Rabbi Paul Plotkin returns to Congregation Beth Israel for the Canadian launch of his new book, Wisdom Grows in My Garden. (photo from AIA Publishing)
In part to fill his need to nurture – his kids off to college and his congregation less reliant on him – Rabbi Paul Plotkin took up gardening. Not only has he produced some of the most expensive tomatoes, taking into account all the capital that goes into every one that makes it into a salad or sandwich, but he has produced a new book: Wisdom Grows in My Garden (AIA Publishing). And he will launch that book in Canada on May 10, 7:30 p.m., at Beth Israel Synagogue, where he began his rabbinical career.
“I started in the summer of 1976 as Rabbi [Wilfred] Solomon’s first assistant, and he left for Israel after breaking his Yom Kippur fast on the way to the airport, and the 26-year-old ‘kid’ took over. Rabbi [Marvin] Hier was away from the Schara Tzedeck for most of the year preparing to build what was to become the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, so I was thrust into the position of often being the Vancouver non-Reform senior rabbi. It was quite a ride. It was a good thing I didn’t know what I couldn’t do, or I would have been paralyzed with fear. Instead, I jumped in and went to work.”
While BI was his first pulpit, Plotkin said, “I had been a youth director of my home synagogue while in college and in New York while at the seminary. I learned a lot about programming and leadership from those jobs and translated it into heading a synagogue.”
He admitted that the experience “was not without mistakes but what I couldn’t entirely appreciate was the menschlichkeit of my members. They appreciated my enthusiasm, my passion and my sincerity and pardoned most of my excesses and faults. It was a truly Canadian thing. I know now how special it was because my other two congregations in Florida were a lot different. Years later, I would share privately that my ‘worst critics’ in Vancouver treated me better than my good friends in Florida. By being thrown into the fire and succeeding – succeeding was a low bar, if the shul was still standing when Rabbi Solomon returned, I would have been praised – I learned of the potential people had for change, of their desire for knowledge, and that I could actually help transform people into greater commitment to mitzvot and the Jewish people.”
Plotkin was born and raised in Toronto, but has lived in South Florida for more than four decades. He is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am and served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards for some 20 years. He is the founding chair of its kashrut subcommittee and also is in charge of kashrut for Ben’s Kosher restaurant chain. He loves food and cooking. And Canada still holds a special place for him – he and his wife own a townhouse in Whistler, “primarily as a new summer cottage for after retirement,” he said. “We will be there for four months this summer.”
An avid writer, publishing articles in various newspapers and magazines, Plotkin has a blog on medium.com. He published a book some 20 years ago – The Lord Is My Shepherd, Why Do I Still Want?: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Soul (Eakin Press) – but waited until retirement to write his second.
“First, in those days, I had to triage my time and creative mental energy. I also needed more age and seasoning for all of the pieces to melt together. Pirkei Avot teaches us to see wisdom in the elderly. Great red wine isn’t great in its first year. It takes years to develop nuance and subtlety. Creation of the book was no different.”
The idea came to him in a dream, he said.
“Unfortunately, I was still in my active work years, with an 1,100-family congregation. Finding time to breathe was hard, let alone write a book, so I made it a priority in retirement. Over the years after the dream, new ideas would come to me in the garden and I would jot them down and throw them into a file with the dream material.”
In describing the book, Plotkin said, “Technically, it is a narrative memoir, because it is my story and told entirely from my perspective, but it is not in its heart a memoir. It revolves around the garden, but you won’t improve your tomato growing by reading the book. It is, in essence, a life lesson book (indeed, there are 25 life lessons in the book) that will help guide you to a better life. It is filled with humour and stories, two tools that featured prominently in 40 years of sermons. It will offer the reader some important guides to navigating a better life. I like to tell Jewishly knowledgeable audiences that the garden was my ‘Torah,’ my book is the Midrash.”
Plotkin said “gardening is a wonderful emotional and humbling pastime” and cited a recent article that “extolled its value as an alternative choice for exercising.”
“If you haven’t got time,” he said, “try a few herbs in a pot on the windowsill. If you have a black thumb, grow zucchini. In northern climates, everyone grows so many, they start to call friends they don’t have to offer them some. If you read the book, the irony of this last statement will become clear.”
Of the feedback he has received so far – from readers in his own demographic, as well as that of his mid-40s son, from Jews and non-Jews, from observant people and atheists – Plotkin said, “much to my shock, they all liked it and, yet, like a Rorschach test, they all found messages in my lessons that reflected their needs or interests. There is something in this book for everyone.”
Chapter 1 of Wisdom Grows in My Garden takes place at Beth Israel, said Plotkin. “I hope many readers and especially those who may remember me from their bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings that I officiated at will come out to the evening and say hello,” he said.