Title: Tallis & Tefillin, Bagels & Lox
By: Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
Published by: Menucha Publishers
When asked how he could possibly have written 60 different books, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski replied that he had not in fact written 60 different books but just one book, in 60 different ways. The main theme that reflected itself in those books was self-esteem, the lack of which, Rabbi Twerski argued, was a primary cause of many psychological and spiritual ailments. Thirty books later, his ninetieth book was published a week before he passed away from Covid-19 in early February 2021. Tallis & Tefillin, Bagels & Lox is both classic Rabbi Twerski and surprisingly divergent.
The thesis of the book is that a spiritual life requires both the classic spiritual elements (tallis and tefillin) and the spiritualizing of the materialistic and physical elements of our being (bagels and lox). For the most part, the book serves as a “best of” Rabbi Dr. Twerski. The chapters are short and sweet, each pertaining to a different important topic related to spirituality and interpersonal effectiveness. Direct and indirect references to his previous works abound, providing brief insights into his most important ideas related to happiness, meaning, materialism, alcoholism, character, marriage, anger, sensitivity, honesty and teshuvah, along with insights into the Jewish holidays.
There are stories and quotes from the Torah and the Talmud, chassidic and mussar masters, experts in psychology, intriguing takeaways from his own personal experience as a psychiatrist treating addictions, and even one Snoopy reference. The stories and tone help keep inherently deep and serious topics easy to read and engaging.
One topic that takes a different turn from his previous works is his elucidation of pain and suffering. Rabbi Dr. Twerski informs us that he had been wheelchair-bound for the last few years of his life, suffering from spinal stenosis as well as polymyalgia rheumatica. Until then, his life, he writes, was free of much adversity. He shares with us how his personal experiences transformed the way he understood the role of suffering. It is hard not to be moved by his candidness in sharing his pain.
Shockingly, the one topic that we would expect to be accentuated in this landmark ninetieth book, is notably hard to find: namely, self-esteem. To be clear, the undercurrents of the construct are present throughout, but the fact that it is only briefly mentioned once, in passing, buried in a story at the end of the book, is striking. I am not sure if its scarcity is purposeful or not, and we can unfortunately no longer ask Rabbi Twerski his intentions, however, I would like to propose that it is a fitting conclusion to his unparalleled literary output and a touchstone to his profound life.
When Rabbi Twerski wrote off his writing of 60 books as being only one book about self-esteem, his humility concealed and limited his greatness. Yes, self-esteem is essential and was integral to many of his works. But the range of his impact expands far beyond one limited topic. He wrote and guided us on how to live a life infused with meaning and purposefulness, leading ultimately to spiritual, mental and physical flourishing. His 90 books are about so much more than self-esteem alone, and if you want a great glimpse into the expansiveness of his life’s work, read his latest book, Tallis & Tefillin, Bagels & Lox.