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.