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Tending the Vineyard
By Rabbi Berel Wein
318 pages; $22.99
I have an admission to make. I first picked up Rabbi Berel Wein's Tending the Vineyard with an attitude that was, to say the least, rather wary. I was prejudiced by what I knew to be Wein's right-of-center position religiously.
Yet as I began reading, I came to the realization that people with varying religious viewpoints had little to fear from Wein's chatty mixture of memoir and rabbinic guidebook. The villains of Wein's book are indeed in our midst, but they are not defined according to political lines. Rather, they are the petty, small-minded people one finds in almost every synagogue, and, more to Wein's point in his musings on "the life, rewards and vicissitudes of being a rabbi," they are the bane of every rabbi's career.
It's hard not to find oneself on Wein's side as he relates pointed anecdotes from his 50 years in the rabbinate (Miami Beach, Monsey and currently Jerusalem). His conversational style and self-deprecating humor make him an intrinsically likable, if very human, protagonist.
The lessons espoused by Wein to the potential rabbis or laypersons to whom the book is addressed will rarely be found earth-shattering. But that is often the case with the most frequently required (and most frequently ignored) good advice. If Tending the Vineyard is short on thorough argumentation, it is more than made up for by being long on two qualities often in short supply around Jewish communal life - experience and common sense.
Of course, there are some people who will find themselves less comfortable with the contents. Those who find themselves identifying less with Wein than with such characters as the contentious synagogue president or petty rabbinic rival may well find themselves squirming in their seats where others find a humorous, even hilarious anecdote. Perhaps there are some synagogue board members who will find it unpleasant to compare the small-mindedness they exhibited during their rabbi's salary negotiations with Wein's dignified outlook. Such people (and we all know the type) would do well to turn the pages of Tending the Vineyard with anxious anticipation.
But for those who share Wein's sensibilities, if not his particular outlook, this book's conversational style and lively anecdotes make for a very pleasant read.
The readers of The Jerusalem Post may already be familiar with his style from his weekly column; others may know of him from his lectures on Jewish history, distributed throughout the English-speaking Jewish world. For longtime Wein fans, no more recommendation will be required other than the assurance that Tending the Vineyard does not disappoint.
But I would venture to suggest this book even to readers who wouldn't necessarily go agog at one of Wein's speeches on the parasha. That is because the friendly style that Wein has become known for is particularly suited to a memoir such as this.
It would be quite clear from the tone of the book, even were the author not to say so explicitly, that "this has been a fun book to write" - despite Wein's revealing some painfully embarrassing stories. And while the book is very much oriented to the values Wein associates with the teachings of the Torah (and, though rarely mentioned as such, values inculcated from Western culture), it largely avoids preachiness by dint of Wein's infectious humility and sense of humor. All that makes for a book that can be honestly recommended, even to the Artscroll-skeptics among us.
With the exception, of course, of those unpleasant types who are often the brunt of Wein's anecdotes. They should run for cover.