Finding people to learn from and emulate helps us evolve, whatever our age, and is an especially meaningful practice in uneasy times. Hence, our Role Model Project, for which we’ve been asking interesting and notable people to discuss their role models. We published some of these interviews as Part I in our last issue. Part II continues with a wide range of voices—among them an entrepreneur, a musician, an aerospace engineer and an oncology nurse—who tell us who they admire and why. We hope that these interviews will inspire you to identify your own role models, and we’d love to hear who they are. Please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on your preferred social media platforms.
Jennifer Bardi, Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, Noah Phillips, Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler & Laurence Wolff
I have just spent five years trying to penetrate the impenetrable Angela Merkel (b. 1954) and to figure out what makes the most successful politician of our time tick. After so long covering a subject, I’m usually left feeling somewhat disillusioned and disappointed. The opposite is the case with Merkel; the closer I got, the more I admired her and the more I felt that she had lessons for all of us. Particularly for women, of course, but for anybody interested in power—how to get it without selling your soul, how to keep it and how to keep some of the most voracious autocrats at bay. There’s just no one to compare to Merkel’s “immoderate moderation,” which is now so missing on the world stage. And I think she provides a template for how to stay human and how not to open every aspect of yourself entirely to the people you serve, and yet always to be aware that indeed it is they whom you serve and not the other way around.
There’s so little of that humility of service in the world right now. And I think in her leaving office, she provided the final lesson for how a democracy is meant to work; she has receded from the limelight and from the stage, because she believes that 16 years is enough.
There isn’t a woman politician alive who would not benefit from studying her example. I’m not a politician, but these days, when I’m about to lose my temper, fly off the handle or get exasperated, be it with a child or at the state of the world, I think about her.
Merkel has a plexiglass cube on her desk that says: “In calm, there is strength.” I had one made for myself and for my daughter—little silver cups that we keep our pens in. It’s what she taught me: Just don’t take the bait. The best way to deal with bullies is to deprive them of the excitement of rising. So, yes, she’s my role model.
The sad truth is that there are damn few role models right now in the world, certainly among politicians. Of course, we can point to great writers and artists and musicians; we all have our favorites. But in terms of public officeholders, there are so few. And that’s really unfortunate because we need decent, honest, dedicated public servants.
I think the greatest man of our time, who absolutely is at the top of my list of most admired, is Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), with whom my late husband, Richard Holbrooke, and I spent real time. He stayed with us a couple of times in New York and we had an actual friendship, Richard and myself and Madiba, as he was called. Picking up on the theme of Merkel’s moderation, of course Mandela had immense charisma to go with his moderation, but the fact is that South Africa would likely have descended into chaos and civil war had he not had such a generous acceptance of the “other.” And he came out of the most brutal incarceration, 27 years, and yet he loved life. He loved every minute and was so happy to be free and to be out and had zero need for revenge on his captors. And that, I think, makes him my (and hopefully others’) supreme role model for what a human being can be.
He would stay with us at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the official residence of the U.N. ambassador, when Richard held that post. And we would walk from the Waldorf to the U.N., just a few blocks, and he would lean on my arm. He was already quite frail. And he would say, Kati, you are my crutch. And I think about that in moments of despair, that at least once or twice I was able to be Nelson Mandela’s crutch. It was the privilege of my life, really.
Kati Marton is a Hungarian-American journalist and the author of nine books, including True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy; Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America; and The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.
When the survival of our species is threatened by catastrophic climate change and when the foundations of the world’s most heralded democracy are so imperiled, I can think of no finer living role model than former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore (b. 1948). His profoundly spiritual 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, awakened me to the cause of environmentalism, which became a theme of my Shabbat sermons and my college courses in Jewish ethics. Although eclipsed by his subsequent best-selling book and Academy Award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, that first trailblazing volume—a modern midrash on the current existential threat to humanity—remains for me the most inspired work on the subject.
With more than a third of Americans still believing the “Big Lie” about the 2020 presidential election, it is good to recall the graceful manner in which Gore, after the far more questionable 2000 election, called George W. Bush to congratulate him and then called on his supporters to rally around their new president. I know of no more inspirational—or more cerebral—battle cry against the twin evils of Trumpism’s ongoing rape of the foundations of American democracy and the fossil fuel industry’s continued rape of the planet than Gore’s grand address to Harvard’s graduating class of 2019. It should be required viewing in American public schools’ depressingly degraded civics curricula.
