"Who's Arthur Bielfeld?" people ask.
"Why, my favourite rabbi, of course." I state.
Which always gets the response, "Gee, I didn't know you're Jewish."
Fact is, I'm not. But Arthur Bielfeld has become a friend who I call "my favourite rabbi", after finding out that Bert Mann calls him that. And if it's good enough for Bert...
You see, I met Arthur through Frankie Picasso with whom I have recently completed writing the book about Bert's amazing life, "For Want Of 40 Pounds" (forwantof40pounds.com). For someone who's professed not to be overly religious, Bert Mann boasts a wonderful relationship with Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld.
Arthur was for many years the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in suburban Toronto. Bert was President of the congregation. During his long history with the congregation, Rabbi Bielfeld was an inspiration and the catalyst for innovative programming and Social Action endeavors. A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, he graduated Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts in History and went on to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1964. His social activism is well known and deep, culminating with being awarded the Order of Canada for his contributions to Toronto’s Jewish community and his social justice work. The rabbi retired in June 2001.
"Bert and I had a certain chemistry which involved mutual respect," Arthur tells me. "Neither of us was 'small-O' orthodox in our approach to Judaism which acted as a bonding agent between us. Another was our mutual zaniness when it came to cars."
Ah yes, Bert, Rabbi Bielfeld and cars. The stories pour out…
"I had come to Canada from Massachusetts and Illinois," he states. "And I got to know Bert when he was President of Temple Emanu-El. With my somewhat unorthodox way of running things, similar to Bert's style, we got along like a house on fire right from the start. His wife Bernice was active in the congregation and she, knowing I was a new arrival in town, invited me into their family, which is where I first really got to know Bert over many family dinners."
But about cars…
Seems the rabbi had been driving an old Peugeot 403. "Regardless of the uniqueness of this car," Arthur says, "it clearly offended Bert's sense of automobile aesthetics! Now, at the time, Bert was doing business with the Alfa Romeo company. So what does the president of Temple Emanu-El do? Why he offers to procure a Alfa Spider for his rabbi, of course. For free!"
"As much as I knew about cars, I thought a spider was an arachnid," laughs Arthur. "But Bert filled me in. So I said, 'Sure, I'd love one'. I then waited and waited for Bert to come up with this car, but nothing was forthcoming. Meanwhile, my Peugeot was about to give up the ghost and I told him I had to replace it. "Don't worry, it'll be here any day now,' Bert told me. That was Bert's motif: he never discouraged a customer or a friend."
But with the Peugeot near death, Arthur could wait no longer. And because he'd always been intrigued by French autos, he went out and bought a Citroen DS21.
Sure enough, the next day Bert calls and says, "Your Spider's in! You're gonna love it!"
He added that he got one too.
"In Bert's fashion, he arranged for me to come see the car," says Arthur. "Both of them were done up in red sports version, convertibles. But I have to tell you, I didn't see myself as the rabbi of a congregation driving around town in this little fancy Alfa Romeo Spider!"
To his credit, Bert understood, so Arthur went ahead and picked up his white DS21 Citroen with black leather: "A real classy car," he recalls. Not that he owned it for long.
"No sooner did I get it home but Bert calls and says, 'Arthur, I had a dream.' And I thought, Oh my God, Martin Luther King is back! And he says, 'In this dream, I was driving my Alfa on the highway and I got crushed!'”
As a result, Bert convinced himself that the car was too small. But he also convinced the rabbi to follow him – Bert in his Alfa, Arthur in his new Citroen – to a car dealer on the other side of town. "I didn't know what was going on," Arthur says, "but I went ahead anyway.
"Now, Bert is a classic negotiator. He'd somehow made up his mind he was going to trade in his Alfa for a 6 cylinder Jaguar XKE, the famous British sports car."
Arthur Bielfeld watched Bert Mann in amazement as he negotiated for a blue hardtop E-Type Jag. The salesman asked about a trade-in and Bert explained his Alfa had just 60 miles on it.
That deal done, Arthur said, "OK Bert, I'll follow you home. And he says, 'Not yet, I'm negotiating for a second one.' I said, 'What on earth are you going to do with two Jags?' And he says, 'No, no, the second one's for you!'
The rabbi explained that he was more than happy with his brand new Citroen but Bert was not to be deterred.
"I thought he was nuts!" Arthur says, "I stood there like an idiot and said, 'What's happening?' And Bert says, 'How many miles on your car?' I looked and said, '50'. I thought the salesman was going to go bonkers. But Bert negotiated for me an E-Type convertible, British Racing Green, and we both drove home in our new Jags."
Arthur stops to consider this seemingly apocryphal story. "That's how Bert and I bonded: through cars. And that story says so much about this amazing man."
He adds that he could talk non-stop for another three hours about Bert "and every story would be just as unbelievable!" Indeed, as I interviewed Arthur on two occasions for the book, the stories poured out, one after another, seemingly with no end.
Whenever I'm heading to Toronto for a meeting or to see my family members, I'll let Arthur know I'm coning and if he's available, I'll get the nod to come calling, knowing we'll sit and chat about fascinating subjects, from religion to education to politics to... cars! It's always time well spent.
And that, you see, is why Arthur Bielfeld is my favorite rabbi.