A couple of weeks ago I received a complimentary copy of Rabbi Berel Wein’s recently published memoir, Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi from Maggid books. This book was particularly interesting to me because Rabbi Wein played a significant role in my Monsey childhood and is a family friend. I finally had a quiet Shabbos afternoon to read Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi, a short and sweet volume of 161 pages, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you are not going to read the next few paragraphs, just buy the book and read it. Two thumbs up.
The book is a collection of Rabbi Wein’s personal reflections on his own life. We get a brief biographical sketch of his childhood and family life followed by several chapters covering his various careers. Rabbi Wein is known for his wit. In this book he adds some Shakespearian wit by strictly adhering to Hamlet’s famous aphorism, “brevity is the soul of wit.” The book is regrettably superficial at times but we still feel a level of depth and insight into some of Rabbi Wein’s more memorable and poignant personal stories, observations, and vignettes. Despite its brevity, the reader is rewarded with some excellent insight into the development of American Orthodox Judaism, several excellent anecdotes about Gedolim, a peek into Rabbi Wein’s heart, and most of all, a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in his achievements. Rabbi Wein has earned the right to bask in the glory of his voluminous accomplishments and he humbly reflects on his public life in his memoir. Reading this book allows us to all share in his glow.
For me, the book held additional meaning. Rabbi Wein has always been a part of my life in some fashion or another. Our family ties precede my birth, but those ancient ties were constantly reinforced in my own lifetime. I davened in his shul so many times, sitting next to my father, mere inches from Rabbi Wein’s perch in front of the sanctuary at countless Bar Mitzvahs where Rabbi Wein and my father intersected professionally, (and when I wanted the world famous Bais Torah 25 minute from Brachos to Shir Shel Yom shachris). A Wein grandson was even my chavrusah the year I got married.
Reading the book, I began to see professional parallels in my own life. It’s a testament to the writer of a memoir when a reader can feel a connection to the writer and see their own life and struggles in the writer’s. I am sure that anyone reading this book will see similar parallels in their own lives, especially readers who sit in the fronts of shuls as pulpit rabbis. But it felt to me that we share even more. I also attended law school and chose to pursue a rabbinic career ahead of a law career. Rabbi Wein actually practiced law for several years before he was hired as a rabbi in Miami. Rabbi Wein arrived at his rabbinic interview wearing lay person clothing, not rabbinic garb. A blue suit matched with a white straw hat perched on his head made for an interesting study in non-conventional rabbinic attire. But that is who he was, so that’s what he wore. In my own way, I have the same kind of approach to rabbinic garb. Also, Rabbi Wein took Torah from books to the tapes and CDs. I wasn’t the first rabbi on the Internet, but I embrace this newer way of reaching out my fellow Jews. Perhaps the greatest parallel that I sensed was the way Rabbi Wein was a Modern Orthodox rabbi without a Yeshiva University pedigree. He never quite felt at home with the YU rabbis and the more Charedi rabbis saw Rabbi Wein as an outsider to their Yeshivish community as well. This, despite Rabbi Wein’s incredibly robust relationships and interactions with so many prominent figures in the Yeshiva world. The book tells of his close ties to Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky as well as his connection to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Satmar Rebbe. But he was still an outsider.
There are some superb “Gedolim Stories” in the book. In particular, Rabbi Kamenetsky emerges as kind and compassionate as one aware of his reputation would expect. Classic anecdotes with Reb Moshe and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky are equally refreshing in their humanizing of those two Torah luminaries. I loved Rabbi Kamenetsky’s compassionate dismantling of a particular superstition in one story and an overzealous religious fervor in another. It was a rare treat to see great men being great in its simplest and most common interpretation.
On the other side of the coin, Rabbi Wein’s disdain for the fake piety and undeserved honor given to the fraudulently pious is impossible to miss. There are several stories in the book that Rabbi Wein cannot contain his disgust for those who dress in sheep’s clothing but bite with the teeth of a wolf. Similarly, Rabbi Wein has a healthy aversion to Jewish organizations. As he puts it, “it takes all kind of people, luckily, I am not one of those people.” It’s no wonder Rabbi Wein felt this way considering he was asked to speak for the OU Convention one year and the Agudah Convention the next year. Within weeks he was contacted by both organizations requesting that he not speak for the other organization ever again.
Rabbi Wein’s writing talent shines through in many sections of the book. Clearly, he has a way with words. I particularly loved his description of Monsey in the late 70’s and 80’s:
“There were three groups of Orthodox Jews in Monsey. Two of them – Hasidic and “yeshivish” (originally connected mainly to Bais Medrash Elyon) – lived primarily “down the hill” in lower Monsey. Then there were the more “modern” Orthodox Jews, many of them graduates of Yeshiva University, who lived “up the hill” (traversed by Maple Avenue) was a formidable climb, both physically and socially.”
Anyone from Monsey reading this is grinning and nodding their head right now.
Interestingly enough, I always took pride in describing where my grandparents lived in Monsey back then. “You know the hill that people talk about? The one that separates the people up the hill from the people down the hill? My grandparents live on the hill.” So true.
Rabbi Wein’s softer side comes through as well. He talks lovingly about courting his wife of 51 years in the beginning of the book and near the end of the book we can sense his broken heart when she passes away suddenly. Some of the tender moments in the book brought me to tears.
There’s a lot to learn from Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi. There are plenty of lessons for the lay person and the rabbi alike. But I express caution in learning from one man’s unique life and applying it to our lives. Rabbi Wein is a poster child for Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. The world that greeted him was so unlike anything that preceded it and disappeared so quickly that his life truly is well described by the chapter titled “In the Right Place at the Right Time.” The incredibly unique groups of teachers, circumstances, good fortune, and rare mix of talent and ambition combined to form one of the most influential and successful Orthodox Jews of the last 100 years.
Although Rabbi Wein’s life is so atypical, we can all learn from how he made the most of his opportunities. Rabbi Wein snatched every opportunity to succeed that life presented him. I am pretty sure that if we can at least emulate this part of his character, we will also leave behind our own great legacy by the time we are Octogenarians. I can think of few people more worthy of our admiration and adoration than Rabbi Wein. According to Rabbi Wein, his life was an attempt to answer the question, “how are you going to help rebuild the Jewish people?” posed by Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog. Indeed, let us all find our own answer to that question.
I highly recommend Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi.
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Book Review | Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi (Rabbi Wein) http://t.co/AIg8FqBmKN
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) June 9, 2014