Legacies of Light: Frank Lloyd Wright, Josh Shapiro & Etty.

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Governor-Elect.

The first time I met Josh Shapiro, he didn’t strike me as Ted Lasso, the way the brilliant writer David Sirota described him earlier this month, in his piece “The Democrat Who Picks Fights with Bad Guys,”  (https://www.levernews.com/the-democrat-standing-between-america-and-fascism/).

After all, Shapiro, the Governor-elect of Pennsylvania, and I met four years ago in April, 2018, two years before the upbeat Ted Lasso entered America’s consciousness on television, and six months before hate and anti-Semitism murdered 11 Jews quietly worshipping at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg on an ordinary Saturday morning.

Serendipity brought our families together at Beth Sholom Synagogue, in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, on a similar Saturday morning across the State. Carol Villano and I were there to celebrate the 90th birthday of the matriarch of Carol’s family, Ethel “Etty” Jacobson Hamburger.

Shapiro’s family, like our beloved Etty’s, also belonged to the only synagogue in the United States designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and declared a National Historic Landmark.   Josh Shapiro was there to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of his son, Jonah, who, two years later would achieve instant internet fame by casually walking in on his father’s November 2020, MSNBC post-election interview, as then Pennsylvania AG Shapiro explained his legal challenges to Trump’s Presidential election deniers.

Twenty years earlier, with Josh Shapiro fresh out of Georgetown Law and living in DC, we first visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural “tribute to Mount Sinai,” when Etty, then 70, and her granddaughter Stephanie, both made their Bat Mitzvahs.     The synagogue’s soaring design—with its’ translucent glass roof reaching skyward, and the graceful melding of geometric shapes in every detail– mesmerized and inspired me.

 During long Hebrew riffs in services that I didn’t always fully understand, my eyes would wander up and down the fiberglass walls of the Temple, and up 110 feet to the crest of the ceiling, marveling at every meticulous detail in metal, wood, stone or glass.  Being at Beth Sholom, was a feast for every sense, and left me feeling uplifted.

So it was in that context, bathed in the soft, filtered light passing through the luminescent roof of this Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, that we were introduced to Josh Shapiro and his family by our Etty, and her oldest daughter, Pam.  Most of her fellow synagogue members knew Etty, since, a decade earlier, she was honored as “Congregant of the Year” at Beth Sholom.  That’s just who she was.

At the Oneg celebration following that morning’s services to literally “break (challah) bread” with the other families sharing joys of life that day (like the Shapiros), Etty waved us over to where they were sitting. 

“Carol, Steve,” Etty called to us, reaching out her arm.  “Come, come–you’ve got to meet our State’s Attorney, Josh Shapiro. I was just telling him of your work with Mario Cuomo, and of the book you wrote all about it.”

This was Ethel Jacobson Hamburger at her cheerleading, family-advocacy best.

Ever since I entered the family 46 years earlier (and later converted to Judaism), I fell head over heels in love with the woman.  She embraced us wandering Jews, for Shabbat dinners and Jewish Holidays, and was there to help us out when our son, Matt, was born in Washington, DC, in 1975, (two years after Josh Shapiro was born), and was present in New York to celebrate Matt’s Bar Mitzvah, 13 years later.    It was as natural as sunshine for Etty to become a booster for my memoir, “Tightrope:  Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother,” when it was published in 2017.  It’s just who she was.

She arranged a “book talk” for me at Martin’s Run, the senior care facility where she was living outside of Philadelphia in the Fall of 2017, and filled the room with dozens of her fellow residents—aged 80 to 100—who were interested in learning how to write their own memoirs.

A former teacher, founder of libraries, and a literacy maven, Etty had some practical, and loving, advice for me on how she, at age 89, would help sell my book.

“Steve,” she said.  “I’ve put together a list of many Jewish publications in and around Philadelphia, and I think it would be advantageous for you to contact them before you come down here.”

“ I love this idea, Etty,” I responded.  “Plus, I may be the only new author with an 89-year old Jewish grandmother for my press agent.”

Etty kvelled and smiled her sweet smile:  “Great grandmother,” she added, to be more precise.

So, Josh Shapiro— the up and coming Pennsylvania politician and national political figure, and as Dave Sirota wrote, “cheery mensch your Jewish grandmother really wanted you to be,” had met his match.  Etty entertained him with her generous review of my book, and felt that because of our similar commitments to make our faith come alive through compassionate, inclusive, and progressive public service, it was fate that we meet.  She was merely fate’s facilitator, a Yentl, of sorts.

Not even the brilliant, natural light that poured in through the panels of Frank Lloyd Wrights’ “luminous Mount Sinai,” could match the warmth and brightness of Ethel Jacobson Hamburger’s sparkling smile that day, her 90th birthday.  I cannot think of Josh Shapiro and his battles against injustice and hate, without thinking of Etty’s love and gratitude.

I think of her, and Josh Shapiro, and the moment we met inside the heart of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete & glass ode to exultation, and I permit myself to, once again, have hope for humanity.

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