From a Jewish perspective, there is Gore’s model of genuine love for our people and for the State of Israel, powerfully captured in his address to the official celebration of Israel’s golden anniversary. It was a majestic Bible-based discourse on Jewish resilience, stretching from the Divine promise of the Land to Abraham through to the consolation prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and culminating with Gore’s recitation of the Shehecheyanu blessing, in Hebrew no less! I was thrilled to be in the crowd that day on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus when Gore—who was at the time being mocked as a “tree-hugging dreamer”—preached about the power of dreams in a rousing homily about the Joseph story. How through his own dreams and his interpretations of others’ he was both subjugated to servitude and elevated to grand political office, then connecting Joseph’s affirmation that his dreams were divinely bequeathed with Theodore Herzl’s more secular maxim millennia later: “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni (1927-2022), was another role model of mine, the most inspirational person I have ever known. Raised in a Hasidic family in Sighet, Romania, from which he was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 16, he went on to become the 20th century’s most eminent “source-critical” scholar of classical rabbinical literature. While his career as a professor of the Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was universally acclaimed, Halivni’s deeply moving memoir, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, and his masterpiece of post-Holocaust theology, Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology after the Shoah, have had the widest impact.
In the memoir, Halivni documented the strategies he deployed to survive indescribable suffering, most notably by finding desecrated fragments from destroyed sacred Hebrew scrolls and texts and studying them almost hypnotically to rise above the horrors that might otherwise have consumed him. Theologically, I know of no more compelling exemplar of the unique power of undogmatic, anti-fundamentalist religious faith than Halivni’s inspiringly painful, lifelong negotiation between belief and doubt. On a personal level, in our many private conversations over the years, Halivni’s words and power of example fortified me during my life’s most trying times. His constant warnings against the corrosive, indeed fatal, effects of anger and bitterness were personified by his unfailingly gentle and kind demeanor.
Allan Nadler is a rabbi and professor emeritus of religious studies at Drew University and the author of The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture.
Herman Wouk (1915-2019) was an Orthodox Jewish author who died at the age of 103. His notable historical fiction includes The Caine Mutiny (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize), The Winds of War and War of Remembrance (both of which were made into television miniseries). He was raised in the Bronx where he lived with his ultra-Orthodox grandfather, who instilled in him a love for observant Judaism. Wouk later credited his grandfather and the Navy for shaping him into who he became.
Wouk’s nonfictional work This Is My God is the most important book I own, and I read it several times a year. It is a review of Judaism with explanations of its laws and customs. What I love about it is that Wouk does not engage in apologetics and instead uses the phrase “so it is written” when covering topics that are often complex to modern thinking. For many, balancing an archaic-seeming Orthodox Judaism and modern life is challenging, but Wouk cements both firmly, and turning to his guidebook is often all I need to be reminded that one can be a passionate Jew, rigidly observant, and a participant in a modern world.
Peter Hotez (b. 1958) is another role model of mine. He is a Jewish-American scientist, pediatrician and vaccinologist, known for his work on neglected tropical diseases, for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine at Texas Children’s Hospital and for his vaccine advocacy. He has become one of the leading voices for public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a steady guide during uncertain times and uses his public profile and social media platforms to convey important data and messaging on COVID-19 and vaccination.
Despite being the subject of vitriol and hate from antiscience establishments and individuals, Hotez continues to engage in public education and remains as unswervingly respectful and gentlemanly as his ubiquitous bowtie. Hotez’s commitment to vaccine equity and global health makes him one of America’s kindest and most important scientists. For me, as a public health advocate and vaccine educator, watching him engage in science communication is a daily lesson not only in science but in manners and restraint.
Hotez is also an inspiring Jew who brings his Judaism to work through his belief in tikkun olam. In September 2021 he spoke on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, about repair and repentance and about his approach to humanitarian global health, coining the term “science tikkun,” which he describes as science for all of humanity. He continues to show the world how Judaism can and should inform responsible public health behavior, because only with civic responsibility can we live well together.
Blima Marcus is an oncology nurse and a member of the ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
First, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014). The reason is that, although he came from a very formal Orthodox world, he was able to understand the interrelationship of all forms of spirituality, and yet keep his identity. He was able to have a sense of humor in a way that was never negative, always positive. And the biggest thing with Zalman was that he showed me how to turn the secular into the sacred. He was an old friend from way back when he used to drive through from Philadelphia to Winnipeg where he was running a Hillel. And he used to drop off these wonderful mimeographed sheets of the Kabbalah. So way back in the 1970s, I began to get hip to Jewish mysticism.
