November 16, 2018

Chaim being Chaim

My friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is a nutty-professor type who is impossible to describe. One reason is that he has a mix of traits that don’t usually go together.

For instance, he’s a book junkie as well as a people junkie. He has so many books in his UCLA Hillel office that you can’t see the pattern of the carpet. And he knows them all. I don’t think I’ve ever brought up a book he hasn’t heard of. If I do bring up something he hasn’t read— say, an article in Atlantic magazine on Abraham Lincoln — he needs to see it right away. Put him on a desert island for a month with a hundred great books and he’ll be in heaven.

And yet he’s also an incredible people person. He knows everyone in the Jewish world, or at least it seems like it. He’s always on the phone. I’ve talked to him an average of once or twice a week for the past 15 years, and, invariably, he’ll say, “I’m on the other line.” The man is a schmoozer as much as he’s a scholar.

Another incongruity is that he can conceptualize big, abstract ideas while also embracing the mundane. He’ll be discussing the philosophy of Heschel, Soloveitchik or Maimonides with some Judaic professor, and then, without missing a beat, jump into a meeting on building maintenance.

I meet a lot of Jewish teachers who specialize—but not Chaim. His curiosity knows no bounds. His face doesn’t know how to show boredom. He has as much interest in an obscure Talmudic text on money lending as he has in a protest song by Theodore Bikel. He can quote as much from the fringe Karaite tradition as he can from the Jewish Moroccan tradition.

I have plenty of Ashkenazy friends, but Chaim is the one most interested in my Sephardic background. He wants to hear every song and every story. I still owe him a recording of a Sephardic melody for the blessing of children on Friday night, and I bet you he hasn’t forgotten.

Maybe because of his diverse knowledge and interests, he’s a delightfully undisciplined teacher. His classes are like jazz sessions where he keeps interrupting himself with insightful anecdotes or alternative viewpoints. He can’t help himself—his ideas are always in tension and in movement. If you like your Jewish teachings straight-up and linear, he’s an acquired taste. But if you don’t mind the pleasure of complication, and the absence of closure, he’s your guy.

As much as he’s a deep thinker who can meditate on profound mystical ideas, he can also yell back at anti-Israel agitators on campus who he thinks have gone too far. His books and scholarship have not stopped him from rolling up his sleeves and engaging in Israel activism and social justice causes throughout his 40 years as executive director of Hillel at UCLA.

If you like your Jewish teachings straight up and linear, he’s an acquired taste. But if you don’t mind the pleasure of complication, and the absence of closure, he’s your guy.

All the many sides of Chaim were on display last Sunday night at a glittering “Night for Chaim” dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center, where he was honored for his official retirement. Through videos and live tributes, numerous people – including his children, community leaders and former UCLA students – described how Chaim has influenced their lives as a teacher, mentor, leader, father or friend.

Of course, people like Chaim never really retire. They don’t know how to. So, the evening also raised money to launch a new Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller Institute of Jewish Learning, which he will lead from an office in his beloved Hillel building.

When it came time for Chaim to speak, he got up at the podium and said… nothing. There were no clichés about being “tremendously honored and humbled to be here tonight.” Instead, without offering an explanation, he started humming a chassidic nigun, or melody. For several long minutes, 400 people sat and listened to a Jewish scholar singing “ba bidibum.”

After he finished singing, he gave a teaching on the soulfulness of nigunim. He brought up a Chassidic idea that every Jew was given a special nigun at Sinai, and part of our mission is to find it. He then recognized all the important people of his life, ending with his wife and lifelong partner, Doreen.

To express his love for his wife, he sang for her the Echet Chayil (Woman of Valor) blessing with another Chassidic melody, mixing Hebrew with English.

It didn’t matter if it felt awkward or unusual. What mattered was that Chaim was being Chaim—a man who has found his nigun. This has been Chaim’s gift to our community for the past 40 years.

He gave us who he is, he sang us his nigun.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at