I rarely follow Amazon ‘suggestions’ of books to read, but when a book is titled Between Slobodka and Berlin: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe, has a picture of the Rav on the cover, and is only $6.98, of course I ordered it!
The core of this book is a fascinating thesis: that there is a group of individuals from Jewish Eastern Europe (though not necessarily Slobodka or Berlin) who had an enormous influence on the communities they moved to, specifically because they were transplants (immigrants?), and would not have had the same influence had they stayed in their home countries. The individuals the author Hillel Goldberg describes in the book are: Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement; Professor Harry Wolfson, the first great Jewish Studies chair at Harvard University; Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin; Rav Soloveitchik the Rosh Yeshiva or REITS; Professor A. J. Heschel of JTS; and Rabbi Joseph Lipovitz (who, aside from going to Sloboka and then moving to Israel, I have little to comment on because there’s little that the book says about him. I’d never heard of him before, nor has anyone I’ve spoken to since reading the book).
Each chapter begins by telling us a little bit about the person in question, which is sometimes challenging, given that some of these figures were intentionally opaque about their personal histories. He then goes on to analyze the person’s ideology in its historical context, and the ways in which they responded to the new culture and society in which their Torah teaching (or academic work, in Wolfson’s case) and religious practice emerged.
Let me begin with the positive, which is that the thesis itself, and many of Goldberg’s observations, are fascinating. Together they form a collection of very different responses to the transplantation of Eastern European Judaism onto Western (or in Lipovitz’s case, Israeli) soil, all of which resonated with me as I reflected on my intellectual religious journey over the years. His insights into Rav Hutner seemed the most fruitful and interesting, as he described a true talmid chacham who put his own interests and intellectual explorations aside for the greater good of leading the Jewish people. Also, new for me were his critiques of the Rav, which people are generally loath to do given the Rav’s stature, but which I found quite insightful (if painful to read). His painting of R’ Lipovitz has the least amount of detail, but he comes off as the most holistic and successful transplant figure of them all. I searched some of Lipovitz’s writing on Hebrewbooks.org, and have started learning his Torah, which is pretty amazing.
There are some downsides to the book, though they are outweighed by the positives. Goldberg’s writing is often unclear and unnecessarily complex. He uses terms without explaining them, and flowery language when simple words would do. This complexity applies to some of the ideas as well, as he sometimes makes too many assumptions about what the reader’s background knowledge is. While his overall thesis is compelling, it’s less clear to me that he’s done a good job supporting the truths of his claims, or at least their accuracy. Sometimes it feels like he’s working too hard to make a point, cherry picking when it’s convenient, or framing things to suit his narrative. As well, why these six personalities? Finally, he does not articulate why he is limiting the scope to Slobodka and Berlin. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just not clear to me that in a century of Jewish transplants that these were the key (only? primary?) contenders (some quick examples off the top of my head: Saul Lieberman – Slobodka and Berlin; Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg – Slobodka and Berlin, and others of similar, but not this exact pedigree: the Lubavitcher Rebbe – White Russia and Berlin; Rav Kook – Volozin and Israel; Yeshayahu Leibovitz – Berlin and Israel, etc.).
Despite all this, I enjoyed the book, finding it fresh and interesting. If Jewish intellectual history is your thing, it’s a book worth reading.
Just Because I Liked It:
- This story, about Yehudah (formerly Omar) Pryce, a man who was in prison who converts to Judaism, is unusual and compelling. Pryce is articulate and thoughtful. In the future, a more probing interview would be amazing.
- Chaim Danzinger is a Lubavitch Shaliach in Rostov, Russia. His energy is infectious and inspiring, as are his many stories. It’s an interview worth listening to!