Ten books, three languages, two bar mitzvahs — Rabbi Edward Zerin has seen a lot in his 98 years. Now people are gathering to celebrate his erudite life and long career with an event at the Jewish Community Library on Oct. 25.
“It was completely unexpected,” Zerin said of the celebration in San Francisco. “I had no idea it was coming. And of course I’m excited and happy.”
Howard Freedman, library director, said the event will allow people to show their appreciation for Zerin’s scholarship and love of learning. Friends, family and community leaders — including Congregation Emanu-El’s Rabbi Beth Singer, S.F. State professor Marc Dollinger and others — will make remarks.
“I see it as an opportunity, as his adopted community, to say ‘thanks,’” Freedman said.
Zerin was born in 1920 in New York and grew up in Delaware, the son of immigrant parents. He spoke Yiddish as a first language, and he went to an Arbeiter Ring school. Ordained as a rabbi in 1946, he received a doctorate in 1952 from USC and spent his career serving as both a rabbi and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
He’s also a prolific author. His most recent book, his 10th, is a collection of 60 poems by Rabbi Simon Krinsky translated by Zerin from the Yiddish. As a native Yiddish speaker, he’s perfectly poised to translate that ancestral language to English.
“The human being loves stories, and the magic of the Yiddish is storytelling,” he said in an earlier oral history for the Yiddish Book Center. “Not the Yiddish per se. It’s the stories in Yiddish.”
Zerin moved to the Bay Area from Southern California in 2004 when he married Jill Kneeter, a widow (Zerin actually presided over Kneeter’s first marriage). After moving, he began to investigate his new home, and in 2006 published “Jewish San Francisco.”
“The first thing he set out to do was to research his new city and create this book,” Freedman said.
Zerin also had a second bar mitzvah on his 96th birthday, at Congregation Emanu-El. It was an unusual choice, but reflected his desire to reaffirm his connection to Judaism — and also to try singing, something he’s always been signally bad at, he admits.
“I also did it because I have a family, and I wanted to show them what can be done and I wanted to model for them,” he said.
That was two years ago, but Zerin has not stopped — and doesn’t plan to.
“He really doesn’t rest on his laurels,” Freedman said. “His mind is always going somewhere new.”
He’s just had an article accepted by the Reform Judaism Quarterly. He’s planning a talk for the October event on the way Judaism can inform psychology. And he’s got his mind on a new book, tentatively titled “36 Hebrew Phrases Every Jew Should Know.”
“As soon as I finish this event,” Zerin said. “That’s my next project.”