Over the course of his last few books, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman has been forging a very interesting path as an author, specializing in bringing very ‘high’ concepts and sources together, in a way that the English-speaking public can start to get more of a profound glimpse into some of the deeper workings of our faith.
His book on reincarnation, ‘Return Again’, is one of my all-time favourite reads, and I’ve re-read and recommended it to other people many times. So I was thrilled to spot Rav Trugman’s latest offering, called: ‘Prophecy and Divine Inspiration’ when it landed on the shelves of my local bookstore in Geula, a few weeks’ back.
The book is gorgeously-designed and laid out (something I’m paying more attention to, now that I’m up to that stage again with my own book), and the beautiful cover is a true feast for the eyes.
In the book itself, Rav Trugman gives the reader a whistle-stop tour of all things to do with prophets and prophecy, as they’re found in our religious sources. In terms of a historical and religious grounding in the basics of who the main prophets were in Judaism, and what their role was and continues to be, spiritually-speaking, the book cannot be faulted.
It’s meticulously researched, and all sources are footnoted, making it easier for the reader to go back and check in the original sources themselves, if they’re so minded.
Another thing that I liked about the book is how it takes the basic ideas of prophets and prophecies, and then jumps off in a few more original directions, like for example:
And a few other things, besides.
Which brings me to probably my only minor complaint about the book, which is that as someone with a bit more background in the religious basics, I would have liked to have had a section where Rav Trugman dealt with the individual’s experience of prophecy / Divine inspiration in our day.
He touches on that aspect briefly, when he shares the story of when he took a group out to the desert, and the awesomely spiritual experience they had there, which he felt touched at least a little on Divine inspiration.
Personally, I would have liked to have heard more about what Rav Trugman had to say about the modern Jew’s attempts to ‘know God’, and to engage Him in conversation, but I can appreciate that given the enormous scope of the book, and the already copious amount of material it contains, that realistically a more personal narrative will probably have to wait for the next volume.
So to sum up: This is a great primer, or introduction, to the subject of prophecy and Divine inspiration as found in our Jewish sources. It’s suitable for both novices who are new to these areas of Jewish thought, while also providing enough original material and insight to also satisfy the more seasoned Jewish spiritual seeker.
This is the first of what I hope will turn into a regular series of author interviews on the 'Jewish Book Review' blog, bringing you the inside story behind the book. First up: Dassie Dahan, author of: 'The way to becoming Yaelle'. If you're a Jewish author and you'd like to be interviewed, please drop me an email.
1)How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was pretty young, and I wrote my first novel in fourth grade. I was actually a little slow about learning to read in kindergarten, but when I noticed my younger sister reading at age 3, that’s what got me into gear.
2)What excites you the most, about the written word?
Great question! I guess I feel I express myself best that way. It’s always been a way to express what I really want to say, to convey powerful messages in life. I also tend to be powerfully impacted by what I read, too, so it’s also a way to receive wisdom. And in some ways, I think an authentic and better part of myself comes through in my writing.
3)What inspired you to write this book?
When I was at the pre-teen and early teen stage of life, I was desperately looking for something like this to read myself. I was looking for meaning, I had a lot of questions, and my childhood encounters with mild anti-Semitism were very disturbing, but I couldn’t find anything to help me effectively deal with it all. I wanted to know more about what it really means to be Jewish and to have a path in life, and to understand more about God.
Also, I usually couldn’t identify so much with the characters in the novels I was reading – especially the Jewish characters – even in my favorite novels.
I think that pre-teen/teen girls live in two dimensions: On the one hand, they’re obsessed with the stereotypical stuff like fashion, friends and boys. But on the other, they’re also thinking a lot about deeper stuff, like why are we here? What’s up with God? What’s the meaning of life?
I get the impression that the more existential part of what makes teenage girls ‘tick’ isn’t really represented in the YA or Middle Grade literature. Even if a character in a teen novel deals with the death of a family member or friend, for example, it’s about dealing with that specific loss and not really about the existential issues that come along with it, even though real girls do struggle with this. Real girls, even young girls, are deeper and capable of more complexity and maturity than I think society gives them credit for – and maybe even more than the girls themselves realize.
To borrow from Tolstoy, ‘The Way to Becoming Yaelle’ is partially a spiritual and emotional autobiography.
4)What was the hardest part of the writing process, and why?
Finishing! And feeling that the book is ready for publication. There’s always this feeling like it could be better, or that something else needs to be “tweaked.”
5)What are you hoping that your readers will take away from ‘The Way to Becoming Yaelle’?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in the characters and their experiences, and that they’ll be less lonely within their own experiences. I also hope that they’ll learn something worthwhile, and that they’ll come away from the story with things they can actually use in their own lives.
