Wednesday, March 14, 2012

two books worth reading

I want to recommend two books I read recently that are really worth your time. Both were available from my public library's system, so they are not too hard to get. The first is Listening to G-d: Inspirational Stories by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Presented as a series of stories that R' Riskin wants to relate to his grandchildren, the book touches on autobiographical highlights in Rav Riskin's life. We read of R' Riskin's childhood and his eventual decision to enter the rabbinate, his trials in turning Lincoln Square a thriving Orthodox synagogue, his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, his teaching experience at YU, and finally his eventual aliya and experiences in Eretz Yisrael. Aside from Rav Riskin's personal story, what I found most moving was the stories he tells of others: the Chabad shliach risking all to teach Torah in a basement in the Soviet Union; the Soviet refugee who he helped escape to who then turns his back on Juda to marry a non-jew -- years later he meets the family and discovers that the wife has undergone giyur and they live as Vishnitzer chassidim; his childhood memory of the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe telling his ba'al koreh to not lower his voice while reading the tochacha, as there was nothing to be afraid of after experiencing the Holocaust; stories of the people and soldiers of Eretz Yisrael who are willing to sacrifice all for the sake of our homeland; his encounters with the Rav, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe -- I could go on and on. In short, it's the story of a remarkable man who has accomplished remarkable things.

The second is Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. (The book is a translation of the Hebrew MiMa'amakim.) There are so many parts of this book that will literally move you to tears that I don't even know where to begin. The experiences of R' Lau during the Holocaust haunt his entire life, but I think it would be unfair to say that this is a book about the horrors of the shoah alone. It is a book about heroism -- how a child torn from his family and home and exposed to the most traumatic circumstances is not only able to survive, but is able to become a talmid chacham, build a family of his own, and provide inspiration to others in his role as a Rav and later Rav haRoshi of Eretz Yisrael.

One of my children is currently reading Eli Wiesel's Night as part of a unit her school is doing on the Holocaust. While Night is certainly a powerful book worth reading (and is even part of many a public school curriculum), I think she and her class would be better served reading Rav Lau's book. I have not read Night in many years, but from what I recall, I think it provides a more complete picture of the circumstances of concentration camp life than Rav Lau's book does. However, while I don't c'v mean to diminish the importance of preserving the memory of what happened in any way, I think students also need to ask themselves what the memory of the past does for them -- what does it mean for their future and for our future as a people? I also believe any discussion of the Holocaust is incomplete without a discussion of the rise of the State of Israel, the two greatest events in Jewish history on the past century if not the past 2000 years. Rav Lau's story does not end with the shoah; that is just the starting point to the life he builds.  The world of Polish Jewry that shaped his childhood memories is the inspiration that pulls him to building his future, to raising a family in Eretz Yisrael, to dedicating himself to rabbanus (before being taken to be killed, his father charged his brother with the job of preserving R' Lau's life so he could be the next link in the 37-generation long chain of rabbanim that have come from their family).  Rav Lau is a model of how to grow from tragedy, how the legacy of the past can shape how we relate to the present and inspire great accomplishments.

Parenthetically, there were three or four people (gedolim) in particular who Rav Lau singles out as great inspirational figures in his life (post WWII). I won't give away the names -- I'll let you take a guess at who they were. Hint: One name was also a great inspiration for Rav Riskin as well.  One I don't think anyone will get.

Let me leave you with one story from Rav Riskin's book (and again, there are so many anecdotes in both books that are gems; this is just one at random). When he was younger, Rav Riskin spent a summer in Eretz Yisrael and had the opportunity to be in Ponevich for Elul. He developed a connection with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Kahaneman, which he maintained over the years. When Rav Kahaneman would visit America, Rav Riskin would often host the Rosh Yeshiva. Once, when Rab Kahaneman was already older and had to be hospitalized in NY, Rav Riskin came to visit and found him feeling depressed. Trying to elevate the Rosh Yeshiva's spirits, Rav Riskin started to talk about how much R' Kahaneman had been able to accomplish in his lifetime, his literal rebuilding an empire of Torah after making it through the war. He remarked that while most people barely accomplish 10% of their dreams, Rav Kahaneman surely had been able to accomplish much more.

"Not at all," said the Rosh Yeshiva.  "I just dream bigger dreams."


  1. > I think students also need to ask themselves what the memory of the past does for them -- what does it mean for their future and for our future as a people?

    That's why Yad VaShem is superior to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The mere walking out from the horror of the Shoah and seeing Yerushalayim alive and thriving is the beest message to take away.

  2. Anonymous12:43 AM

    >>> accomplish 10% of their dreams

    learn from here that even our dreams require tithing: thru their realization, 10% are transferred to His domain (l'Hashem ha'aretz um'loah)