not my way of life.”
The rabbi’s autobiography, his 16th book, tells in 246 pages his life’s story: Born in Budapest, he grew up in a Romanian village, studied at a series of yeshivot and seminaries, became chief rabbi of Cluj at 26, helped organize a rescue network that saved some 4,000 Romanian Jews during the Holocaust, settled in Palestine, became a teacher then joined the foreign service.
In Israel, he changed his name from his original Mozes Weinberger.
“No more Weinberger,” he was told by his boss, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett, who later became prime minister. Israel in its early years strongly encouraged its citizens — and especially its representatives — to adopt Hebrew-sounding names.
“I changed my name,” said Sharrett nee Shertok. “You change your name.”
Carmilly was the rabbi’s choice. It and his original German name are both rooted in the word “vineyard.”
In 1957 Yeshiva University invited Rabbi Carmilly to come to New York. He brought an Old World aura to Washington Heights.
“He had a presence of scholarship and dignity. He addressed every student as ‘mister,’” says Jonathan Halpert, a consultant for special education and veteran YU basketball coach who was a Hebrew literature student of Rabbi Carmilly’s in the mid-1960s. “He was the most dignified and distinguished person I have ever met. That was immediately apparent, even to a 19-year-old freshman.”
“He was very dedicated to his students,” says Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel, who was in Rabbi Carmilly’s classes 40 years ago.
Rabbi Carmilly has been a member of Shearith Israel since moving to the Upper West Side from Riverdale in the early 1970s.
“We talk often,” Rabbi Angel says. “He’s very lucid, very clear, full of ideas. He’s a phenomenon.”
To what does Rabbi Carmilly attribute his long and productive years?
“I was blessed by rabbis,” pious men in the Old Country, he says. “Everything is from Hashem.”
“Moderation,” he adds. “I stopped smoking in 1950. I looked at my cigarette and asked, ‘Are you stronger than I am?’ It didn’t answer. I threw it away.”
How will he mark his 100th birthday in April? “I don’t have any plans,” he says. He has more important concerns. Like getting his recent speeches in publishable form. And helping the Cluj institute choose a theme for its 2008 conference.
The heads of the 16-year-old institute want Rabbi Carmilly, who attended the annual conferences for its first decade, to make an appearance next year.
“They said I should come,” he says. “I told them I cannot promise anything."