Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center; a founding editor of Cross-Currents.com, and a member of the editorial board of TORA, a new organization which aims to provide an “authentic Torah viewpoint to the media.”
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Shaul Stampfer’s Lithuanian Yeshivas of the 19th Century, Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers, and Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.
What’s the best book on Judaism you’ve ever read?
Tanach (with a few thousand commentaries, including the Babylonian Talmud). Nothing else comes close.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
Pretty voracious. In elementary school, the Hardy Boys and the Black Stallion series were favorites. As I got older, the classics kicked in, starting with Mark Twain.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Can’t get it down to one. But if I had to reduce it to the most crucial few, they would be the works of the Maharal of Prague and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and Derech Hashem by R. Moshe Chaim Luzatto.
Hidden gems: Which Jewish book or author should be widely known but isn’t?
I sense more and more people with strong Torah background who are bothered by questions of the mission of the Jew and the Torah’s relationship to the larger world. I can’t think of a better place to go for insight in those areas than the works of Rav Kook.
As the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, you have been involved, and allied, with evangelical groups in combatting the secularization of America. What books would you recommend to someone interested in this subject?
The works of Robert George at Princeton, and his students, including Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis. If we broaden things to include periodicals and websites, let’s throw in First Things magazine and thepublicdiscourse.com.
What books might people be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
No one who knows me would be surprised by anything on my bookshelves.
What book hasn’t been written that you’d like to read?
How to Make Aliyah Without Stress.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Talmud Yerushalmi and, l’havdil, War and Peace.
Years ago, many rabbanim thought reading novels was a waste of time. Do you read novels? Or just non-fiction?
I used to read fiction exclusively. Books like Crime and Punishment were full of insight into the human personality for me. As an adult, I just have been too busy to allow myself the luxury. It’s all non-fiction these days. Except for the New York Times, which may be closer to fiction than non-fiction.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
The last one I put down prematurely was none of the above. The Choice to Be by Rabbi Jeremy Kagan is excellent and deep. I just found it too slow a read for me given that I do most of my reading just before nodding off at night and need something that doesn’t make my brain work so hard at that hour.
If you could recommend one book to Jewish leaders, what would it be?
Meant to Be by Rabbi Marvin Hier. It successfully blends responsibility for Jewry on a global plane, complete fidelity to halacha, and humor.
What book do you plan on reading next?
Moshiach’s autobiography. Soon.
The questions and format of this interview are modeled on The New Times’ “By the Book” column.