Atlanta, Atlanta, your future we foretell.
We were raised on Coca-Cola, so no wonder we raise hell.
Those words rang in my ears as I joined the Atlanta mission to Israel for Shabbat dinner Friday night, Feb. 2.
The mission members had davened at the Kotel, which was so packed you could not even move. I davened in the Aish HaTorah yeshiva because it was just a little too hard for me to walk from the Kotel to the yeshiva. When everyone was ready, we shared the Kiddush together, and after the Motzi, the meal began.
I was sitting between Rabbi Binyomin Friedman and Rabbi Yossi New, so you could imagine that they filled my ears with Atlanta Torah. Both have been in Atlanta for over 30 years and have made quite an impact on the Jewish community.
They have seen Atlanta Jewry grow from 30,000 to over 130,000. In that time, new synagogue after new synagogue has been founded, and many have constructed their own buildings. Spiritually, these two rabbis have added much to the atmosphere HaYehudi in the Gate City of the South.
My enjoyable experience, and I mean that truly, is that no one, other than Rabbi Ilan Feldman, had ever met me.
They had met my parents, Anna and Louis Geffen of blessed memory. As little children they had wished Rabbi Tobias (Tuvia) Geffen a good Shabbos and a good yom tov. They had seen him carefully place his tallit over his head for Shemona Esreah, the silent devotion. I think it was wonderful that, except for the rabbi mentioned, I was just a name.
Let me explain.
All of you who were on the mission and all of your friends who are active in the Jewish community have become the leaders taking over from your parents, grandparents and in some cases great-grandparents.
That is why I felt so good that none of you had ever met me. I knew your parents and grandparents, certainly not all, but I learned from them the lessons of life. I had my own Hebraic-Jewish “professor,” my grandfather Rabbi Geffen, but I can recall what people said to me, how they treated me, and they were not my family.
My father’s seven siblings had moved out of Atlanta, so I was drawn to your parents and grandparents. I learned and enjoyed.
A few things that happened to me in Atlanta when I was young will explain what I was fortunate to experience.
I was at Shearith Israel on Shabbat when Mr. Eizenstat, patriarch of the Eizenstat-Minsk family, recited the haftorah and a few days later made aliyah.
I was a baseball fan, and the Atlanta Crackers were my favorites.
My parents let me go to baseball games at Ponce de Leon Park whenever I could on the weekends and sometimes during the week, attending over 100 games at 50 cents a ticket. As I have written before, I did see Jackie Robinson play — the Dodgers against the Crackers. I was fortunate to shake his hand.
One of the great baseball players Atlanta fostered was Eddie Mathews. On balls directly hit at him at third base, he blocked them with his chest because he was still learning to field.
Ponce de Leon Park had the deepest center field in minor-league baseball, maybe in all baseball. One Sunday afternoon I saw Mathews hit a baseball so hard on a fly to center field that, even though it could not leave the park, he had crossed home by the time the center-fielder reached the ball.
At the Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, I was talking with some Shearith Israel stalwarts about Leon Tuck. Leon and his brother Bobby, of blessed memory, were great basketball stars at Hoke Smith High. Their younger brother, Albert, was also a star, and he was my best friend.
Their father, Joe Tuck, knew sports as if he had studied all aspects of it for years. My favorite story that I heard from him as we sat on his porch on Washington Street was about the shortest baseball game ever played.
He may have been at the game. Even if he wasn’t, he knew every detail.
In 1919 a professional nine-inning game between Asheville and Winston-Salem lasted only 31 minutes. Mr. Tuck knew all the players’ names and what happened each inning.
Today, with games as slow as they are, the baseball experts should focus on that game.
Do these events tell the story of Atlanta Jewry? No. But they do help to relate my Atlanta story.
I appreciate that Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta CEO Eric Robbins invited me to attend the dinner. I was even happier to see that the mantle of leadership has been passed on.
As you know from what I write, the Geffens were fortunate that Rabbi Tobias and Sara Hene, my grandparents, came to Atlanta for 60 years. Only my parents of the eight children in the family returned to Atlanta after World War II.
Born before the war in 1938, I entered life in Piedmont Hospital on Crumley Street, where three decades later the Atlanta Braves began play at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.