Book Reviews

Eli D. Clark

Rabbi Mordy Ignatzkowitz Explains It All for You (Hassagas Gvul Publishing, 1999), translated and edited by Suri Horowitz-Margareten, 237 pp.

Throughout our history, there have been Jews who, confounded by the crossword puzzle of current events, have stared up at the heavens and asked, -Why?- But Hashem, Who has better things to do, does not send the answers directly. Instead, in every generation, He blesses us with a guide who unravels these mysteries for us: The Rambam, the Arizal, the Besht, the Fonz.

HaRav Mordechai Ignatzkowitz is such a person. A disciple of the well-known mystic, R. Azarya Eyd Zomem, R. Mordechai is world-famous for his lectures, which draw overflow crowds to his 1-BD bedroom apartment - in Bnei Brak. His radio show, -Toch Kedey Dibbur,- attracts countless listeners. And his tapes are best-sellers from the fast food restaurants of Flatbush to the basements of Borough Park. Now, for the first time ever, Rav Mordechai's wisdom is available to the English-speaking world (provided that the English-speaking world has $24.95 plus tax. Okay, for you, no tax.). R. Mordechai's daughter-in-law has painstakingly transcribed hundreds of hours of speeches, shiurim, diatribes and anecdotes and lovingly presented them in fractured English. The results are nothing short of wondrous.

War and conflict, evil and wickedness, pain and agony -- synonyms like these that have plagued man for generations are explained by R. Mordechai. In surprisingly simple sentences, he describes how our lives interconnect, how world events are governed by Hashgochoh, and how to make a fortune investing in soybean futures. With a mixture of wit, warmth and erudition, R. Mordechai shines a halogen light into the darkness of life. He illuminates the daily kindnesses of Hashem, the ever-present touch of the Divine thumb on the deli scale of history. More importantly, R. Mordechai reminds us what Hashem really wants from us: dedicating ourselves to Torah living, reaching out to the less fortunate, wearing felt hats with wide brims.

What makes this work truly memorable is the stories. R. Mordechai has an endless trove of moving, relatively truthful stories. For example, R. Mordechai tells the heartbreaking tale of a young girl named Sora Miriam, who loves to ice skate. When it becomes clear that her skating would conflict with her responsibilities as a frum girl, she bravely abandons Yiddishkeit and moves to Utah to train with an Olympic coach. Sora Miriam, now known as Shana Marie, performs well in her first competition, only to be bested by a young Asian skater named Mikudesheth Li. After a brief modeling career, Sora/Shana realizes her error and returns home, where her loving parents have waited for her, patiently renting out her bedroom in her absence. Happily, she rejoins her family, marries a young kollelnik named Feuchtwanger, and develops an incredible recipe for avocado kugel. As luck would have it, though, Sora's own daughter, Devoyri, changes her name to Dorothy, marries Steve Hamill, and becomes the best-known U.S. figure skater of the twentieth century.

Enhancing R. Mordechai's inspiring stories are beautiful color illustrations and a handsome, faux leather binding. Available with or without an accompanying CD (featuring Peggy Lee), the book is an ideal Bar or Bas Mitzvah gift and is sure to please everyone in the family with a fourth grade reading level or below.

Books Briefly Noted

A Summary of New and Noteworthy Jewish Fiction and Non-Fiction

Problems with Contemporary Halakhists Volume III. A nationally recognized authority on Jewish law analyzes a host of contemporary halakhic issues including: employing a gentile to brush one's teeth on Shabbat, living next door to a house with a television antenna, and the required height for a mechitzah at one's Shabbat table. Also discussed: whether someone seen eating broccoli remains kasher le-edut, and the halakhic considerations that apply to the purchase of a sport utility vehicle. In a special appendix, the author lucidly describes the process of pesak, demonstrating the need for objectivity and sensitivity and explaining why his own rulings are inevitably correct.

The New Jewish Way in Dating and Marriage. A practical guide to the contemporary search for a shidduch. Features a letter written by a prominent Gadol on choosing a mate: -The Eternal Question: Yichus or Hard Assets?- In-depth chapters describe how to build a gold-plated résumé, manufacture a stellar family tree, and touch up old wedding photos. Practical sections include nineteen arguments why kollel is essential to the survival of Am Yisroel, fashion hints, and a comprehensive glossary of yiddishisms (-Mastering Yeshivonics-). Chapters for parents include twenty-five intimidating questions on sugyos in Menachos and tips on accessing the credit and tax records of prospective in-laws.

