In keeping with the spirit of my previous post, I’m happy to report that my public library has directed me towards yet another wonderful book. This time it’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser by Warren Kozak. Published in 2004, Kozak’s relaxed but inspiring biography chronicles the remarkable life of Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Besser. Because Kozak did a fine job writing about a man whose admirable qualities (and amazing adventures) transcend all boundaries, this is one of those rare books about a religious figure that readers of any faith, or of no faith can equally enjoy.
Besser was born in 1923 in the German-speaking city of Katowice, Poland. At the tender age of 16 with the Nazi Wehrmacht flooding across the border, Besser fled Poland and made the long journey over land and sea to British Palestine. After settling in Tel Aviv with the rest of his family, he later married and started a family of his own. Over the next decade he devoted himself to the family business as well as helping build the newly proclaimed State of Israel. While seeking advanced medical treatment in New York City for chronic headaches, Besser quickly fell in love with the city and after a bit of persuading convinced his wife and children to move to the Big Apple. As an American citizen he spent the next 50 years ministering to New York’s Orthodox Jews in addition to assisting with worthy causes like promoting religious education in Poland and restoring its Jewish cemeteries.
According to Kozak, Besser isn’t some holy man with his head in the clouds, completely ignorant in the ways of the world. He’s incredibly industrious. Like clockwork, each morning he leaves his brownstone at 6:30, no matter how late he got to bed the night before. (His doorman swears he doesn’t sleep). After fulfilling his morning religious duties he enjoys breakfast while reading several newspapers, keeping him abreast of politics and world events. He’s also a huge classical music fan with a deep appreciation and knowledge. The Rabbi’s been known to hear a piece on the radio and identify not just the composer but its conductor and if a live recording, where it was performed.
It’s a great book. It’s entertaining, direct and a pleasure to read. There’s a ton of memorable anecdotes. Many of them involve the Rabbi meeting powerful and influential people and thanks to the his charm, intelligence (not only is he a Talmudic scholar par excellence, his command of history and talent for logical persuasion are considerably advanced) and goodness ends up enlisting them in some noble venture. He strikes me as the kind of person who goes into a meeting with an adversary and the next thing you know that adversary is not only sharing the Rabbi’s point of view but winds up being a long-lasting friend.
Last month when Kim and Leslie hosted the Nonfiction November project, the topic of one week’s discussion dealt with pairing nonfiction books with works of fiction. If I had only read this book just few weeks earlier I would have happily contributed a post pairing The Rabbi of 18th Street with Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. But alas, it was not meant to be.
While some prospective readers might see The Rabbi of 18th Street as a modest book worth overlooking, I would strongly disagree. Finding Kozak’s biography both entertaining and inspiring, I have no hesitations recommending it.