Book Reviews

Ben’Oni L’Benyamin – Sara Berman

Ben-Oni Sara BermanRabbi Sara Berman is on a mission: to lay bare the experience of depression, to fight the stigma that accompanies it, and to showcase the Jewish texts that allow us to provide greater support to those who suffer and their loved ones.

Ben’oni L’Binyamin is her story. As a memoir, it describes Berman’s personal struggles with depression, and how they have impacted her health, her family, her career, and her relationship with Judaism. As Berman walks her readers through her experiences, the annual cycle of Torah readings and holidays act as both signposts and and mirrors framing the reality of living with depression. As she references these texts, she provides clergy and lay leaders with language and images they can use to increase awareness and understanding for mental illness in the Jewish community. The books highlights her skills as a pastoral caregiver, as she translates her sources with delicacy and deep respect for traditional interpretations. While each section is deeply personal, and Berman does not shy away from sharing painful and intimate details, the texts provide the balance that allows for this book to reach beyond her immediate circle. As such, Ben’Oni L’Binyamin stands on its own as an accessible resource for those seeking to provide spiritual care to those dealing with the challenges of depression. It is a tool that easily earns its spot on a congregation’s bookshelf and in a community support group.

The simplicity of Berman’s writing style makes this book particularly manageable for a non-expert, as well as anyone who might struggle with reading about such a difficult topic in large chunks. Nevertheless, most readers will likely benefit most from having someone with whom to reflect on her words, especially as they will hit close to home for most of her intended audience. It’s not a book to jump into lightly, but those who are prepared to brave the darkness will be richly rewarded for their effort.

Book Reviews

Rebbe ~ Joseph Telushkin

Joseph Telushkin’s 2014 biography of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is an exquisitely detailed and thoughtful description of the the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life and his influence on the international Jewish community. As a semi-outsider in the Crown Heights and Chabad orbit, Telushkin writes with a reverence for what the indefatigable Rebbe accomplished, without glossing over the controversial aspects of his leadership.

I picked up this title while browsing through the Kindle Deals of the Day earlier this year, and was surprised by how quickly Telushkin drew me into the Rebbe’s story. I have never been affiliated with Chabad, the Rebbe died when I was a teenager, and I have some strong reservations about the movement’s organizational structure and theology. Event still, reading this book was a deeply moving personal experience. The Rebbe’s leadership, his mission to reach out to Jews around the world, and his vast celebrity, fundamentally shaped what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. Telushkin’s writing brings the Rebbe’s imprint on my Jewish life into sharp focus.

I especially enjoyed reading about the Rebbe’s years as a university student in Europe before the Second World War and his emphasis on connecting individually and intimately with Jews seeking his guidance.  I was less interested in the controversies relating to his accession to to the position of Rebbe, and the legal battle surrounding the Chabad library. And as impressive as the Rebbe’s influence among political and religious leaders truly was, Telushkin’s continuing references to such relationships threatened to become tiresome. I wish that Telushkin had included more information about the Rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushka, but I can’t blame him for not including material that doesn’t exist. As a celebration of the Rebbe and his work, I appreciated every detail that provided context about how the Rebbe was able to become such an inspiring leader.

Telushkin’s writing is engaging and accessible, although some readers may find the Yiddish terminology difficult. Readers who have exceptionally strong opinions about the Lubavitcher movement may struggle with Telushkin’s portrait of its structures. This biography should be required reading for aspiring clergy, and would be a useful tool for Jewish lay leaders who want to understand the interplay between leadership and community-building. The book has the power to move readers in surprising ways.