A Fine celebration for an 80-year-old Emanu-El rabbi

During the moments it took a choir to sing a musical version of his poem "Birth is a Beginning," Rabbi Alvin I. Fine faced his former congregants wearing what looked like a halo.

Around 4:30 p.m. last Sunday, Old Sol was shining through Congregation Emanu-El's stained-glass windows and displaying a kaleidoscope pattern in rose and green onto the synagogue's bare wall.

As if it knew, the sun shunned everyone else, and beamed only at the former spiritual leader, who was being honored on his 80th birthday.

It shone a yellow spotlight at Fine's head as he sat on the bimah next to Paul J. Matzger, immediate past president.

As soon as Miriam Perkoff's cello faded out on the final notes of Ami Aloni's score, the ray of sunshine moved on to a menorah, etching its silhouette against the wall.

Glowing reports of another kind lingered as Fine's colleagues reviewed his service record.

He earned a bronze star for his work as a chaplain in China during World War II.

"At the close of the war, the army assigned him to give aid and comfort to refugees in Shanghai," said former synagogue president Louis H. Heilbron.

In 1948, Fine came to Emanu-El.

Heilbron praised the new rabbi for bringing "harmony to a congregation [whose] members were divided in their attitude regarding the state of Israel.

"He supported Israel and attacked the notion that American Jews who did would be charged with divided loyalty," Heilbron said.

In addition, Fine "opposed McCarthyism…He helped found the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. He blasted segregated housing," said Heilbron. "He engaged in a good deal of interfaith activities," including the popular television program "Problems Please," which aired on KRON-TV from 1962 to 1967.

One of the show's hosts, Mark Hurley, bishop emeritus of Santa Rosa, ribbed his associate for attaining the "fourscore years — my arithmetic says that's 80 — given to those who are strong," as quoted in Psalm 90.

"I subscribe to that," said Hurley. "I'd say that as he passes his 80th birthday, he is the despair of the insurance companies, and he is now charged with some possibility at least to shoot his age on the golf course."

Referring to the guest of honor's gift for oratory, Cantor Joseph Portnoy said to the audience of more than 600 well-wishers, "It was told to me that Alvin Fine could read from the telephone book and maintain the interest of an audience for over a half hour.

"And that didn't include the Yellow Pages."

A former confirmation student who couldn't be present for the tribute mailed a letter which Matzger read:

"How I wish I could be with you on this happy day," the letter said. "You left upon my life an indelible mark."

It was typed on Washington, D.C., letterhead and signed by Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another of Fine's confirmation students, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sent an official U.S. Senate certificate of commendation — "in celebration of your 80th birthday and for countless years of leadership, service and commitment to the Jewish community," it said.

Occupying more than five rows of pews were Fine's family members, who stood to salute the milestone that Fine himself was reluctant to acknowledge.

The rabbi related how once his wife, the late Elizabeth L. Fine, pressed him to answer why he enjoyed celebrating her birthdays but didn't like observing his own.

"I had to say something smart," he quipped, "so I told her, `Because immortals don't have birthdays.'

"`Oh,' she said. `So now we should call you God?'

"I said, `Oh, no, that would be a desecration of God's name.'

"She said, `Don't worry, we'll say it with a small `g.'"