A Storybook Life

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To R. Shlomo Riskin, life is a series of meaningful events that strung together create a flowing narrative. In his recent memoirs, Listening to God: Inspirational Stories for my Grandchildren, he tells not his life story but his life stories. And oh what stories they are.

In over 100 short chapters, averaging 4-5 pages each, he dazzles readers with his emotionally evocative tales. Always the expert storyteller, R. Riskin pulls your heartstrings with his touching experiences. Keep a tissue box handy because you cannot read this book without cracking many smiles and shedding many tears.

The book covers his life as a child prodigy with a religious grandmother and non-religious parents, describing his primary schooling and subsequent studies in Yeshiva University. Then his rabbinate in Manhattan, efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and his establishment and guidance of the Israeli town of Efrat. Interacting with famous people (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Menachem Begin to name just a few), winning many difficult battles, overcoming many obstacles… what a fascinating and eventful life! He describes it with charm and humor, offering a treasury of inspiring anecdotes.

However, I disagree with the basic premise of the book. You cannot string together anecdotes into a flowing narrative. When I compare this book’s description of R. Riskin’s years as a rabbi in Manhattan with Edward Abramson’s A Circle in the Square: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue, I see significant lacunae in the former. There is too much important history missing because it could not fit neatly into a story. The chronology is often confusing and major developments are only briefly mentioned. The lasting achievements of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Adult Education Institute, a massive and creative undertaking that has been replicated in synagogues throughout the country, is drowned in the stirring stories of personal drama. The enormous impact R. Riskin exerted on his YU students, not to mention colleagues, is barely mentioned.

A man’s life story needs to be built brick by brick into a complete narrative. You have to emphasize what is most important, not what has the best story of personal redemption or humorous reversal of fortune. You need to explain relationships and both personal and historical developments.

Within the constraints of a collection of stories, this book accomplishes as much of this as possible. The author and editor must have been keenly aware of these limitations and strove to remedy them. Nevertheless, this book is, in the end, more a book of anecdotes than a life story. But oh what a book of anecdotes.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

14 comments

  1. “Nevertheless, this book is, in the end, more a book of anecdotes than a life story.”

    But, at least from the title, that’s what he was aiming to do. It’s true that he didn’t write the book you would have liked him to have written (i.e., an autobiography), but apparently that’s not what wanted to do. Maybe he will someday.

  2. “Joseph Kaplan on March 10, 2011 at 10:12 pm
    “Nevertheless, this book is, in the end, more a book of anecdotes than a life story.”

    But, at least from the title, that’s what he was aiming to do. It’s true that he didn’t write the book you would have liked him to have written (i.e., an autobiography), but apparently that’s not what wanted to do. Maybe he will someday”

    Agree with Joseph Kaplan.
    How many autobiographies were written by Rabbis?-not too many.

  3. I hear what you’re saying but when you see the book it’s hard to conclude that it is anything other than an autobiography. 450 pages in chronological order covering his entire life until now. The “stories to tell my grandchildren” seems more like a literary device to justify the publication and a style to make it inspirational.

  4. “Howard Johnson is right”

    I am agreeing with Joseph and mycroft

    I want to pick up the book to see what he tells his grandchildren about Jesus

  5. I suppose that one could read R Riskin’s book, R Abramson’s book and R Riskin’s essay in the YU Judaica book about his years in JSS and get a fairly good composite picture of R Riskin, as well as his influences and successes .

  6. The essay about JSS is in this book.

  7. I disagree with Gil on this one. The book is not intended to be his memoirs, and shouldn’t be judged as such. Please re-read the title.

  8. For those looking to read a very good article by Rabbi Riskin about founding and guiding LSS, be sure to read his essay that was printed as an apendix to the later printings of “Sanctity of the Synagogue” by Baruch Litvin.

    This article bu RSS contains details not mentioned elsewhere.

  9. I think that the way he did it was far more tasteful than the alternative formal autobiography format which would have had to involve singing his own praises (since he really is such an accomplished person).

  10. Rabbit Riskin is almost 71 years old. can anyone explain how he managers to look SO young? No grey hair, even??

  11. A while ago, I was standing with Rabbi Riskin outside at a funeral (we’re both cohanim). I noticed, and actually commented to him, that finally even he had a few grey hairs, making those of us younger with full heads of grey hair feel a bit better. He smiled. But even with those few grey strands he does look remarkably young.

  12. Having read only Gil’s post, it does seem that by telling not his life story but his life stories, the result is more inspirational. (Also, probably more comfortable for R Riskin for the book’s focus to be inspirational rather than about himself.)

  13. MiMedinat HaYam

    “How many autobiographies were written by Rabbis?-not too many.”

    but few rabbis are of the r riskin type — that a (real) auto biography will be interesting?

    actually, there are a good number of auto biographies by rabbis, but they (a) serve a (biased) purpose (b) dont sell (except to congregants / fans. then again, few books really sell. secular and jewish.

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