Excerpt from "The Mixers: The Role of Rabbis Deep in the Heart of Texas," by Hollace Ava Weiner;
American Jewish History, Vol. 85, 1997. Retrieved from web on September 11, 2006.
Zielonka's El Paso years parallel the Texas career of Rabbi Maurice Faber. Faber arrived in the
summer of 1900, invited by a congregation impressed with reports of a patriotic speech he had
delivered to a Midwest gathering on the US Constitution. Born in Hungary in 1854, Faber often
remarked that "he was more of an American than those who chanced to be born here because he was
`an American by choice.'"(174) Faber, the descendant of a long line of rabbis, rejected the
orthodoxy of his forebears. Although his father had no use for the movement, the younger rabbi
embraced Reform Judaism. The ideological break between father and son proved irreparable. Ordained
in 1873, Faber departed Hungary in 1879 for the United States. He found a part-time pulpit in
Titusville, Pennsylvania, at Congregation B'nai Zion, a Reform synagogue with a dozen families.
In 1898 he moved to Keokuk, Iowa, a Mississippi River congregation with a grandiose Reform
synagogue founded in 1856 and a proud history as Iowa's oldest Jewish congregation.
Unfortunately, Keokuk, which called itself Iowa's Gate City, was past its prime.
Steamboats were outmoded; the railroad had bypassed the town; the congregation, with 21 families,
including 13 students, was drying up.(175) When Tyler, Texas, advertised for a rabbi two years later,
Faber eagerly applied.
Tyler's legacy and landscape evoked not the Western cowboy but the Deep South. Seventy-five miles
from Louisiana, Tyler had served as a supply base for the Confederacy because of its bountiful
harvests and natural forests that produced mints, berries, sweetgum, sassafras and a wealth of
pharmaceutical ingredients.(176) The countryside's rolling, sandy loam hills later made it a
rose-growing capital with annual flower pageants, parades, Southern belles, and balls. By 1900
three colorful governors and one US senator had hailed from Tyler, a county seat with 30,000
inhabitants and about 100 Jews, many of them retailers in business around the town square.(177)
Faber, with his bellowing voice and strong opinions, fit into the political mix. He chaired town
hall meetings, snared land and funds for a Carnegie public library and raised money to feed
handicapped children at home and to purchase matzoh for an impoverished Talmudic academy in Prague.(178) When Faber delivered a high school commencement address for 95 graduating seniors, 1,200 people jammed the auditorium to savor his words.(179)
Faber was chaplain at Tyler's St. John's Masonic lodge, which dated to 1849. When Ku Klux Klansmen
infiltrated the 500-member lodge in 1915 they insisted that new Masonic lodge members apply
simultaneously for membership in the Klan. The rabbi led a faction of lodge members in opposition.
The dispute led to a state Masonic investigation and a 10-month suspension of the St. John's charter.
Over the next several months, a breakaway lodge of 65 men formed with Rabbi Faber installed as
chaplain and listed among the officers. With the agreement of the new lodge, the St. John's charter
was restored. A decade later, during hard economic times, a resolution to merge the two bodies failed.
A decade before the Masonic split, Faber's bearing and prestige led a local politician to recommend
that the governor appoint the rabbi to the University of Texas Board of Regents. Faber, the first
clergyman to sit on that board and its second Jew, was amused when the certificate naming him a
regent identified him as "Father Faber." The governor, James "Pa" Ferguson, was a school dropout
and a Methodist preacher's son with little inkling of Judaism. A populist elected by "the boys at
the forks of the creeks," the governor likewise had no hint of the rabbi's intellectual independence.(181)
Accustomed to selling prison pardons and dispatching state employees to buy cattle for his ranch,
the governor also maneuvered to run the university. He targeted for dismissal six faculty and one staff
member who had criticized his administration or become involved in political crusades with which he
disagreed. One of the objectionable professors, the head of the journalism department, owned a newspaper
that "skinned the governor from hell to breakfast."(182) Another, a physicist, crusaded against the
state capital's red-light district, focusing disrepute on the capital city of Austin. A third, famed
folklorist John A. Lomax, published cowboy song lyrics the governor derided as too lowbrow for an
academician. ("When I die, don't bury me at all. Just pickle my bones, in alcohol.")(183) Some of the
faculty appeared to have overcharged the university for mileage expenses. Ferguson branded the whole
lot of them "butterfly chasers."(184) He wrote the rabbi expecting his vote to oust them. The rabbi balked.
In September, 1916, Faber wrote the governor:
I never dreamed that ... the appointee is expected to be a mere marionette to move and act as and
when the Chief Executive pushes the button or pulls the string ... I cannot pledge myself to follow
the arbitrary will of any person, no matter how high and exalted, without being convinced of the
justice of his demands. In my humble opinion such course will disorganize and disrupt the
University, the just pride of the people of Texas.(185)
The governor responded, threatening to remove Faber from the board:
I do not care to bandy words with you further. ... I shall not hesitate to
repair the wrong which I have done in appointing you.... You are defying
your friends and proving yourself culpably disloyal by aligning yourself
with a political ring in the University who, if permitted to continue, will
cause the people sooner or later to rise up and disown the whole affair.(186)
The pair's peppery correspondence--printed in Texas newspapers and introduced into evidence
during the governor's impeachment trial in July 1917--turned Faber into an icon of academic freedom.
Letter writers lauded Faber as an "American citizen and patriot who understands the genius of our
government and reveres its institutions." The governor was reviled as an "ass," prone to braying in
public and private.(187) Wrote Austin's Episcopal Reverend Y. H. Kinsolving of the rabbi:
"King Agrippa said to St. Paul: Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. I say to you:
Almost thou persuadest me to be a Hebrew."(188)