Book review

From Seattle to Hebron: The Story of an Amazing Life

Telling the life story of Rabbi Dov Cohen, To Rise Above begins in Seattle, WA in the early 1900’s and via train and ship takes readers to pre-state Palestine. As a young boy Dov lived in the idyllic (and rare) circumstances of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in Seattle. Fully dedicated to observance of Jewish law, the family was also able to take part fully in local life due to their financial success and broadmindedness.

But all was not well in paradise. Dov’s brother went off to NY to study in yeshiva and came back unmotivated and uninterested in continuing his Torah education. His observance level was not one of a young man excited about being an Orthodox Jew. Dov’s mother realized that the US offered nothing like the Torah education she wished for her sons. She then took the dramatic step of traveling with 13 year old Dov across the world to seek out a place in Palestine that would provide the education she wanted for Dov.

And this is when the journey through the history and Jewish life of pre-state Israel begins. It wasn’t easy to find a yeshiva for Dov. After false starts in Tel Aviv, Dov ends up learning in the Jewish holy city of Hevron (Hebron) at the Slabodka Yeshiva. Dov’s mother returns to the US and they meet again only after 10 years.

The Slabodka Yeshiva, Hevron 1920’s

Slabodka was a flagship of the mussar movement dedicated to living at the highest standards of Jewish ethical behavior. It is fascinating to read about the experiences of a young American Jew living within the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel of the 1920’s. Daily life is described showing the intensity of the yeshiva students and their everyday idealism as well as the difficulty of being a teenager so far from his family. The author doesn’t whitewash over various tensions which exist within the yeshiva. Readers will be hardpressed to find other books in English which offer such detailed insight into this flourishing Jewish community.

Images from the Hevron Massacre, 1929

In painful detail, Dov describes the experiences of living through the Hevron massacre of 1929.  The violent rioting by Arabs and murder of over 60 Jews could easily have been stopped by British police on the scene. Dov describes the incredible scenes of suffering as the British authorities do nothing to stop the Arab pogrom. This is a must read for anyone interested in Hevron and the events of 1929.

Dov relocates with his yeshiva (post-riot referred to as the Hevron Yeshiva) to Jerusalem in the wake of the riots. The dislocation and confusion Dov experiences would today be quickly labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The book eventually reaches 1948 and Israeli independence.  Dov serves as the first Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force which is fascinating because although he was part of the Haredi community, he saw his work as a mission to ensure that the new institutions of the nascent Jewish state were set up taking into account Jewish tradition to whatever extent possible.

We follow Dov Cohen through the development of Israel and his life. The end of the book contains a fascinating copy of notes that he kept on a daily basis documenting his efforts at self-improvement proving that he was truly a student of Slabodka who tried to live according to the ideals of mussar until the end of his life.

This book is a must-read for those interested in the history of the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel as well as those stirred by mussar.


For The Season of Renewal: A Classic Text Revised

Gates of Repentance, new edition 3D

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur period is always a time of focusing on books with ethical messages and guides to improvement.  The classic Shaarei Tshuvah: Gates of Repentance is probably a top choice for many to learn at this time. Written by Rabeinu Yonah and first published in 1505, this book is a pillar of  mussar (ethics) study and is used year round. For quite some time I have been planning to dedicate time to learning this book and Feldheim’s newly revised Shaarei Teshuvah: Gates of Repentance was the impetus to start.  There is a new English translation which makes the book as accessible as possible. I found it very helpful when confronting some of the (literally) medieval Hebrew. Footnotes appear often enough to inform and assist but not so often that they distract. I am grateful to have had this book over Rosh Hashanah. I smiled when I realized that the translator (Rabbi Yosef Leibler) and I belong to the same shul!

This book is a classic for a reason. It clearly lays out the importance of repentance as well as how to accomplish this task. In painstaking fashion, the various mitzvos and prohibitions of the Torah are categorized so that an understandable system is available to the reader. In fact, the whole book is structured with incredible precision, each category followed by sub-categories and more sub-categories.  It is sophisticated and rich in detail and wisdom.

The messages of the book are powerful, often way beyond what our generation is used to hearing. Yet, I think this book ought to play an important role in education today. A properly prepared Rebbe or teacher could use this book as a full curriculum. It would be wonderful if Feldheim could provide a study guide or lesson outline for educators to accompany this book. Despite being over 500 years old, there is so much that a modern Jewish education system can glean from this work. Feldheim should be thanked for the investment of time and resources to publish this completely revised edition. I hope that it will lead to this important book being used to a greater extent in schools and yeshivos.

This book belongs in every Jewish library – home or otherwise.

The Jonathan Sacks Haggada. Different Than All Others?


Sacks Haggada side A Koren11

Occasionally I buy a new Passover Haggada  filled with enough commentary to last for a few years of Passover preparation and learning during the holiday. Eventually another Haggada joins my shelf and takes over. I recently used the “Higionei Halacha” Haggada, and afterwards a Haggada called “Marei Cohen” which is based on the commentary of Rav Pam z’l of NY.

This year I purchased the (Rabbi) Jonathan Sacks Haggada published by Koren.  While quite different than my recent choices, I am glad I did. This Haggada offers big picture, “macro” explanations of Passover and the seder. Rabbi Sacks puts the seder into a mix of historical, religious and philosophical contexts illustrating that the seder is no simple holiday meal or even an important holiday meal. It may be the most important activity Jews take part in all year.  Yet, no matter how important his ideas and interpretations are (and they are), Rabbi Sacks serves them up in a very digestible way. Profound ideas can also be understandable, and this seems to be a hallmark of Rabbi Sack’s writing.  Rabbi Sacks explains how the seder is THE tool for ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people and religion  by inculcating values such as compassion for the downtrodden and the belief that there is a Creator writing the script of human history while giving meaning to our lives.  Almost any reader will approach the seder with a renewed sense of mission and appreciation after reading the Sacks Haggada.

While the mention of secular Zionist heroes in a Haggada may seem jarring to some readers, Rabbi Sacks brings them to illustrate important points such the inability for even the most assimilated Jews to escape Jewish destiny.  On the other end of the spectrum, Rav Pam z”l mentions the UN in his Haggada commentary and alludes to the reality of modern Jewish statehood. It seems fitting that current historical figures or events be considered when looking at the Haggada, even if one doesn’t identify with all of them. They illustrate how the story and ideas of the Haggada have been relevant throughout history and today. Modern events and ideas can be considered without participating in what has become the almost annual re-branding farce of Jewish holidays to match current trends (so Jewish holidays can now be “green” etc.).

The Sacks Haggada has an attractive cover and is typeset elegantly. Yes, this Haggada is different than all others because Rabbi Sacks offers new perspectives on Passover while being strongly rooted in Jewish tradition. It is not just “another Haggada”. Thanks to both Rabbi Sacks and Koren for this new addition to the modern Passover library.