Shver Jordan. In this futuristic novel, a legendary basketball player becomes a rosh yeshivah. His charisma quickly wins him a substantial following, until someone realizes that he cannot read Aramaic and thinks -Tosfos- is a brand of linoleum. As the yeshivah's fortunes start to sink, a loyal student suggests a benefit concert. All of the superstars of Jewish music agree to perform, with their beards. A new song, -Rappin' with the Rogotchover- is introduced and goes on to become a wedding and bar mitzvah standard. The successful concert saves the yeshivah, but Rav Jordan decides to return to sports, moves to Milan and joins a basketball team sponsored by Ragu.

The Real Halakhic Man. A stunning reevaluation of the life and thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Based on unconfirmed rumors, the author reveals that the Rav mistakenly wandered into the University of Berlin while searching for a bakery that sold yoshon bagels. Not wanting to offend the university personnel, the Rav politely agreed to enroll as a student for six years and write a dissertation on neo-Kantian philosophy. This reluctance to offend others was a hallmark of the Rav's patient and gentle personality. For instance, prior to establishing the Maimonides School in Boston, a prospective parent asked the Rav if the school would be co-ed. The Rav (who naturally never considered the option), assumed the questioner said -ka-ed,- i.e., like a witness testifying to the emes of Torah, and said, -Yes.- Rather than risk embarrassing a fellow Jew, the Rav permitted the school to teach boys and girls together.

Another revelation relates to the Rav's involvement with Mizrachi as honorary president of Religious Zionists of America. The author explains that the Rav's affiliation did not signify agreement with religious Zionist ideology, but a subtle strategy to persuade Mizrachi to merge with Agudath Israel or, at least, change its name to -Rejecters of Zionism of America.- Indeed, for most of his life the Rav chose not to travel to Israel in silent protest of the existence of a secular Israeli government. Interestingly, in the 1970's, the Rav planned a late November visit to the Holy Land, but missed his flight when his Thanksgiving dinner ran late.

A Man in Shul. This satirical novel follows the vain attempts of a Southern Jew to find a shul in which he can daven undisturbed by talk of sports scores and stock prices. In one memorable episode, he feigns deafness; but the talkative neighbor, instead of falling silent, initiates a conversation with another person, in which he loudly comments on the hero's bad haircut, ugly tie and unattractive wife. A few chapters later, the protagonist is dragged against his will to a -kiddush club- by an amiable surgeon who cheerfully insists, -We need a minyan to drink bourbon.- In the unrealistic conclusion, the hero finds a quiet Young Israel in Queens.

The Toaster in Jewish Law. A long overdue study of the halakhic issues relating to the electric toaster, complete with 73 color illustrations. Written by a respected member of an obscure kollel, the book analyzes the prohibitions of using a toaster on Shabbos, the procedures for kashering a toaster and cleaning it for Pesach, and recommendations for using a toaster to bake matzoh, heat the kitchen or dry wet laundry. Separate sections discuss the toaster/oven and how to make toast in the wilderness with a hanger, dental floss, and a can of hairspray.

By the Grace of Hashem. A riveting, true-life story detailing the miraculous rescue of a middle-aged mother of five from a riot at Loehmann's. On March 9, 1989, a fight broke out in the petites section between two women over a marked-down Donna Karan business suit. This sparked a melee that spread throughout the mall. One hundred twelve people were taken to the hospital and twenty-four others converted to Buddhism. In the end, criminal charges were filed, but only against a nine-year old boy who witnessed the entire riot, videotaped it and broadcast the film on a cable television channel operated by his older brother from a high school locker. The author, who had gone shopping for an engagement dress for her daughter (still single, but very warm and outgoing!), avoided injury by climbing through an air duct into the ventilation system of the building. Wedged in by her purse, she was stuck for four days, subsisting on breath mints and a weeks-old tangerine. Finally, she was discovered by a well-meaning cat burglar who drove her back to her home in time to catch a re-run of the evening news from 1973. Her husband, a Chassidisher rebbe, had despaired of seeing his beloved wife again, so he moved the family to Sacramento and opened up a combination kosher pizza shop and shtiebel, called -Fress and Bless.-

