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"Rebbe": A Great Read and Even Better Guide

Monday, 23 June, 2014 - 6:31 pm

As published in the Orange County Jewish Life magazine, July 2014

"I only hope that I have fairly and accurately conveyed a least a part of his essence. If I have, then of one thing I am confident: you will become a better person as a result of learning and reading about him…”

So read the last sentences of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s most recent book, Rebbe, a book that has just made the New York Times bestseller list and has enjoyed consistently positive reviews in news outlets from across the spectrum, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, and Commentary.

Unusual as it might be to begin a book-review with the last sentences of a book (from the acknowledgement pages, yet), in this case it seems to me most judicious. The sentences express succinctly what you are likely to gain from investing in this  640-page book: you will become a better person.

Telushkin weaves together philosophy, narrative, and commentary to offer a fresh, endearing, honest, broad, and well-sourced look at the life of the Rebbe, whom he calls “the most influential rabbi in modern history.”

In clear and inviting prose he describes a world leader, recipient of the rare Congressional Gold Medal, who interacted with U.S. presidents (President Reagan would personally draft his responses to the Rebbe’s letters), Israeli prime ministers (his advice to Israeli PM Netanyahu, then Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., “You are going into a house of lies; light a candle for truth...” is famous by now), foreign leaders, and Jewish activists and scholars.

He shares with the reader the Rebbe’s unabashed philosophy on life; his pride, courage and vision of a thriving Judaism in America and the modern world; and his vital 10-point mitzvah campaign.

In story after story, Telushkin paints the image of a humble leader who was “more concerned about creating leaders than followers.” A leader who could encourage a reform rabbi not to leave his post, a law student to interest himself in unmet Jewish needs on campus, a director of the UJA (later to be a U.S. senator) to combine fundraising with raising Jewish awareness, and an African-American congresswoman to transform her unwelcome committee-appointment as a force for good.

Page after page of touching anecdotes draws the reader into the world of a caring teacher, a spiritual guide, and, more often than not, a father figure, who never lost sight of the trees for the forest—whether it entailed teaching an orphaned, starry-eyed girl about true love, a young boy the importance of prayer, or a seemingly insignificant Jew in a remote country how to view himself (“There is no such thing as a small Jew”).

What I found particularly insightful was Telushkin’s selection and presentation of various universal virtues and ethics that take on a whole new depth and meaning in the Rebbe’s world that all people can learn from—ideals like loving your neighbor, trading fear for growth, optimism, sensitivity, productiveness, prioritizing, and much more.

I trust you will walk away from this book with a renewed belief in humanity, a firmer belief in yourself, and the inspiration, tools—and urgency—to change your life and our world for the better. This is not just a book about the Rebbe. It's a book about you and me.

Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, by Joseph Telushkin (HarperWave, 640 pages) is available for purchase at your favorite online or local bookstore.

Please join me at a special evening of tribute to the Rebbe on July 10. Information here.


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