He was my friend, he was a mentor, and he was a collaborator in my work with Arthur Szyk. Byron died on May 22. Words cannot express how dearly I miss him. We talked regularly. Rabbi Sherwin was a profound scholar who made the most complex Hebrew texts and Jewish ideas accessible to the layman. He was clear, precise, and insightful. He was a thinking man’s thinker. He was a theologian, he was an ethicist, and he was an educator. He was the Distinguished Service Professor and Director of Doctoral Studies at Chicago’s Spertus Institute where he was on the faculty since 1970.
Many will recognize Rabbi Sherwin as the translator and commentator of The Szyk Haggadah that I published as a luxury limited edition in 2008, and which was reissued with an additional variant commentary by Byron in the publication created for Abrams Books popular edition in 2011. I first met him in the mid-1970s when, as a young Jewish educator participating in CAJE conferences, I attended his lectures. Years later, after I left the rabbinate (Forest Hills, NY 1974-80; Burlingame, CA 1980-87) I would seek out Byron’s High Holy Day sermons for spiritual insight and take them to the synagogue to read for myself during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I would re-read many of them year after year (they always seemed so timely), and quite often passed them down the row to anyone sitting near me, anticipating the pleasure and inspiration others would receive from his words and instruction as well.
It was Byron whom I approached in 1996, almost a decade after I entered the rare book world as a dealer, and advocate for Arthur Szyk, and asked if he would host at the Spertus Museum an exhibition of Szyk’s artwork. In August 1998, “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk” opened in Chicago for which I was the guest curator. A catalogue accompanied the exhibition; it was the first illustrated book about Arthur Szyk ever published. Byron wrote the Introduction to the book that I created. None of this would have ever happened without his invitation and encouragement.
Byron first met Arthur Szyk as a young boy in 1952 (Szyk died in 1951) when as he described it “my family had migrated from The Bronx to Queens. It was Rosh Hashanah. With my parents, I entered the main sanctuary of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, and there, towering above me, was the imposing Holy Ark, two stories tall….who created such imposing magnificence? Years later, I learned his name—Arthur Szyk.”
Bryon has written more than two dozen books and more than 150 articles and monographs. He was a protégé of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In 2011, I visited the gravesite monument of the Hasidic luminary, the Seer of Lublin, in Poland—near it I put a note, calling upon this mystic of Jewish tradition to heal my friend who had been stricken with cancer a few months before. On the train ride from Warsaw to Lublin I carried with me Bryon’s book: Sparks Amidst the Ashes, The Spiritual Legacy of Polish Jewry (1997), heightening the meaning of the journey I was taking. Anyone who wishes to understand the history and richness of Jewish life in Poland over the centuries preceding the Holocaust in Eastern Europe should seek out this book.
Some titles of Byron’s other books are: How to be a Jew (1992), Why Be Good? (1998), Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century (2000), Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Biotech Century (2004), Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism (2006), The Cubs and the Kabbalist: How a Kabbalah-Master Helped the Chicago Cubs Win Their First World Series since 1908 (2006), and Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism (2009).
In 2002, The Arthur Szyk Society launched its traveling exhibition program, which has traversed the United States many times with venues at universities, museums, and community, cultural, and Holocaust centers. In 2005 it opened in Poland—in Krakow and Warsaw. Again, I called upon Byron—this time to write a Study Guide to accompany the exhibition “Justice Illuminated.” It is an indispensable educational guide to decoding and understanding Szyk’s artwork—it focuses on three themes: WWII and Holocaust, America, and Jewish Response.
In 2006 I set out to publish the new edition of The Szyk Haggadah which required a new translation and commentary, as historian and Oxford scholar Cecil Roth’s language and explanations for the 1940 edition proved to be too Victorian and antiquated, and often disconnected from Szyk’s artwork. I needed to find the one individual who was steeped in scholarship, and who could capture and interpret Szyk’s visual commentary for the modern age. There was only one such individual who was an expert in Bible, Talmud, Jewish History, Polish Jewry, Mysticism, who was a Master Educator, and who knew Arthur Szyk: Rabbi Byron Sherwin. His translation and commentary on the Passover Haggadah are unparalleled.
I am eternally grateful to Byron Sherwin for all his kindnesses, his guidance, his friendship, and for unlocking the door to let Arthur Szyk once again enter our world. It was he who provided the key that granted me the privilege and opportunity to journey with Szyk in his revival.
In my personal library are numerous copies of Byron’s books, he inscribed many of them: “To Irv, Szyk’s friend and mine.”
It is Byron who allowed me to fulfill that special relationship echoed by the Talmudic tradition: “Find yourself a teacher and you found yourself a friend.”
June 3, 2015