April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

For those who like to read, the yamim noraʾim and Sukkos provide great opportunities to do that. This is what I read over the holidays.

“Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes” by Jerry Z. Muller. Princeton University Press. 2022. English. Hardcover. 656 pages. ISBN-13:

It is said in the name of the Chazon Ish that there are no longer any real apokorsim (heretics). Had the Chazon Ish met Jacob Taubes, he may have changed his mind about that.

I had never heard of Taubes until I read ”Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes” by Dr. Jerry Z. Muller, professor emeritus of history at The Catholic University of America.

Born into a Swiss Orthodox rabbinic family whose father was the chief rabbi of Zurich, with an intellectual capacity to match, Taubes was destined for greatness. However, by the time of his death in 1987, he had married a non-Jewish woman, drove two women to suicide, created countless conflicts and would have fallen into obscurity, save for some dedicated students who ensured his writing continued into perpetuity.

A man who lived on the edge, his interests were those who were also on edge. From Paul to Shabbtai Zvi, Taubes lived in two worlds. He was a confidant of Rav Yoel of Satmar, ate at the table of Rabbi Dr. Saul Lieberman, frequented the tishes at Toldos Aron in Jerusalem, yet stuffed his face like a glutton at public events with non-kosher food, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.

Taubes seemed to revel in alienating people. He was mentored by Gershon Scholem, who got him a position at Hebrew University. However, he later alienated Scholem due to Taubes’ treachery with another one of Scholem’s students.

Taubes reminded me of Bar Kokhba, a man with massive potential, yet saw it all come crashing down. Taubes was as revolting as he was brilliant. Muller’s book is a fascinating insight into a man who reached the highest of intellectual levels, yet occupied himself with pride at the lowest levels of depravity.

“Rays of Wisdom” by Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum. Eshel Publications. 2022. Hardcover. 548 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1614655633.

In “Rays of Wisdom,” the late Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum comes across as the anti-Taubes. Born into an unobservant family, he and his brothers, including the famous journalist Jonathan, found their way back to religion. A natural genius like Taubes, Rosenblum graduated from Yale University and then found his way to the batei midrash of Jerusalem, where he never left.

Like Taubes, Rosenblum spent time with some of the greatest minds of the time. In Rosenblum’s case, this included rabbis Moshe Shapiro and Ahron Lopiansky. Unlike Taubes though, Rosenblum spent his time positively influencing and teaching a generation.

A devoted student of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, much of the book illuminates Rabbi Shapiro’s insights for the English reader. Rabbi Shapiro was a man of deep and profound thought. Rosenblum’s essays capture Rabbi Shapiro’s profound insights and genius.

Moreover, doing that is no easy task. Putting Rabbi Shapiro’s lectures into English requires one to understand them, which is a herculean task in the first place. In essay after essay, over a few hundred pages, Rosenblum brings these insightful, albeit complex and challenging, thoughts to the written page, which is a testament to his genius.

As a student of Rabbi Shapiro, the insights from Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky in the book are also incredibly powerful. Lopiansky is arguably the greatest ba’al machshava in the United States today and while he is, for the most part, sequestered in Yeshiva of Greater Washington, his insights here are like a soothing balm to a dry, aching soul.

For the serious reader, “Rays of Wisdom” is an incredibly insightful and illuminating read that brings to light the Torah of some of the greatest minds of our time.

“Judith Berlin Lieberman: Autobiography and Reflections” by Menachem Butler. Shikey Press. 2022. English. Paperback. 47 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1958542088.

When thinking about who most influenced girls’ education in the United States, one of the most overlooked people is Judith Berlin Lieberman. As the principal of the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn from 1941 until 1976, she impacted generations of students, many of whom became educational leaders in their own right.

In the monograph “Judith Berlin Lieberman: Autobiography and Reflections,” we discover that she created many things that are now taken for granted, such as teaching Ivrit b’Ivrit and more.

This book contains Berlin’s brief autobiography, and essays from her nephew Hillel Halkin and devoted student Rebbetzin Rookie Billet. A fascinating insight from Halkin is his quote about her husband, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, who said at her funeral that in all the 35 years she was principal, he never once visited the school. As she knew it would take him away from the study of Torah.

The only complaint here is that at 40 pages, it is far too brief, and the reader is left wanting to know much more about one of the most influential educators of the last generation.

“The Zealot: The Satmar Rebbe – Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum” by Dr. Menachem Keren-Kratz. The Shazar Center. 2020. Hebrew.

There are a number of biographies and a few hagiographies of the Satmar Rebbe. But in “The Zealot: The Satmar Rebbe – Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum” (published in Hebrew from the Zalman Shazar Center), Dr. Menachem Keren-Kratz has written the first academic biography of the Rebbe.

As detailed in “American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel” (“The Story of Satmar” June 23, 2022) and “A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg” (“A Community Grows in Brooklyn” August 212, 2021) Satmar exemplifies the American dream. Here, Keren-Kratz writes that Rav Yoel also was an example of the American dream; albeit he does not use that term.

How so? Contrary to popular belief, the Rebbe was, for the most part, unknown in Europe, and Satmar only gained significant prominence and power once the Rebbe came to the United States—which, in fact, was not his original destination. The land that the Rebbe once saw as filled with filth and impurity, is the very land in which Satmar has become one of the most powerful forces in recent times.

Keren-Kratz details the complexities of Rav Yoel’s personality and how that, in fact, fed into his successes. As old school as he was, Rav Yoel was able to develop a community that was able to not only survive, but thrive.

While F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “there are no second acts in American lives,” the life of the Satmar Rebbe may be a rejoinder to that. He arrived in the United States just shy of his 60th birthday, almost a failure. Much of his closest family dead and his prospects bleak.

Keren-Kratz fills in a lot of the details of how he was able to, in 33 years, develop a Hasidic empire. This is an interesting story of how Rav Yoel did it, what he had to do to get there and the legacy that he left behind.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke

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