Words of the wise

The "sages" profiled for this book often shun the spotlight, preferring instead to make real change.

Jewish Sages of Today

Edited by Aryeh Rubin | Devora | 264 pages | $16.95

If all the people whose biographies appear in Jewish Sages of Today: Profiles of Extraordinary Peoplewere in the same room, it would be quite an impressive gathering, avenerable "who's who" of today's American Jewish and Israeli world. Butfame and renown are not what editor Aryeh Rubin was looking at in thepeople whom he chose to profile. Rubin, a successful businessman,philanthropist and scholar, was not looking for "stars" but "sages."

Perhaps this title indicates that he was trying toconceptualize what a modern-day Sanhedrin might look like, a group ofleaders whose work is based on action rather than personal gain, acollection of souls who look out on the Jewish people with care anddedication and are not afraid to take bold and daring action to improvethe world. These were his criteria, and that is what emerged.

"Those profiled," writes Rubin in the introduction,"all have motivations deeply rooted in improving the world, and all aremaking profound contributions to the quality of Jewish life."

They are, in Rubin's view, not only sages, but also "heroes"who dedicate their lives to courageous action on behalf of the Jewishpeople by incorporating "into their being the spark of Jewish heritagethat would fill them with 'awe and amazement.'"

Rubin'sgoal is to use their stories to inspire us by example. The "sages" inthis book, he writes, "have experienced a redemption of their neshama,have found personal meaning through their bond with their work, theirspirit and their Judaism. Their lives have purpose and meaning; knowingtheir ways can only enrich us."

The result of this effort is stirring. The collection ofpersonalities crosses denominations, backgrounds and geographies. Itincludes artists, architects, curators, scientists, musicians,publishers, Nazi hunters, political consultants and many writers andteachers. Together, these "sages" have written dozens of books andhundreds of articles, have been instrumental in building dozens ofinstitutions, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for differentcauses and have won almost every major prize out there, including theMacArthur Prize, the Israel Prize and the Avi Chai Prize.

These achievements, however, are not nearly as astounding as theunderlying behaviors guiding them. Those profiled often shun thespotlight, preferring instead to make real change. Musician DebbieFriedman, for example, whose career spans over a quarter of a centuryand whose music has indelibly changed the way prayer is experiencedin synagogues and informal settings across America, said, "I'mnot in this work for fame. Fame is an illusion. It's meaningless.Conquering the world is not our job. Our job is to be the best thatyou can be."

The best that Friedman can be is pretty extraordinary. "WhenI die," she added, "I want to be remembered not for all themany songs I wrote, but for helping people to feel and be empowered,to know their strengths and to know that special thing aboutthemselves, that they are the most significant and holy being in theworld, and that the person next to them is, too."

This enormous care about the Jewish collective, combined withpassionate, energetic, tireless activism, characterize most of thoseprofiled. Yet, in some ways, the stories are a study in contrast.They are scholars who refuse to take a passive seat in an ivorytower. They win awards but shun the spotlight. They raise millions ofdollars but often live with little themselves - such as Aaron Lansky,the "Jewish Indiana Jones," founder of the National YiddishBook Club, who singlehandedly rescued 5,000 books from a dumpster inthe rain with merely $60 in his pocket, and eventually saved 1.5million Yiddish books from destruction, often working for free.

They are great saviors of the past - whether Yiddish, Holocaust ortalmudic scholarship - but work vigorously to preserve the future.They are fiercely independent-minded, individualistic andnonconformist, yet are committed to the collective and, moreover,belong to a vibrant group of Jewish leaders who are designing thecharacter of the Jewish people - yet we may not have recognized themas a group had Rubin not pointed it out.

The narratives are each unique, some reading like a curriculumvitae and others like a condensed memoir. The chapter on Rabbi Irvingand Blu Greenberg explores half a century of independent achievementsinterwoven with their family life and personal milestones - andtragedies. The chapter on Israel Prize winner Prof. Alice Shalviexplores not only her work on feminism and education for which she ismost well-known, but also her love of Shakespeare and the ways inwhich this love infused her family life.

The chapter on Judith Hauptman looked not only at her talmudicscholarship but at her incredible decision, 25 years after receivingher doctorate, to become a rabbi, and her compassionate work with theaged. The chapters also include interviews with people close to theprofiled, adding a depth and texture to the descriptions.

Other captivating chapters profile Yossi Abramowitz, RuthCalderon, Adin Steinsaltz, Gary Rosenblatt, Avivah Zornberg, DennisPrager, Efraim Zuroff, Joseph Telushkin and Michael Berenbaum. Thefact that the stories do not get tiresome is also a testament to thevarious writers who were recruited for this job, such as DebraNussbaum Cohen, Jane Ulman, Ilene R. Prusher and Stephen HazanAranoff.

This book can potentially be a valuable educational tool. Thenarratives have the power to speak to readers of different ages, whomay see in the stories a reflection of themselves, and might evenfind the inspiration to dream about their own contribution to abetter world.