When I heard that Arthur Kurzweil, the longtime editorial director of Jason Aronson Books, which over the years has returned many classic Jewish works to print, was going to publish a book about Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the translator of the Talmud into English, I couldn't have been happier.
Readers of this column know by now how highly I think of Steinsaltz. He is, in my estimation, one of the truly monumental teachers and scholars of our time. I have said as much repeatedly, as each of his brilliant works has appeared.
And, like Kurzweil, I have not only met him on the page. I also have had the good fortune to sit in on his Talmud classes when he was in New York to promote his translation, which was published over a number of years by Random House.
And I had the even greater privilege of interviewing him several times about his various projects. I was the recipient of his wisdom, his humor and his inestimable guidance. There are few figures like him in the modern world.
I was certain that Kurzweil would be the perfect guide to Steinsaltz's erudition, especially when I discovered that they have shared a special relationship, which is chronicled in On the Road With Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters and Inspiring Conversations With a Man of Wisdom, published by Jossey-Bass.
On the Road?
It seems that Kurzweil was Steinsaltz's designated chauffeur over more than two decades whenever the rabbi came in from Israel to the New York area. In the confined space of a car, Kurzweil could ask any question he wished — and then bask in the glow of the rabbi's wisdom.
How Kurzweil got the position as Steinsaltz's driver is worth retelling. One day, after having read The Thirteen Petalled Rose — one of Steinsaltz's most resonant works — Kurzweil picked up the phone and called the office that, he'd discovered, coordinated the rabbi's activities whenever he was in the United States.
Kurzweil made it clear to the woman who kept the rabbi's schedule that he "wasn't looking for a full-time job and wasn't looking for money. I simply wanted to help Rabbi Steinsaltz in his work. I knew from my reading and my investigations that Rabbi Steinsaltz has ambitious goals, that a motto of his is 'Let My People Know,' and that he is trying to rebuild the Jewish people, a people who have, in the last few generations, been decimated by the Holocaust on the one hand and rapid assimilation on the other."
Perhaps all my certainty and anticipation set me up for disappointment because that's what On the Road With Rabbi Steinsaltz engenders — and it has nothing to do, of course, with the rabbi. This may be predicated as a portrait of Steinsaltz — and that may have been the manuscript's greatest selling point — but all we hear about in these pages is Kurzweil.
Before I sat down to write this review, I discovered, completely by chance, that the novelist Christopher Buckley, who also edits the magazine ForbesLife, calls his editor's note "But Enough About You." Now there's a title that could just as easily be affixed to Kurzweil's book — and be a far more accurate depiction of what transpires in its pages.
Let's just continue the author's story about how he got his job as chauffeur. Kurzweil noted at the end of the paragraph quoted above that Steinsaltz has been working to rebuild the Jewish people. Doesn't that lead you to believe that we'll hear more about his crusading work? Well, you'd be wrong.
Here's what Kurzweil has to say: "I've seen it in my own family," he notes of the devastating effects of assimilation. "My grandparents came to America from Eastern Europe in the first part of the 20th century, along with some of their siblings. Today, many of the grandchildren of those immigrants have either little interest in Jewish tradition or no longer consider themselves Jewish. Some of my cousins even deny being Jewish and make efforts to hide it from the world.
"For some reason, I was one of the few exceptions. Although I did not begin the process of becoming an observant Jew until shortly before I encountered Rabbi Steinsaltz's writings in my late 20s, for some mysterious reason, Judaism has called to me since childhood."
Now, if you thought that the reintroduction of Steinsaltz's name in that paragraph meant we'd be returning to the rabbi — and would learn something about what he has to say to the world — you'd be incorrect again. Here's some more of what Kurzweil has to say about himself:
"Once, when I was in the second grade, I announced to my teacher that I could not eat in the cafeteria because it wasn't kosher. I did not live in a kosher home, and I have no idea why I said that, but for some reason I wanted to declare my identity in that way. By the next day, I was eating in the cafeteria again, but it was the first of a continuing string of little moments that reflected an inner yearning."
Kurzweil moves on to describe college experiences in the next paragraph. But right afterward, he returns to the woman in the New York office, telling her he doesn't want money, he just wants to help. If you thought we were moving on, you'd be mistaken yet again.
"I told her that in my own far lesser way, I had chosen the same career as Rabbi Steinsaltz had. Since the age of 23, from the end of 1974 to the present, all of the dozens of newspaper and magazine articles I have written; all of my public speaking and teaching at hundreds of synagogues and Jewish community centers throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico; all of my professional work as a publisher of hundreds of books of Jewish interest; and even my frequent performing as a magician in my Jewish magic show have been directed to my one great passion, the Jewish people."
Did I say somewhere that I thought Kurzweil was the perfect guide for learning about Steinsaltz. Well, I learned quickly that the only guide he's suited to be is into his own outsized ego, which just keeps filling this book with hot air.
Off This Path!
Symptomatic of Kurzweil's egocentricity is that when he tells us about the first time he picked up the rabbi what we hear about for paragraphs is how he thoroughly cleaned his car, and then about his childhood scrapes with Judaism again.
Typical of Kurzweil is that at one point when he's picking up the rabbi to help facilitate him with a book tour, all we hear about is the fact that Kurzweil happened to be on a book tour, too.
"At the time of my first car trip on the road with Rabbi Steinsaltz in 1986, I was in the middle of my own book tour.
"In some ways that book tour has never ended because it is now 25 years since my first book, From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History, was published, and I am still speaking around the country on the subject of how and why to climb one's Jewish family tree.
"But for the first six years of the book's life, I lectured in 40 cities a year. And I was exhausted. The Jewish Lecture Bureau told me that for four years in a row, I was their most frequently booked speaker.
"The book tour was grueling. … "
Once the book gets going, Kurzweil drops in a passage now and then extracted from one of Steinsaltz's books, set off from the major text by a different typeface. Perhaps he thought this was a way of letting people get to know the rabbi, and that he'd then be free to talk more about himself. Whatever the rationale, you should know that the passages he's chosen don't serve Steinsaltz well. They seem to dumb him down, like everything else in this book.
Be duly warned. Seek out Steinsaltz on your own. His books are readily available. This book was meant to serve no one but it's author.