Tzaddik in a Peltz: Exorbitant Wealth as the Path to Shomayim. This groundbreaking work persuasively argues that Hashem wants all of us to own a six-bedroom house in Lawrence with a pool. The author, a well-known stock broker and letz, provides a historical overview describing a long list of wealthy tzaddikim from Avraham Avinu to the Reichmans. He notes that the Hebrew word for wealth, osher (with an ayin) is almost identical to the Hebrew word for happiness, osher (with an alef) and the Hebrew word for uprightness, yosher. An extensive halakhic section cites numerous Gedolim who praise material gratification, self-indulgence and the mindless acquisition of property. In an innovative passage, he explains that the statement of Chazal, -Marbeh nechasim, marbeh da'agah -- One who increases possessions, increases worry,- actually means that when you acquire possessions, it increases your neighbor's worry, because he now has to go out and buy something better. Chapters include: -Evading Meshulochim -- Delay, Denial and Ducking Out of Sight,- -Is the World Ready for Designer Tefillin?- and -The Six Figure Wedding: Because You're Worth It.-

Fatterstill Halls. A novel set in a girls' seminary in Israel, this absorbing story follows a diverse group of twenty-nine American girls who come to Israel with a combined total of 847 pairs of shoes and spend a year learning about life, Torah and the guilty pleasures of Bamba dipped in chocolate spread. By striking coincidence, all but two of the girls are named Aviva. They develop a close relationship with their madrichah, a twenty-four year old named Chaviva, who keeps telling the girls that, before making a decision, they should ask themselves, -Think: what would the Maharal have done?- In the middle of the year, Chaviva gets engaged, but her parents oppose the match because her fiancé's name is Ido. During the novel's climax, Aviva, the intellectual of the group, has a spiritual experience at the Kotel and decides to make aliyah, unless she first meets a nice guy from Englewood who has been accepted to Columbia Law School.

Conversations with G-d, Book 3. A long-time confidante of the Lubavitcher Rebbe looks back on his weekly meetings with the King Moshiach.

Nu? I'm Tired of Waiting! A well-known Orthodox feminist shares her hopes, fears and frustrations over a lifetime of struggle to transform Orthodoxy into Conservative Judaism. Speaking of her ambition to be an Orthodox rabbi, she writes, -I've always dreamed of standing and begging the congregation for silence in shul or watching my baal ha-batim fall asleep during my derashah.- She writes of her reverence for tradition and her desire to undermine it. In a stirring passage, she speaks of following in the footsteps of her heroines: Joan of Arc, George Eliot and Aunt Sadie. (In 1963, Aunt Sadie walked out on Uncle Myron for writing a poem about her entitled, -Servile Sadie, My Favorite Lady.-) Looking to the future, the author predicts that the laws of taharat ha-mishpachah will be updated, such that all married women will be required to make a monthly visit to the manicurist.

Katz in the Sheitel. The light-hearted story of Elana Katz, a young corporate lawyer in New York who heaves her briefcase into the Hudson River and becomes a full-time sheitelmacher. She soon discovers an untapped market for European virgin human hair sheitlach and popularizes a new wig design modeled after Marilyn Monroe's hairstyle called the -Rollin' Rebbitzen.- The style is an instant smash, and Elana opens salons in Brooklyn, Bnei Brak and Baton Rouge. With the help of her husband, a computer programmer, they launch the Kimchis Kollel, dedicated exclusively to the study of Gemara Sotah. Years, but not months, pass. At the suggestion of a prominent Gadol, the sheitel business is sold to Merrill Lynch which merges it with a company that sells flavored seltzer on the Internet. Without a business to run, Elana retires and dedicates herself full-time to criticizing the housekeeping skills of her daughter-in-law.

Triumph of Destiny of Survival. A sweeping history of the Jewish people told from the perspective of a twenty-seven year old accountant named Kasriel. Skipping back and forth between centuries, weaving midrashim, limericks and legends into each story, the book spins an entertaining though fictitious narrative, starting from Adam ha-Rishon and concluding with the 1974 laying of the cornerstone of Young Israel of Avenue J. Highlights include a retelling of the Bilam story from the perspective of the donkey and an eyewitness account of the Golem of Prague tackling an anti-Semite and removing most of his cardiovascular system. Sadly, the author does engage in historical revisionism, arguing that R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch spoke Mandarin Chinese and claiming that the Mesillas Yesharim was written by the author's father-in-law. Lavishly illustrated, the book includes a reproduction of the invitation to the wedding of R. Saadia Gaon and a photograph of the Vilna Gaon's tefillin mirror.

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