Secondly, in 1971 I got a grant to spend part of the summer with photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990). How I got to know him is a very complicated story, but the bottom line is that there was a movie about Roman on NBC, showing him bending down with a test tube in his hand, dropping something into the lake in Central Park. And the announcer was saying, “Dr. Roman Vishniac, in his search for the sacredness of life, has borrowed from the pond his little animals, and now that he’s through working with them he’s returning them.” So here was this incredible person who revolutionized photomicrography, and I saw that he had a reverence for life through this documentary. Roman showed me that working in these different domains—science and art—wasn’t multitasking but rather was like Leonardo da Vinci. He was able to walk in these two different worlds—the spiritual world and the real world.
In terms of people I haven’t met, when you look into the eyes of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), in his last self-portrait, you see a general emanation of empathetic interaction. You realize it’s not just sadness, it’s not just greatness—you realize when you look into his eyes that he was completely honest. Honest with himself and honest with the world. As a role model, Rembrandt goes deep and presents to me the role not just of art but of humanity and empathy.
Finally, the Russian-born Bauhaus painter, Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944). He is a role model for having been able to move in so many spheres and be free, although he had his prejudices.
I can go on and on, and in each case, it is the particular relationship of the authenticity and truth of the person that moves me to say, “Wow. That’s real.” But I don’t really believe in the idea of role models. Because for me, each person has their moments, governed by context, by their particular history, and by their uniqueness.
Ari Munzner is an artist who escaped Nazi Germany as a child and whose work investigates the relationship of art, science and mythology through the mystery of the microcosm and the macrocosm.
My first and most important role model was my dad. He was an innovator who taught me from the beginning not to be afraid to fail. Fear is what keeps you from innovation. Not making a decision is worse than making a wrong decision. I also consider a number of tech CEOs whom I’ve advised to be role models; I learned from them as much as or more than I taught them.
Historically, I am most impressed with Thomas Edison (1847-1931). He made thousands of attempts to create a long-lasting incandescent lightbulb before he succeeded. Give it up, everyone said, since you will fail. He never gave up and continued to innovate.
Today I believe that the most amazing innovator is Elon Musk (b. 1971). He saw a major problem with transportation and moved to solve it, against all odds. He was probably told many times that his dream of electric cars would never work. And, equally important, he continues to seek to have an important impact—in space, in high-speed travel and in artificial intelligence. Like Edison, he doesn’t give up and never stops innovating. [The author notes that this interview was conducted last summer, before Musk’s takeover of Twitter.]
Uri Levine is an Israeli entrepreneur who cofounded Waze. His forthcoming book is Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution: A Handbook for Entrepreneurs.
Ted Turner (b. 1938) created CNN in 1980 and, as a result, changed the world. He believed we needed a 24/7 television news network. He was absolutely right, even though he was ridiculed in the early years when some were calling CNN “Chicken Noodle News.”
Of course in the years since, CNN has grown enormously, as have numerous other 24/7 local, national and international television news networks. On behalf of all of us news junkies, I am so grateful.
In 1990 Ted and his colleagues hired me to become CNN’s Pentagon correspondent. I was a print reporter, but they told me they were looking for solid journalists to report the news. They assured me the television skills would quickly come. And they thought I would fit in nicely at the Pentagon even though I didn’t have much military experience. A good reporter, they told me, can get the news wherever.
During those early years at CNN, Ted gave me so many opportunities to do exactly that. “Remember,” he often said, “the news comes first. We are the Cable News Network.” He also told me to keep my eye on the big picture and try to explain to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world what was really going on.
From my first day at CNN on May 8, 1990—from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the wars that followed, to the collapse of the Soviet Union and continuing through my time as CNN’s White House correspondent and anchor of The Situation Room—I have tried to do exactly what Ted encouraged me to do—report the news accurately and responsibly. As a role model, he inspired and motivated me and clearly changed my career and my life.
What has also so impressed me about Ted Turner is his commitment to help people in need and to make the world a better place. I believe he felt that creating CNN was part of that mission. When I first met him, I knew he was very wealthy. I knew he could do a lot of things with all that money. But over the years, he truly inspired me by his willingness to devote so much of his time and so much of his money to really important causes—whether to the environment or to health care or to promoting democratic values around the world. What he did was often for future generations, not just for today or tomorrow, and his example had an impact on me. Over the years, I have wanted to help other people and to support various life-saving charities.
Ted also did not mince words. I was never confused by what he said to me—whether it was good or bad. And that example also had an impact on me. In short, I think future generations should learn from Ted’s example. If they do, the world will be a better place.
Wolf Blitzer is the anchor of CNN’s The Situation Room. He was with the Tel Aviv bureau of Reuters and a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post before joining CNN.
This is a hard question because I have so many role models—biblical characters, ancient figures and contemporary teachers, from Samson’s mother to Sappho the ritual poet to the anonymous author of Sefer Yetzirah, the proto-Kabbalistic book, which is deeply elemental and talks about the elements and the directions as tools that God uses for forming the universe.
