September 9, 2004
L.A. Leaders Offer Words of Wisdom
The Los Angeles Jewish community is blessed with many spirited, talented and prolific leaders. This High Holiday season promises to bring books by five such leaders -- four rabbis and a composer/performer -- that tackle many different aspects of Jewish life and philosophy. Barring one exception, the books do not take any of the High Holiday themes -- repentance, renewal, eating too much -- as central subjects. But each of the books does tackle a range of life's concerns from a distinctly Jewish perspective. The authors that are reviewed below attempt to bring knowledge of Jewish thought and tradition to bear on the lessons each intend to teach.
This plethora of new material offers us a possibility we may not have considered before: instead of just sitting in synagogue this holiday season obsessively counting the number of pages until services will finally be finished, we can also pick up one of these books for a slightly different way of renewing our appreciation for all that Judaism, and its 4,000-year tradition of questioning, has to offer. Below are some brief thoughts, in no particular order, about five very different books by local writers:
No one would call Rabbi Mark Borovitz a typical rabbi. Not one to affect a sacred facade, Borovitz's language and interpersonal approach tend more toward the salty and profane. It's the perfect approach to take for his work as the spiritual leader at Beit T'Shuvah, the Jewish rehabilitation center in West Los Angeles. Now that he's written an autobiography -- with the help of Alan Eisenstock -- "The Holy Thief: A Con Man's Journey from Darkness to Light" (William Morrow, $23), it's clear that he comes by that attitude honestly.
His has been an amazing, and highly unusual journey. By his own account, Borovitz started out as the son of a respectable Jewish family in Cleveland, but he got into trouble young, and stayed in it until his awakening to honesty and Judaism while serving his second stint in a California state prison.
Although the term "12-step" is never mentioned, Borovitz does state up front that "this book is my T'Shuvah." He seems to have used the steps to organize his narrative, from presenting an inventory of his former behavior to publicly making amends to those he has harmed to finding God. The book even includes excerpts from various people whose paths have crossed his own -- those he harmed and those who helped him find his way. "The Holy Thief" is his very public way of passing along the lessons he's learned.
Borovitz has the unfortunate tendency to drop subjects from his sentences, tough-guy style (as in his first impression of his wife and the founder of Beit T'Shuvah: "Harriet her name was. Called me a smart ass."). But he's an engaging storyteller, who brings the underworld of his youth, as well as his own fecklessness to life. It's a colorful tale for a colorful character who has, indeed, turned his life around.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, is also the author of the "Dear Rabbi" column, which has answered questions posed by people from all around the world about Judaism. In his book, "Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions" (Alef Design Group, $14.95), Artson collects just over 100 of the questions posed of him along with his replies.
Ranging from more light-hearted questions, such as "Do dogs have souls?" to serious issues of Jewish identity, Artson answers each question seriously and respectfully. He unfailingly assumes that every person who contacted him asked his or her question in good faith, and he responded in kind.
There should be something for everyone here: from a person struggling to find a spiritual home in the world ("Am I a Jew?" or its variant "Am I Jewish?") to Jews knowledgeable about source texts and traditions ("What did Hillel and Shammai say about divorce?"). Many of the questions posed are asked by Christians, curious to know about Jewish ideas and practices, but the vast majority are by Jews trying to reconcile the ancient beliefs they've inherited with the modern lives they lead.
Artson repeats a few pat phrases over and over, especially "consult a rabbi in your area." After a while, these seem to be a stand-in for more in-depth consideration of the complexities that he could delve into while addressing people's concerns. But considering how brief the columns actually are, he always manages to convey the thoughtfulness that Judaism applies to the answers to life's dilemmas.
A good sermon provokes thought by adhering to a few hard-and-fast rules: repeating the main point, using interesting analogies or stories, and not running too long. As anyone who has sat through an interminable sermon on a Friday night or Saturday morning knows, that last rule is crucial. And while it may be hard to believe, a sermon can be too short, too. That's the impression given by many of the pieces in Rabbi David Wolpe's new book, "Floating Takes Faith" (Behrman House, $18), a collection of columns Sinai Temple's spiritual leader has written for The Jewish Week over the last five years.
Running only 200 or so words -- each -- the columns have time to address one issue only and no time to develop any thematic concerns. Wolpe is wonderfully well-read, quoting Yeats, Buber and Isaac Asimov at different points, and the topics that he tackles -- from biblical issues to the importance of supporting Israel -- are worthy of his erudite consideration, but the brevity of the form limit how effective many of these pieces can ultimately be. They often leave one feeling that there is a real-world situation to which Wolpe was responding, but that are never mentioned in the pieces themselves. The reader is thus left trying to reconstruct the social, political or historical moment out of which the columns ideas spring.
Despite those reservations, Wolpe is a strong writer, with the ability to convey complex ideas in an accessible manner. Unfortunately, and through no fault his own, the experience of reading his book is made less enjoyable by a few irritating editing errors.
Another fine book is the reprint of Rabbi Harold Schulweis' 1990 book, "In God's Mirror: Reflections and Essays" (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., $22.95).
By far the densest of those reviewed here, "In God's Mirror" collects various speeches and articles delivered or written in the late 1990s.
Much has happened since then, of course, and the current volume opens with a new introduction that points explicitly to the great rupture of our own time: Sept. 11. As Valley Beth Shalom's Schulweis points out, the general situation in which we live and our political sensibilities have been altered, but the questions we ask of God have not. Why did God allow terrorists to plow airplanes into the World Trade Center? Which is not that different a question as one we have been asking for more than half a century: Where was God while 6 million perished? Those are the dilemmas at the heart of this book, and Schulweis faces them head on.
Some of the entries are already outdated: his vision of the nuclear family, for example, bears little resemblance to the harried, overworked, double-income families most of us know, and the threat of cults to Jewish youth is hardly front-page news anymore. For all that, Schulweis shines a clear light on some enduring issues, from the meaning of various rituals to the Jewish response to death. Most importantly, he comments upon the continues danger of internal Jewish squabbling, arguing eloquently and logically for the need of all Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or anything else, to lay aside our differences in the name of a greater unity.
In the only book of those to be reviewed here that includes all the other writers already mentioned, "The World is A Narrow Bridge: Stories that Celebrate Hope and Healing," (Sweet Louise Productions, $30). is also the only one not written by a rabbi. Edited by Diane Arieff, former contributing editor to The Jewish Journal, the collection of brief essays acts as a companion piece to a CD put together by Craig Taubman, a musician and performer best known to many in the Los Angeles Jewish community for leading prayers during Friday Night live at Sinai Temple.
Beautifully packaged, this book and CD set attempt to offer spiritual consolation for hard times by allowing people to tell their own stories and relay the many ways in which they have coped with sadness and difficulty. Most of the contributors to the book share of themselves readily in their essays, opening the most intimate and painful moments of their lives for the reader.
Although occasionally humorous -- Journal singles columnist Carin Davis's turn to ice cream and self-pity in the face of the relatively easy losses of a job and a boyfriend stands out -- and often touching, the collection is also a bit morbid. All those tales of sickness, grief and brushes with death can't be anything but. Each writer does find a way to salvage his or her life and vitality, and that may help someone going through a hard time. But the sheer volume of all that tragedy -- its discovered blessings notwithstanding -- is bound to have an effect on even the reader most in need.