The Power of Stories to Shape Identity and Revitalize Community

Best_Boy_jacket.inddBy Dr. Ron Wolfson

Like many authors, I keep a file called “Book Ideas” with everything from one-sentence concepts to fully shaped treatments. After the wonderful reception afforded Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), I wondered what I might write next. Burrowing into my file, I found the draft for The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses, a collection of the favorite stories I tell during speaking engagements to make my points. Essentially, it is the accumulated wisdom of forty years of experience teaching Judaism, family, and community. Most of the stories are funny, some poignant, and all true. All my stories are true.

I decided that Best Boy would be my next book. I broached the idea with Stuart Matlins, the amazing publisher of Jewish Lights, on one of his trips to Los Angeles last year. Ever patient and wise, Stuart looked at me and said: “We have never published a memoir, Ron. How about a follow-up book to Relational Judaism?” I answered: “This is a follow-up book to Relational Judaism. The stories are all about relationships – between me and my Zaydie (grandfather), my parents, my family, my friends, people I’ve met along the way, even my hour with Warren Buffett, the most famous person from my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.”

The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses is about how special it was to watch your Bubbie light Shabbat candles, to sit at your grandfather’s Seder table, to fall in love as a fifteen-year-old at a synagogue youth group event, to raise a young family with children of my own in creative ways. It’s the chronicle of a second generation American Jewish baby boomer, born between the shadow of the Holocaust and the bright brilliance of the heroic founding of the Jewish homeland in Israel.

It is the story of recreating old traditions and practices in new ways, of embracing the freedom and choice to shape a unique American Judaism. These are the stories I tell on the road. I wanted to write them down and lift them up.

Because of our deep relationship, Stuart agreed to publish the memoir, although he noted that it was likely that the book would appeal mainly to family, friends and those who know me in the Jewish community. “Perhaps,” I said. “but I really think the book will appeal to those Pew Jews, the ones in the study, 91% of whom say they are proud of being Jewish, even if they don’t belong to an organization. I call them ‘Broadway and deli Jews;’ they love Billy Crystal and Larry David and pastrami on rye. They, like me, grew up with ‘k-rations,’ Jewish foods that begin with the letter ‘k.’ They will resonate with my tale of a boring Hebrew school and a teacher who called me ‘vilde chayeh’ (wild animal) because I was such a terrible student at five-thirty on a Monday afternoon. I want book club readers to use the Discussion Guide to stimulate sharing their own stories with each other and for boards of Jewish organizations to read it as reminder of what we are really in business to do – to present Judaism as a path to spiritual discovery and communal engagement. I want readers to laugh, to cry, and learn all the while.”

Now that the book has appeared, an early reader gave me another reason to be hopeful that it will find its audience. My rabbi, Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, wrote to me: “Ronnie, you’ve written the perfect antidote to the sour pessimism that afflicts contemporary Jewish life.” There is a fair amount of understandable hand-wringing and angst in our community over a wide variety of issues. Yet, at this New Year, we could use something to remind us that the Jewish experience in the United States of America over the past hundred years has been, in the main, extraordinarily positive. Unexpectedly, this book can be a place of communal meeting, just when we need a good laugh, a heartfelt story, and an uplifting message.

Rabbi Jack Riemer, another early reader, perceptively “got” what Best Boy is all about: “Ron’s educational philosophy is that Judaism is the story begun by the prophets and the sages, continued by the saints and scholars of all the generations, treasured by our parents and grandparents, and now turned over to us to safeguard, to treasure and to transmit. And that it will only be transmitted if we teach our children the joy of being Jewish, and not just the woes that sometime go with it, and that the key to Jewish education is in the home and the family more than in the school or the library. The key to the Jewish future lies in creating precious memories that our children will be able to live off of, even after we are gone.”

There is a palpable power in story telling. It is what we do when we raise funds to support our communal institutions. It is how we learn about each other, how we come to care for each other, how we build relationships with each other. The stories we tell reveal ourselves to the world and, in the process, shape our identities and our memories.

As a kid in Omaha, I have a memory that has haunted me for most of my years. I was told more than once schwer zu sein ein Yid, “it’s hard to be a Jew.” It certainly was in the Russia of my grandparents and the Europe of my in-laws – but, despite the current angst in our community, it is not in the United States of America. Here in this blessed country, here in this land of freedom and choice, we have sought to create a Judaism of inspiration and uplift. I don’t want to say to my children and grandchildren “It’s easy to be a Jew;” sometimes it is challenging. No, I want to say to them, “It’s wonderful to be a Jew,” for Judaism can lead you to a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.

That’s a message we need … right now.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University. His new book, “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights Publishing) is now available in print, e-book and soon as an audiobook, narrated by the author. Sample chapter and videos are at drronwolfson.com.