But someone who really has been my personal mentor is Alicia Ostriker (b. 1937), a well-known poet. I met her when I was in my twenties through the Institute for Contemporary Midrash’s retreats at Elat Chayyim in upstate New York. Alicia taught the writing workshop. She was an amazing teacher—she’d just bring out the text and let us have at it, with no assumption that anybody knew more about it than anybody else. We all met the text in that moment.
Then she’d give a writing prompt, which was always very specific and focused on a very short period of time. For example, “Describe what Lot’s wife is thinking as she looks back at Sodom” or “What conversation do Abraham and Sarah have after Abraham gets home from the Akedah?” The first time she did this, I thought, “This is crazy. Who can write anything in three or four minutes?”
But what I discovered was that it allowed me to tap into something very deep inside myself. Some of the stories that later appeared in my book of midrash, Sisters at Sinai, were written during those three-minute exercises. And today when I teach midrash writing, I do the same thing.
Another role model is Peter Pitzele (b. 1941), one of the founders of bibliodrama, in which close readings of biblical texts are combined with imaginative inquiry and role-playing. He taught me how to do bibliodrama, but Peter is also a master of how to make people feel heard, which extends not only to my bibliodramatic work but to my teaching and to my ritual. The most important thing for Peter is to figure out exactly what you are saying and repeat it back to you so that you know he heard you. That’s a thing I still do. And he is interested in depth. He trusts that people will know how to get to where they need to go and that something meaningful will come out of the opportunity.
Another person I would name is Savina Teubal (1926-2005), author of Sarah, The Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis. Taya Mâ Shere and I founded our organization, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, the week that Savina Teubal died. I didn’t know Savina well, but I had interviewed her not too long before. She was one of the first people to claim that there had been priestesses in ancient Israel. And although my work looks a little bit different from hers, she was one of the first people to say, “This is a real thing.” She also was a great innovator, and she created the ritual of Simchat Chochmah, a ceremony honoring the wisdom of elders that she herself performed when she turned 60.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, liturgist and scholar who cofounded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. Her latest book is Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams.
There are a lot of people who have had major, deep effects on me, but the first was Marcus Raskin (1934-2017). He was the cofounder, in 1963, of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. I met him several years earlier when he and I were both working as legislative assistants to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the father of Congressman Jamie Raskin, who has become quite famous.
In the spring of 1960, with our congressman back home in his district, we didn’t feel like we had anything to do. So Marcus said to me one morning, “Why don’t we find out what deterrence is?” The people in the military were talking about it all the time, but they never explained what they meant. So the two of us called the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the office of the Secretary of Defense, all of which had offices on Capitol Hill. He kept pushing us both to ask why they were doing what they were doing, and to find out why the whole deterrent strategy was insane.
What was important to me about Marcus as a teacher was that he kept asking, “Why?”
People in future generations should know about Marcus Raskin because he, in his own right and for me and then with a dozen people at the Institute for Policy Studies, created an ongoing body of critical knowledge focused on the U.S. government and its policies that always asked: “Why?” And the answer, very often, was not the official reason. He was an extraordinary intellect and an extraordinary gatherer of people.
The second person I would name as a role model is someone I knew in my second career. A few years after writing the Freedom Seder, a radical version of the Passover Seder, I met a very interesting European-born rabbi named Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014).
The first time I really met him was at a Shabbos service at the George Washington University Hillel. There were about 40 of us in the room, and Zalman looked around and said, “With your permission, I’d like to separate the men and the women.” This was 1971. And I said, “No. Not with my permission.” And I explained why. “Oh, I didn’t mean the old-fashioned mechitza where the women have to keep their mouths shut,” he replied. “I’m interested in whether there’s a spiritual dynamic between men and women that we could use to empower the service. How about separating the voices, but not the bodies, so we could get back and forth between them?”
I don’t remember what I thought about the separation of voices, because what happened for me was that this guy who was deeply learned and a spiritual genius had paid attention when I, still a newbie, had said, “No.” And I decided, now that’s a teacher I would really like to learn from.
Growing up, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi was taught that there was a limit to the souls of non-Jews—and certainly of Black Americans. And he realized it was a lie. He learned from Howard Thurman, a great Black philosopher. He learned from Timothy Leary; he learned from Thomas Merton. He learned from everybody. He learned from the earth itself.
So I became both his student and his friend and learned over and over again how to be creative, in pursuit not only of a new paradigm in Judaism but of a new paradigm of America and the world.
Arthur Waskow is a rabbi associated with the Jewish Renewal movement. He is the founder of The Shalom Center and the cofounder of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (ALEPH).
