Olam Yehudi is proud to inaugurate a new monthly column, modeled on The New York Times’ popular “By the Book” interviews with distinguished authors. Our first interviewee is Rabbi Berel Wein, a popular historian, world-renowned lecturer, and the author of over a dozen works.
What books are currently on your night stand?
A book on the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty in WWI, a Hebrew biography of the Chazon Ish by a professor at Hebrew University, and a new exposition of Orot (Rav Kook’s seminal work) by Bezalel Naor.
What’s the best book about Judaism you’ve ever read?
This Is My God by Herman Wouk. In my years as a rabbi I found this book to be invaluable as a tool for bringing Jews closer to their heritage and tradition.*
What kind of reader were you as a child? What were your favorite books and authors?
I was an avid reader. I loved books about Lincoln and the American Civil War, especially those by Bruce Catton.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Tenu’at HaMussar by Rabbi Dov Katz. It portrays heroic figures, innovative ideas, new directions, and a striving for moral and spiritual greatness. The fact that for various reasons mussar as a movement no longer exists in strength in the Jewish world is to me a sad comment on our society.
What books might people be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
Lots of baseball books. They are buried in the back row of the bookshelves.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
Tending the Vineyard. It is the story of being and how to be a rabbi.
If you could require Jewish leaders to read one book, what would it be?
In all due modesty, my book Patterns in Jewish History.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
A biography of Hamilton and Jefferson. I just couldn’t get into it though it had critical acclaim.
Years ago, many rabbanim thought reading novels was a waste of time. Do you read novels? Or just non-fiction?
I do not currently read general novels but I am an avid fan of Haim Sabato’s works in Hebrew. Sabato’s prose is reminiscent of Agnon and his descriptions and assessments of Jewish life are poignant and inspiring.
What book hasn’t been written that you’d like to read?
More studies on the prophets of Israel and their messages to our times. Accurate and truthful biographies on great rabbinic figures of the past two centuries.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Works on Jewish mysticism.
What do you plan to read next?
Rav Kook by Yehudah Mirsky.
* Herman Wouk wrote “This Is My God” (1959) after Rabbi Leo Jung of Manhattan’s Jewish Center gave him Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s “The Nineteen Letters” and suggested he write something similar.