Rabbi Stanley Savage, downtown spiritual guide and wrestling savant, dead at 74
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News ObituaryRabbi Stanley Savage

Rabbi Stanley Savage, downtown spiritual guide and wrestling savant, dead at 74

Thanks to his Borscht Belt bits and visits to the sick, downtown rabbi remembered as 'The People's Champion'

Rabbi Stanley Savage. (Photo courtesy of Ira Frank)
Rabbi Stanley Savage. (Photo courtesy of Ira Frank)

Stanley Savage, an anachronistic rabbi whose personality and profession treated congregants to a tag team of ropy puns and sincerity, died on Nov. 17, two years after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

The spiritual guide, who approached his sanctuary with a wrestler’s reverence for a squared circle, was 74.

Years before Savage became known for dropping puns and malapropisms in downtown Pittsburgh to businesspeople, passersby and congregants of Beth Hamedrash HaGadol-Beth Jacob Synagogue, he was rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life Congregation in Uniontown.

The posts, said his nephew Rabbi Yossi Azose, were “off the beaten path.”

But like the pulpits, so was Savage — a Talmudist who kept kiddush cups beside life-sized stuffed giraffes, cardboard cut-outs of wrestlers and the Three Stooges adjacent to volumes of Jewish wisdom, in a home he called “The Batcave.”

Savage was the son of Holocaust survivors, Sam Savage and Jolan “Yetta” Savage, and the oldest of three children. He grew up in Pittsburgh, attended high school in Baltimore, studied at Brooklyn College, was ordained at Yeshiva Gadol (Talmudical Institute of Pittsburgh) and occupied odd jobs, such as being a shomer (guardian of dead bodies), before becoming a congregational rabbi.

Whether behind a lectern or in the passenger car of a New York-bound Amtrak train (Savage was afraid of flying), he was always the main event, his brother-in-law Leslie Unger said: “There was no one he couldn’t talk to. My family would say he could hold a conversation with a tree.”

Rabbi Stanley Savage. (Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives)

Savage could (and did) spend hours talking baseball, hockey, football and wrestling.

Any and every topic was “worthy of a good sermon,” said Eugene Savage, the rabbi’s brother.

Whatever his interest, he had a knack for connecting it to “that week’s Torah reading,” according to Unger.

Sprinkled within the rabbi’s speeches and conversation were one-liners and other Borscht Belt bits.

There was the one about the receding hairline, which began with Savage asking, “What do you call a thousand rabbits moving backwards?”

Then there was the joke about Gladys Done, a woman who walked into shul, sat next to a sleepy congregant and introduced herself at the end of the rabbi’s sermon. When the rabbi finished speaking, the woman said, “I’m Gladys Done.” The person next to her replied, “So am I.”

Savage’s signature move wasn’t just telling a quick joke, but keeping a dozen more in his back pocket, Azose said.

Less a gimmick than a singular motif rendering him dissimilar from most people he met, Savage had “Abrahamic tendencies,” Unger said.

He constantly visited the sick, regaled any who would listen, and employed gags and witticisms best suited for the 1950s.

His banter wasn’t only of another era, but so were his practices. He didn’t use a cell phone until the last year of his life. He never operated a computer nor learned to type. When he penned an obituary, which he literally did, after the legendary wrestler Bruno Sammartino died, Savage scrawled the words on synagogue stationary then handdelivered them to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle office.

“Stanley was a step out of pace both in time and place,” said his ex-wife Fran Conway, who faithfully cared for him during the final two years of his life.

Superficially, that fact and the other oddities of Savage’s life were perplexing.

“Who calls someone their ex-wife and best friend,” Unger asked, “Stanley does.”

To those who benefitted from his love and care, Savage’s storyline makes sense, especially the ending, said his nephew Rabbi Jon Savage.

Rabbi Stanley Savage died during the Hebrew month of Kislev. Before the month’s completion, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is celebrated.

“It’s the holiday of light. And Uncle Stanley brought light to the city,” Rabbi Jon Savage said.

Five years earlier, Rabbi Stanley Savage offered a similar tribute upon the demise of a Pittsburgh icon.

“In this world, you will meet and see few people like Bruno Sammartino. This city, state, country and planet had a special soul amongst us while he was in the land of the living. To be eulogized the way he was, brought tears to all the attendees at his funeral service,” Savage wrote after the wrestler’s death. “In this world and in the heavenly spheres that he now occupies, his sense of humor and caring for others will forever stick with us.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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