The Children’s Book About R. Aharon Lichtenstein That Belongs on Your Summer Reading List
The best children’s books miraculously manage to transport their readers to innocent and inspiring realms. For children’s books designed for parents to read to their children, these readers include children and adults alike. The deceptively high level of difficulty in pulling off this feat is magnified for non-fiction authors. The challenge is even greater for those who seek to capture R. Aharon Lichtenstein, a brilliant Rosh Yeshiva who thought with nuance and complexity, and whose own prose was legendarily arcane. (“Let us not now inter him in a Procrustean sarcophagus” comes to mind.) As they started on the newest volume in Divrei Shir’s Hebrew-language “Gedolei ha-Umah le-Yaldei Yisrael” series, authors Noam and Shira Vangrober and illustrator Shmuli Landsman might have felt like they were looking up from the base of an author’s Everest.
Little wonder that some observers had expressed skepticism at the prospect of a children’s book about R. Lichtenstein. Some wondered whether there would be enough stories to constitute a marketable book. Others feared the prospect of hagiography, worrying that the book would reduce R. Lichtenstein to a cookie-cutter “Artscroll biography” that idealizes its subject while failing to adhere to basic historical methodologies in researching their subject. It would have come as little surprise if the series editors would have opted to write on countless other more “exciting” personalities for the most recent volume of the “Gedolei ha-Umah” series. The stories one could tell about R. Aharon seem to pale in comparison to many other figures that were previously featured in the series, including R. Goren, the elder and younger R. Kook, R. Aryeh Levin, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Yet against these tall odds, the Vangrobers and Landsman produced an exquisite volume, demonstrating that during and after his life R. Lichtenstein in fact had much to share with children. What are the book’s major features, and what makes it such a success?
As a children’s book, this volume checks off all the right boxes. The images are beautifully and brilliantly rendered. Each two-page mini-chapter stands on its own, typically comprising one page of text and an accompanying illustration of R. Aharon and others including his father, mother, wife, students, children, and grandchildren. The book dwells on factual, inspiring stories about young Aharon’s childhood, including his parents’ prescient flight from pre-war France, their brief stint in a Torah-bereft town in Mississippi, and their eventual move to New York. Stories from the latter period include episodes of a young Aharon sneaking a flashlight into his room so he could study Mishnah under the covers, his yeoman’s efforts to save $55 to purchase a brand new set of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and his ultimately successful pleas to Dr. Belkin, then-President of Yeshiva University, to be admitted to R. Soloveitchik’s shiur at age 16.
After briefly describing his time earning a doctorate, his marriage to R. Soloveitchik’s daughter Tovah, and his return to YU as Rosh Kollel, the book turns to the family’s aliyah and R. Aharon’s role of Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a position he was to hold until the end of his life. The stories emphasize his mesirut nefesh in abandoning a cushy life in America; his sense of ethics, as exemplified in his insistence on waiting on line and signing up for bus trips just like his students; his kindness, captured by the special interest he took in a student who had lost a child; and his integration of his appreciation for sports into his messages and ethical personality. All the stories are highly relatable, place special emphasis on his interactions with children and students, and, above all, illustrate his love for and dedication to his parents, children, and grandchildren.
But what impressed me most was not just that the authors managed to make R. Lichtenstein relatable to children, but how they left an indelible impression on me as an adult. I struggled to pinpoint exactly why. Certainly, there were the biographical tidbits I picked up along the way – such as his father’s 450 km bike ride from the southern border of France to Marseille to secure a visa for the family; the family’s brief sojourn in Mississippi; and R. Aharon’s post-surgical request from his doctor inquiring whether he was still permitted to play ping-pong with his grandchildren. The brilliant framing narrative rubric of ha-oleh ba-har, one who refuses to permit any obstacle from impeding his lifelong aspiration to ascend the mountain of God, rings true, inspires, and creates an element of unity that holds together the entire book. The book’s literary qualities are formidable, most powerfully the way the book comes full circle from an image of a young Aharon clutching his brand new, beloved copy of Mishneh Torah, to one of an aging R. Aharon embracing the same set of Rambam when he realized he no longer had the physical strength to learn. The exquisite language itself, drawn from various biblical verses (“A Psalm of Thanksgiving,” “Not famished for bread”) and ma’amarei Hazal (“We are exiled to a place of Torah,” “Who is Wealthy?”), parallels R. Lichtenstein’s own literary brilliance. And yes, in my case, a bit of nostalgia on the part of a student never hurts.
