Modern-day Sholem Aleichem emerges in S.F.

When San Francisco photographer Maury Edelstein started his Torah study class in the mid-1970s, little did he suspect that it would lead him to the writings and philosophical insights of … Joey Liebman?

That’s right, Joey Liebman — a humble and self-effacing 66-year-old librarian who has worked quietly at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco Public Library for the past 15 years.

But when Liebman started attending Edelstein’s Friday morning Torah study in 1977, it was a revelation. In short order, Liebman was leading the sessions.

“We never saw anything like him, how he could wing it,” remembers Edelstein, 78. “He’s got stories and biblical tales on any subject you can come up with. Just to hear him talk, he gets right to the point and he has a great sense of humor.”

When the class began meeting three and a half decades ago at Mama’s Café in North Beach, just a handful of people were showing up.

But after word got out about Liebman leading the classes, attendance grew to 35 and the group had to seek out larger quarters, eventually landing at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation office, then on Sutter Street.

Joey Liebman (left) and Maury Edelstein photo/joseph amster

“Because of his reputation and tremendous knowledge, the group attracted a lot of people,” says Edelstein.

Edelstein could go on and on about Liebman — and often does — boasting in an e-mail, for example, “He [Liebman] has been called a modern-day version of Sholem Aleichem,” alluding to the great Yiddish author.

Liebman, however, generally shies away from any kind of spotlight, even refusing several times to be interviewed for this article until Edelstein stepped in and did some arm-twisting.

Thirty years ago, it was a similar story. Only after some serious nudging from Edelstein did Liebman agree to do the 1979 Fritz Simon lecture series at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, where he lectured on the five books of Moses.

“By the fifth session, the place was packed,” Edelstein remembers. “He was just inspired, and became quite well-known from that.”

Liebman has a Master of Library Science from Columbia University, and he also went through a Jewish studies program at Yeshiva University in New York. He attends the Orthodox Magain David Sephardim Congregation in San Francisco, and also spends time at Chabad services.

Liebman and his wife of 18 years, Sally, live in San Francisco, a couple of blocks from the Fairmount Hotel, but he can no longer attend the Torah study sessions because of his job as a librarian. The sessions take place every Friday at 8 a.m. in a building on Market Street.

“I miss not going,” Liebman says, noting that sometimes “you find out more about the classmates than the Torah portion.”

Liebman is such a natural-born storyteller that Edelstein would often tape-record sessions that he led. Edelstein also has stacks and stacks of correspondence from Liebman that include magnificent commentaries and tales, all of which attest to his knack for storytelling.

“I guess it’s a Jewish condition,” Liebman humbly explains. Or perhaps not. Liebman has had some interesting life experiences, such as serving as a mess boy on Norwegian ship headed to the island of Samoa, where he ended up teaching English as a second language.

Still, in explaining his gift for telling stories, he launches into a long story that involves Elie Weisel and the Baal Shem Tov about how some abilities get passed down through the generations, including storytelling. “I think it’s a genetic thing,” he concludes.

Liebman credits two women as his inspiration for Torah study: his mother and 20th century Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz.

“Between those two women, I became very interested in how you can take a sentence in the Torah, and you think you know what it meant,” Liebman says. “Then, you read a commentary, and it changes the meaning.”

He pointed to one of Leibowitz’s commentaries.

“The children of Israel are leaving Egypt, they’re crossing the desert and there’s no water,” he relates. “Then Moses finds this pond, like a small lake. It says in the Bible, ‘But they could not drink the waters because they were bitter.’ The Baal Shem Tov said that you have to carefully read that sentence. The water was fine, but they couldn’t drink the waters because they were bitter.

“When someone is bitter, everything tastes bitter. He commented, saying ‘May the learning of Torah be pleasant in my mouth. How could it be other than pleasant, it’s Torah? But if you are bitter, even Torah can be bitter.’ When I decided to read things like that, it really opened up my eyes. There are so many different layers.”

Edelstein says one of his goals is to make Liebman’s work, which has never been published in any form, available to the public. But with his usual humility and humor, Liebman says he’s no scholar, relating a story — of course — to illustrate his point.

“It’s like that old joke about the guy who retires to Florida and puts on a captain’s hat, so everyone calls him captain,” Liebman says. “He explains to his wife, ‘By them, I’m a captain and maybe by you, I’m a captain. But, by a captain, I’m not a captain.’

“I don’t want to pretend I’m a scholar, because I’m not.”

For more information about the Torah study group or Joey Liebman’s writings, contact Maury Edelstein, (415) 397-4240 or [email protected].

A story from Joey

My brother came across an interesting article about a man who complained to his rabbi about Yom Kippur, because he gets severe headaches if he doesn’t drink coffee.

He asked his rabbi if it would be better — so he could concentrate on the service — if he drank coffee. The rabbi told him that nothing was to go into his mouth.

So the man did a little research and found these caffeine suppositories. He asked his rabbi if those were kosher, and the rabbi did his research and said, “Yes.”

My brother, who has this great imagination, said, “Can you imagine? Once word gets out, there will be signs all over saying, ‘Coffee served in the rear.’ ”

Rabbinicaly, it’s permissible.