6)What other books have you written, and why?
I wrote a book about Jews from a cultural and social perspective, because I think that a lot of people out there – Jewish or not – are interested in that aspect of Jewish life as well, and not just facts and philosophies. I’ve also written some other novels, too, that I haven’t gotten around to publishing yet.
I tend to write about inner growth and transformation, and even though I am not a Breslover chassid, I tend to have a very Breslov attitude of hope and belief that comes through in my fiction. I believe that people can change and improve and that ultimately, things do get better, even if it takes a long time and a lot of grueling work to get there. I want to encourage people to believe that they can be better than they realize, better than other people think they can be.
7)What’s your next writing project?
I want to concentrate on novels for adults, or ones that are ‘crossovers’ that are primarily for adults, but accessible to young adults, too.
8)If you had to sum up your literary style in one sentence, what would it be?
I’m not sure. I guess it’s real with a bit of subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor throughout.
9)How does your relationship with God / spiritual dimension / beliefs inform your writing?
It really shapes it tremendously, because I feel like just writing for enjoyment or self-expression or to entertain others could otherwise be a little meaningless or self-indulgent. If the writing doesn’t contain a deeper message, then I feel like there’s almost no point. All the great novels and probably even all your favorite novels have some kind of moral message seeping through all the exciting scenes and great writing – even if it’s actually an immoral message. But it’s still there.
10)If there is one thing you’d want readers to take away from reading this book, what would it be?
That there’s meaning in life and that life is a spiritual journey. We just need to embrace that idea, and start hiking towards being whatever kind of person we were originally created to be.
Before you read on, I have a confession to make: this book was illustrated by Gadi Pollack, and I am completely and utterly addicted to his work. Gadi Pollack could illustrate a tyre-changing manual, and I would still spend top-dollar to buy and repeatedly drool over his artwork.
So with that confession out the way, let’s get on to the review of the his latest book in collaboration with Rabbi Baruch Chait, called: Don’t let small problems ruin great simchas.
This book, like the ‘Bad Middot Pirates’ series the pair put out a decade ago, is technically a children’s book, and children of all ages will definitely enjoy Gadi Pollack’s stunning pictures. But really? It’s for us grown-ups, who find it so much easier to digest the mussar and ideas presented by Rabbi Chait when paired with the artist’s stunning pictures.
I got so much out of their middot series that to this day, I still think of ‘Jealous Jake’ when I’m moaning about why my life appears to be so much harder than the next guy’s, or ‘Worried Willy’ when I’m having another fit about letting my kids out of the house to go visit their friends. (In my defense, most of their friends live in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and they usually need to order a couple of armed guards to escort them…)
But the point is, that every time I came back to the books to pore over the pictures, some more of the religious content and ethical outlook got stuck to my psyche, too. And I think the same is true of this latest offering, which takes the reader through a number of major Jewish life milestones, and dispenses wise advice on how the baal simcha should best deal with a number of potential challenges, ranging from boisterous children, to impatient guests and speeches that seem to drag on forever.
Sweet presentation, strong messages
The presentation is so ‘sweet’ that it’s easy to forget how strong some of the messages actually are. For example, the pages about the Upsherin, the traditional celebration when a three year old Jewish boy gets his first haircut, are beautifully illustrated by a sad-faced beautiful Jewish boy.
The adults around him are dangling food, toys and cameras in his face in an effort to distract him and ‘cheer him up’ while he’s having the haircut, but the real message comes across loud and clear from the picture, even though it’s touched on with a very light hand in the actual text: Put your kids first, and don’t forget that the centre of attention is actually a scared, confused little boy that would probably prefer the whole thing to be over and done with and quickly and quietly as possible!
In theory, I bought the book for my kids (now 12 and 14…). In practice, while they both spent a few minutes happily eyeballing the pictures, it was me that ended up reading it on Shabbat, and enjoying it immensely.
Like other Gadi Pollack books, this tome is an investment – but it’s well-worth the money. I got a lot of food-for-thought from my first reading, and I know that when my next simcha comes around the corner, be it an anniversary, wedding (or who knows, maybe even a brit or baby naming), I’ll have another excuse to dig it out, ogle the artwork, and get another dose of Rabbi Chait’s beautiful clarity on what we Jews are actually really meant to be celebrating.
The Association of Jewish Libraries is kicking-off it's first annual #Readukkah this Hanukkah, between Dec. 6-14. In short, read a Jewish book, post a review of it somewhere on the web, and you can win a book (it's fiction, which took the shine off for me a bit, but hey, we can't have everything in life.)
For more details, take a look here:
Rivka Levy's Books: