Humor, innovation drive 25-year career of Ari Cartun

In his quarter-century as a rabbi, Ari Cartun has built a gargantuan sukkah out of a parachute lashed to the office of Stanford University's dean of students.

He has run seven simultaneous seders.

And he has even paraded a camel laden with an Israeli flag and the school's Israel Action Committee chairman across campus on Israel Independence Day.

So Cartun, rabbi for 21 years at the Stanford Hillel and the past four at Palo Alto's Congregation Etz Chayim, approaches his upcoming silver anniversary in the rabbinate with characteristic good humor.

"I think that surviving for 25 years as a rabbi beats the alternative," said the 51-year-old Cartun with a chuckle. "There are highlights and lower-lights. It doesn't feel like it's been a long time, but then again, it doesn't feel short."

Humor, drive and innovation have marked Cartun's rabbinical career. And while he hasn't yet incorporated a zoo animal into his work at the liberal, independent Etz Chayim, that's far from the only shtick in his rabbinical repertoire.

"He's able to make Judaism come alive with a modern viewpoint yet not dumb it down or water it down. He makes Judaism fun for me," said Wendie Bernstein Lash, who has been attending Cartun's services at either the Stanford Hillel or Etz Chayim for 13 years. "He's the first rabbi I've met with a huge sense of humor. Now I know rabbis who have good senses of humor, but Ari is always having such a good time! "

Cartun's rich sense of humor frequently seeps into his sermons, as does his love of music — and, more often than not, a combination of both.

One of the rabbi's great joys is leading the congregation in a rendition of "Adon Olam," sung to a different tune each year during the High Holy Days. So far he's managed limbo rock, the "William Tell Overture," "In the House of the Rising Sun," "Old McDonald," and even a rap remix. ("It went 'Adon Olam, da da da da, Adon Olam, da da da da' and the rest was kind of posing," Cartun admitted.)

"It's extraordinary not so much because he does it, but because of the strong response it garners from people. They either love it or hate it," said Etz Chayim congregant Jeffrey Brandstetter, a friend of Cartun's for 10 years and a shofar blower for nearly that long. "But that's good because he's big on countering apathy."

Cartun says singing is his primary way to express his spirituality, and the former rock guitarist creates plenty of opportunities for his congregants to express their spirituality as well.

"The singing wasn't done for us — we sang," said Lash, recalling Cartun's jam-packed High Holy Day services during his Hillel days. "You'd go to the hall just to hear the 2,000 voices; it was really lovely. Ari's a wonderful harmonizer with a wonderful voice."

But in addition to being a merry musician, Cartun possesses a more serious side. He received both a master of arts degree in Hebrew letters and a rabbinic degree from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He is also a respected Judaic scholar whose work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Jewish Bulletin.

"Ari has a strong intellectual side," said Arnold Eisen, a professor of religious studies at Stanford since 1986. "He's a very learned biblical scholar and knows a lot of Talmud. He did a lot in his teaching role [at Hillel], and I thought that was very important. It was remarkable how many students and how many different kinds of students he got involved."

Even decades after their graduation, many of the Stanford students Cartun worked with stay in contact with the rabbi. Many have gotten to know his wife, Joy, and their four children, and some have even had Cartun officiate at their weddings.

"We flew him down [to Los Angeles] to do our wedding," said Linda Bernhard Maroko, who was a Stanford freshman on the Hillel hiring committee that gave Cartun his big break in 1975.

"He has a combination of enthusiasm, zeal, intellectual vitality, youth, ideas, all of it. Just the whole package. He's a big old teddy bear of a man, with lots of character, commitment and ideas. I just respect him so much, that's had a lot to do with us keeping up our relationship."

How does one earn such extraordinary loyalty? For Cartun it's simple. It all starts with listening to what people say.

"I've had some good teachers, and they've taught me to pay attention to what people are saying. I listen to the people who criticize me," said Cartun. "Most people in our Hillel and now the congregation know that if they think I did something bone-headed, they can come and tell me. I do bonehead things every so often, so I try to listen to the people who point that out, and make midcourse corrections."

Pondering the next 25 years, Cartun aims to finalize Etz Chayim's prayer books and revamp the congregation's religious school and adult academy — objectives that would both be made easier if Etz Chayim had a permanent home, another of his goals.

Gazing back a quarter-century, Cartun can't pinpoint a particular favorite memory. But he can pick out a few.

"All the best memories are of people having an 'aha' moment," said the rabbi. "All the sudden, something makes sense for them. Whether it's in class, a counsel session, a program or whatever, all of the sudden things make Jewish sense. That's what I'm in it for."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.