“I have always considered autobiographical works somewhat presumptuous. Why should anyone be interested in the details of someone else’s life? Naturally, that observation applies to others’ autobiographies. But sharing my life experiences with complete strangers is different, for they’ll surely value my story.”
Thus begins Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi by Berel Wein, recently published by Maggid Books. Born in 1934, Rabbi Wein fills his autobiography with stories and observations from his upbringing in Chicago; his rabbinic career in Miami Beach; his tenure as executive vice president of the Orthodox Union in New York; his time as rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Suffern, NY; and his experiences in Israel since making aliyah in 1997.
Rabbi Wein – who is best known for his lectures and films on Jewish history – currently heads the Destiny Foundation. In November, the foundation hopes to premiere episode five of “Faith and Fate – The Story of the Jews in the 20th Century,” a 13-part documentary series based on Rabbi Wein’s book of the same name.
The Jewish Press: You begin your autobiography with a story about Israeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, which, you write, has “continually inspired and challenged” you. What is that story?
Rabbi Wein: Rav Herzog came to Chicago after the Second World War and spoke in the Chicago yeshiva. He said he had just come from the pope in Rome and gave him a list with 10,000 names of Jewish children who had been sequestered in Catholic institutions during the war. He asked the pope to give him back the children, but the pope said he could not do so because all the children were baptized and once they were baptized they could not be raised in a different faith.
When Rav Herzog said that, he put his head down on the lectern and wept. And then he looked at all of us and said, “I can’t do anything more for those 10,000 children, but what are you going to do to help rebuild the Jewish people?” Later on, when we all went to shake his hand and receive a blessing from him, he said, “Don’t forget what I said, what are you going to do?” And that has reverberated within me all my life.
When most people hear your name, they think, “Ah, yes, the Jewish historian,” and yet, as your book makes clear, history wasn’t a career you chose. It essentially resulted from a fluke.
It wasn’t a fluke, it was accidental.
I was writing sefarim on the Talmud. Then one day in Jerusalem, a man came up to me – whom I never saw before or since – and said, “We’ve got plenty of people writing on the Talmud, but we don’t have anybody writing on Jewish history. You should write on Jewish history.”
That man – the prophet Elijah, I don’t know who it was – had an effect on me, and I began writing on Jewish history. I had always lectured on Jewish history, but I didn’t start writing until later.
But recording and distributing your lectures on Jewish history wasn’t exactly planned either.
No, it was not. I was giving a Jewish history class to women, and their husbands came and said they would also like a class. Many of them were physicians and did not have regular hours, so they asked me if they could send their tape recorders. I said certainly – especially since they had paid the registration fee – and after a while they came back and said, “You know, we circulate these tapes in the hospital to other doctors and everybody loves them. You should do something with them.”