But most moving is the purity of character that shines through every page. The nexus between the genre and subject means that an authentic aura of innocence permeates the entire book. This, sadly, is the antithesis of so much that we have come to take for granted from our so-called leaders, which too often includes those who occupy prominent positions of religious leadership. By comparison, the book seems quaint, as if it captures a bygone era.
Take modern politics. Politicians are generally rewarded in the polls for berating one another in public; R. Aharon publicly begged mehilah from two students whom he had inadvertently embarrassed. Politicians jockey for top billing in their party; R. Aharon accepted the position of Rosh Yeshiva on condition that R. Amital would serve as his equal co-head. Politicians regularly skirt or blatantly ignore ethical boundaries; R. Lichtenstein was so committed to ethical behavior that, no matter what anyone suggested to the contrary, he stood in the back of the line to receive his dinner portion just like his students did.
But it’s not only in comparison with politics, which doesn’t set the highest of bars for ethical achievement. The contrasts to the norms of today’s culture are equally telling. Our age is unflinchingly pragmatic; the Lichtensteins idealistically turned in their secure American lives for an uncertain future on a barren hilltop in the Judean hills. Following Pesah each year, American Jews flock to pizza shops to devour hametz; following every Tisha Be-Av, R. Aharon sat privately at his desk and devoured Torah. We (appropriately) sometimes need to close our school doors due to inclement weather; R. Lichtenstein traveled to Yeshiva in blizzards and under threat of rocket fire. Today’s Gedolei ha-Dor are surrounded by rings of “protectors”; R. Lichtenstein answered his own door to thirteen consecutive individuals who came to request charity.
One illustration stands out as most emblematic of this childlike innocence. Highlighting R. Aharon’s encyclopedic range of knowledge of Torah, which issued from not only his brilliance but from his diligence as well, this picture portrays R. Lichtenstein lounging on an imaginary island with his Ramban al ha-Torah, the sefer he regularly said he would bring along if he were stranded on a desert island. It is completely fantastical; the image of R. Aharon lounging on a beach chair learning Ramban al ha-Torah while sipping a piña colada is as unrealistic as it is hilarious. This, of course, sums up the magical sense of purity that the authors managed to summon in writing this book.
We live in a world that has long since lost its innocence. It seems fitting that a children’s book about a pure soul can help us ponder what a life of childlike purity might look like. In a way, then, R. Aharon is in fact not only workable under the rubric of the Gedolei ha-Umah series, but its perfect embodiment.
No book is perfect, and surely this is no exception. While the illustrations are beautiful, they are mixed in terms of quality, and especially how powerful an image they conjure. For instance, the images of R. Aharon and his father in a near-empty synagogue in Mississippi, or of R. Aharon with his family on the plane during his aliyah trip, are more bland than many other pictures in the book. The decision to portray Dr. Belkin but not R. Soloveitchik may have been intentional, but strikes the reader as odd. One or two mini-chapters are not so compelling, including the incident about the doctor R. Lichtenstein called on erev Yom Kippur to answer a question, and the story detailing the shock of the students that R. Lichtenstein went straight from the airport after a long overseas flight to Yeshiva to teach instead of resting at home first. One glaring omission is R. Lichtenstein’s appreciation for general culture and literature; his valuation of Torah ve-Hokhmah is all but absent. Given that the introduction, written for adults, mentions his doctorate at Harvard explicitly, one assumes that this decision was not ideologically driven but because Israeli youth are unlikely to appreciate the point. I can’t say with confidence that this decision was a poor one, but I can say that something important is definitely missing, which theoretically has a place in a children’s book.
Quibbles and the larger omission of Torah ve-Hokhmah aside, the larger picture remains the same. If you are comfortable with reasonably accessible modern Hebrew and are blessed with age-appropriate children, try to get your hands on a copy. If you are not so blessed, get it anyway. If you’re not comfortable with Hebrew, contact the publisher and urge them to publish an English translation. This “children’s book” is perfect for people of all ages. These days, we can all benefit by being swept away by a magical children’s book about a pure soul who lived in a not-too-faraway land not very long ago.