April 12 marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Nechama Leibowitz. Nechama (as she liked to be called) was one of the most important Jewish bible scholars and teachers of Tanach in the 20th century.
There are numerous lists that detail on what makes for a really good biography. One of the items is that after reading the memoir, one feels as if they really know the subject. In Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim Publications), Yael Unterman has written a brilliant account of Nehama’s life. While she was a most enigmatic and private person, one does get an understanding of this remarkable figure.
While some biographies focus on anecdotal stories and never really penetrate who the person was, Unterman has written a rich biography with tremendous attention to detail. At nearly 600 pages, she leaves no stone unturned in Nechama’s life.
Nechama was a dedicated and tireless teacher who spent decades creating and disseminating her gilyanot (worksheets). She’d mark the answers and send them back to thousands of her virtual students.
While Nechama’s popularity has waned somewhat in recent years here in the US, her story is one that should be read. As one of the great Torah personalities of the 20th-century, Nechama’s life now may seem ordinary (a woman revolutionizing an entire branch of Judaic studies area and receiving a PhD). But growing up in the early part of the 20th century Europe, this was anything but ordinary.
Once of the more interesting chapters is about Nechama’s brother Yeshayahu. A significant personality in his own right, the Leibowitz siblings were as brilliant as they were different. He was quite outspoken and provocative, to Nechama’s more subtle approach.
When once in to a Jewish bookstore today, her books are no longer in the front, some of them may be gathering dust. But perhaps after reading Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, a new generation can appreciate the Nechama’s genius and insights, and return those books to popularity, where they belong.
For the English reader looking to understand Nechama, her contributions to Chumash and Tanach, Unterman’s biography is a most enlightening read.