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Book Review | I Am Your Servant: The life of Rabbi Yosef Tendler

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that one of the greatest influences in my life was Rabbi Yosef Tendler. I don’t pretend that he would approve or support everything I say or do. However, I do know that if not for his incredibly positive impact on my life I would be a very different person. Rabbi Tendler put a disproportionate amount of effort into me and I forever grateful for his time, guidance, wisdom, and direction that he provided me. Rabbi Tendler is the only teacher and mentor of mine that is no longer living aside from my grandfathers. Even though I am not in touch with so many of those rabbis and teachers, knowing they are always a phone call away feels different.

When I discovered that a book about his life had been published I was thrilled. I made the mistake of waiting for it to arrive to the LA bookstores. I never did see it here. But luckily for me, Artscroll sent me a copy for review.

It’s been a long time since last read an Artscroll biography. I think the last one I read was about Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.

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My grandfather assisted in the editing of that book and I felt a deep connection to Reb Shraga Feivel through my grandfather. That was at least 12 years ago. So when  I Am Your Servant: The life of Rabbi Yosef Tendler arrived, it was a doubly odd feeling. Not only was it the first Artscroll biography I had read in a very long time, but it was the first Artscroll biography I ever read about someone I knew. It was the first biography of any kind that I had read about someone I knew, someone I loved, someone I missed.

Usually we read biographies to learn about important figures. That’s not why I read I Am Your Servant. I read it to bring Rabbi Tendler back from the dead. I read it so that I would experience his criticism and wisdom posthumously. I read it to make sure the book told the story of my Rabbi Tendler. I read it to feel the love of a student for a teacher I was missing since his passing. And I read it feel the pain I felt at his passing all over again.

I picked up the book at about 10:00 PM on Friday night. I read until I finished the book in a fountain of tears at about 2 AM. I loved I Am Your Servant. It was perfect for me.

A combination of shock and flattery coursed through my veins when I saw that I was quoted in the book.

Then I was moved even more when I discovered that an article I wrote about his passing was quoted in full at the end of the book. I am honored to even play the smallest role in this book and I thank the author, Rabbi Akiva Tendler, for including me. (I’ll forgive the “tie anecdote” that was in the book that didn’t credit me. I am pretty sure it came from me because I was one of two people who saw the story happen.)

Thankfully, the book didn’t make Rabbi Tendler into something he was not. It was honest and real. There were no rebbeshe stories or supernatural episodes. It was just straight, plain, and simple. Torah and unadulterated truth. That was Rabbi Tendler. I Am Your Servant is not the stereotypical Artscroll hagiography.

The book is divided into short chapters and takes two formats. In italics we read Rabbi Tendler’s discourses and notes. In standard type we read stories and musings as retold by his students and family. It works very well. The two formats complement each other. The anecdotes are more prominent and feel more like Rabbi Tendler than the Torah and Mussar essays. That’s mostly because we always retell the great stories and rarely tell over Rabbi Tendler’s Torah.

I’m afraid that people who never experienced Rabbi Tendler won’t fully appreciate many of the stories. Rabbi Tendler was someone that really only made sense after you got to know him and hear from him for a while. He slowly invaded your thinking. It was not instant. So for his students that lived it, the book will open a floodgate of memories. Even the ones we never heard are so typical of Rabbi Tendler that we feel like we were there. Reading the book was like being back in Mechina and inspired me to work on his most famous dictum, “Don’t Waste Your Life.” Yes, there is a chapter so titled.

Rabbi Tendler was non-conventional but also very consistent. He did things differently. His philosophy and way of life were so genuine. The book will transmit that message to readers who are newcomers to Rabbi Tendler’s world. Readers will see how different his way of thinking was from others. Much of his hashkafa is common to moderate yeshiva lifestyle, but his presentation and his unique twist is what set him apart. The book captures this magnificently.

I’ll share three of my favorite moments in the book to illustrate.

One time Rabbi Tendler was being solicited to take sides in a rabbinic dispute (l’shem shamayim, obviously). The book doesn’t say this, but the Gadol who was soliciting Rabbi Tendler was someone senior to him and someone he was expected to respect and revere. The other Gadol in the dispute was from a worldview less Rabbi Tendler-ish. A letter came from the Gadol and one of Rabbi Tendler’s sons noticed the return address belonged to a real Gadol. Rabbi Tendler took the envelope and tossed it in the trash without even looking at it. His son was flabbergasted. But that letter is from a Gadol! Rabbi Tendler responded that he knew the Gadol wanted to involve him in a machlokes and he wasn’t interested. End.

That’s classic Rabbi Tendler. He did what was right no matter who was involved. He was his own person and he had the confidence to proudly live Torah his way.

When Rabbi Tendler’s daughters were discussing the popular segulos for finding a shidduch, Rabbi Tendler overheard their conversation. He commented “the best segulah for finding a shidduch is taking the garbage out for your mother.”

Rabbi Tendler was not interested in the latest segulos or seeking blessings from Rebbes and Gedolim. He just did the right thing and demanded the same from the people in his world. There were no shortcuts. This was the best way to find the treasures of a Torah life.

The third anecdote supports this as well. Rabbi Tendler was talking to his daughter about her job as a teacher. She asked what Rabbi Tendler what he thought was the most important character trait for a teacher. Rabbi Tendler said the most important middah is to be ehrlich, have integrity. “How does one become ehrlich?” she asked. In classic Rabbi Tendler fashion, he answered “be ehrlich!”.

It’s not so complicated. Just do it. That was Rabbi Tendler.

There are so many stories that show how Rabbi Tendler went against the grain and did what was right despite the expectations of others. Talmidim will nod in agreement. People who didn’t know Rabbi Tendler will wonder if these stories could possibly be true. I assure you, they are true. That was the magic of Rabbi Tendler and the book captures this beautifully. Much of the hashkafa of the book doesn’t feel like my hashkafa anymore. It’s okay. People change. The world changes. It doesn’t matter. Most of it is timeless and universal. The parts that no longer work for me are beautiful ideas too. I’ve just forged a new path. Interestingly, it is the path that the book ascribes to Rabbi Tendler’s father and Rabbi Tendler himself before he went to Lakewood. But regardless, it all sounds so familiar and comfortable to me. I loved every moment of the journey I experienced while reading  I Am Your Servant.

The book ends with a chapter full of touching memories of family, friends, and students compiled after Rabbi Tendler passed away. It was the perfect way to end a book about a man who lives on in the hearts and minds of so many people. Even in death, Rabbi Tendler lives on. This final chapter had me crying my brains out. They were tears of love and tears of longing. I really appreciated the stroke of genius to include these emotional memories in the book. It was cathartic and it felt good to cry for our loss once again.

I would love to share more stories and wisdom in this review, but I prefer you buy the book and read it for yourself. Buy the book on Amazon here:  I Am Your Servant.

Disclaimers: Artscroll provided me with a review copy for free. I receive a small commission for all sales of this book generated by clicking the links on this page.


3 Comments
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  • Shragi

    Definitely the most unimportant comment….but “engrained”? Seriously, ArtScroll?

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Haha. I actually looked it up and it’s an acceptable usage. The writing was not great but not bad enough to make reading uncomfortable.

  • Henryedelman

    It’s the nature of blogs to ‘light a candle’ less than ‘curse the darkness’. This was a wonderful post that helped address the imbalance. I was very touched by your warm evocative review of your Rebbe’s biography and very moved by your personal reflections of such an influential teacher. Thanks.