Rabbi Byron Sherwin — Jewish theologian, teacher — dead at 69

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Rabbi Byron Sherwin, a renowned Jewish theologian and professor, worked for 45 years at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. | Spertus Institute photo

Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin joked about going into mourning from April to October because of the Cubs. He enjoyed the TV shows “Downton Abbey” and “Blue Bloods.” He could discuss politics, or the Blackhawks’ quest for the Stanley Cup.

The internationally renowned Jewish theologian and professor also wrote an estimated 32 books and 150 articles and studies translated into Chinese, Czech, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish. He taught long-distance students via computer as far away as Central and South America. He has been quoted by Nobel prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. He visited another Nobel recipient, writer Elie Wiesel, in a New York apartment. Mr. Sherwin’s friend Jerzy Kosinski, the author of “Being There” and other books, was godfather to his son, Jason.

Rabbi Sherwin, who spent 45 years with the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, died of kidney cancer Friday at his home in Rogers Park. He was 69.

In 1995, he won a presidential medal from the Polish government for his work improving Jewish-Polish and Jewish-Catholic relations, said Dean Bell, provost and vice president of the Spertus Institute. Rabbi Sherwin traveled to Europe to lecture at universities about Poland’s once-thriving Jewish community and its religious and intellectual legacy. One of his books, “Sparks Amidst the Ashes,” examined the post-war view of Poland as a Jewish cemetery, and suffering under the Nazis among both Jews and Poles.

He forged strong friendships with Cardinal Francis George and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. When Bernardin died, he said, “Had there been more people like him during the Holocaust, there would be more people like us, Jews, alive today.”

He was skeptical of trendiness, particularly when it related to kabbalah — Jewish mysticism that has become a hot Hollywood topic. “To boil it down to a red [wrist] string or a small sound bite, he found difficult and trite,” his son said.

His works examined the fascinating legend of the “golem,” a creature fashioned from clay by a 16th century Prague rabbi to protect the Jews. Rabbi Sherwin applied the story of the golem — considered a forefather to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — to issues of modern bio-ethics and artificial intelligence and computers.

Ironically, he was a digital latecomer once reluctant to use email, said his wife, Judith.

Spertus President Hal M. Lewis is a former Sherwin student. “His academic approach was uncompromising,” Lewis said. “We studied arcane and recondite texts. . . . to apply the great insights of Jewish wisdom to the world in which we live.”

Born in the Bronx, Byron Sherwin studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where one of his teachers was famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a philosopher who marched in Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He also earned degrees at Columbia University, New York University and the University of Chicago.

Invited to lecture at Anshe Emet synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway, the young, sideburned Byron Sherwin strode past secretary Judith Schwartz on his way to see Rabbi Seymour Cohen, his coat thrown over his shoulders like a cape.

“Who is that?” she asked Cohen.

“The man you’re going to marry,” he replied.

Cohen used to ask Byron Sherwin to telephone his office — and then disappear so his secretary would chat with him when he called.

His wife’s devotion to the Chicago Cubs inspired his 2006 novel, “The Cubs and the Kabbalist,” about a rabbi who uses Jewish mysticism to break the team’s so-called Billy Goat curse.

His sense of humor once left his son, then about 12, crestfallen. “My dad told me I was going to meet a cardinal at the airport,” Jason Sherwin said. “I’m expecting [St. Louis Cardinals] shortstop Ozzie Smith, and we get this old guy in a red cape and the red kippah [beanie] that the cardinals wear.” It was Joseph Bernardin.

Rabbi Sherwin enjoyed his two foundling cats, Gracie and Fellow. After getting Gracie, his wife told him another cat had followed a neighbor home. He said he didn’t want another, but, she recalled, “I brought him upstairs, and Byron fell in love with him, and Fellow fell in love with Byron. During his illness, Fellow was always sleeping under the bed and sleeping on the bed, keeping him company.”

Rabbi Sherwin also is survived by his mother, Jean Sherwin, and a brother, Elliott. Services are planned for Wednesday, May 27, at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. Shiva will continue until June 2 at his mother’s home in North Hills, New York. The head rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue, Elliot Cosgrove, used to be an assistant rabbi at Anshe Emet in Chicago, where Rabbi Sherwin attended high holidays, his wife said. Chicago services are planned later.

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