I pay attention not only to what my role models say, but also to what they do not say. The two I’ll mention here never say, “Break yourself trying to heal the world.” Instead, they suggest that because the world needs us, we should fight in our own way for the rights of others.
The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) has become my role model by maintaining the balance between fighting and self-care throughout her fairly young life. She appears to truly believe in the power of the human experience to address whatever problem is at hand. She has said that if a member of the Taliban came to kill her, she would explain that what she wants is a better world for him, for her and for both their children. Whatever that would-be assassin then chose to do or not do, her principles would remain the same. In this way, she conveys: Fight for human rights and for what you value, nonviolently, and in accordance with your principles.
Dr. Dany Sleiman BouRaad (1984-2019) also found that balance and the power it has to change the world. Dany was a psychiatrist and one of my best friends from medical school. Formerly of New York, Dany, who is loved and missed, was a walking, talking miracle, in more ways than one. His genetic inheritance included a razor-sharp mind, the wit to match, and a rare genetic disease wherein the soft tissues of his body were too extensible—too flexible, in other words. His smile extended past the gumline. His elbows, if he wasn’t careful, swung all the way open like door hinges. From eight feet away, I could hear Dany’s four heart valves, each of which had been replaced twice, clicking in rapid, tinny staccato. In the darkness of elevators and radiology reading rooms, I knew exactly where Dany was at all times. And he knew who he was at all times: a man made of metal parts and improbabilities, whose time on this earth was limited. So he made it count.
The last time I saw Dany in person, I was walking into his hospital room on the Upper East Side. I had to pause outside his door with a bag of deli meats in one hand while bracing myself against the wall with the other. For what I heard and what I saw when I peeked around the doorframe was this: Dany, sitting proudly upright on his hospital bed, pain pump beeping furiously to his left, explaining in gentle tones to his boss that, no, he wasn’t coming back to work, ever, but yes, that he wanted to leave a fund to support, in perpetuity, doctors who did good works in their community. Dany showed me that even while actively dying, helping others live better is possible.
When I don’t quite know how to make my time on earth count, these two people help me remember to look around; be paced, calm and deliberate; and find a way to help others live better on their own terms while respecting my own. It’s always possible. Hard, heartbreaking, possibly the last thing I do, but always possible.
Sheyna Gifford is an aerospace researcher, a rehabilitation physician and the founder of Women in Aerospace Medicine.
I’ll start with the earliest of my role models, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). My mother was a classical piano prodigy when she was a kid. When I was growing up, she was no longer performing, but she played our piano at night, and Bach was her favorite composer. I would sneak under the grand piano and just lie there listening to beautiful notes as they cascaded and worked together. Every note Bach wrote had a purpose and a reason for existence. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of compositions that are all just so gorgeous, every chord throbbing with beauty. I later learned that Bach is like a case study in how harmony works. When I try to get people to sing together in harmony, which I’ve done for much of my musical career, oftentimes I’m imitating this master whom I only know through the black and white dots he left on the page.
Turning to more contemporary influences, on Milwaukee’s West Side, where I grew up, there was a rabbi by the name of Michel Twerski (b. 1939). He was the inheritor Rebbe of the Hornosteipler Hasidic tradition, and when he sang, it felt like the angels were singing along. There was just a deep power in his song and in his prayer. I got acquainted with him in high school through my grandfather, a Reform Jew who had become a quasi-Hasid of the Twerski family. He’d take me to that side of town, and I’d hear Michel singing. The sense of warmth and deep connection was very different from the professionalism of much of mainstream American Jewish life, and it made a big difference in my soul that continues to bear fruit. And while I don’t really operate in the Hasidic world, I try to bring forward that feeling in all of my work: the richness, the depth, the curiosity, the warmth, the beauty, the connection that was modeled by Michel Twerski.
Now, on the other side of town, there were a whole bunch of blues bars. The blues music just kept coming from the south, got to Chicago, and then came up to Milwaukee. I started playing in blues jams when I was 12, in these smoky, disgusting places. I can’t even believe my parents let me go there, except they recognized that the music was so good. And there was one singer named Deirdre Fellner (b. 1963). She was an amazing performer who could sing down into the depths of her soul. It’s simple music but infinitely complicated once you actually feel how hard it is to make those notes come alive.
When I was 15, Fellner gave me a great opportunity. She let me arrange a version of “Amazing Grace” for a recording she was making. I played guitar and was in the studio with all these top Milwaukee session musicians. I ended up making a ten-minute-long arrangement, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. It also turned out to be the most crushing, because she didn’t use the song on her album. But this turned out to be a good lesson for me in artistry—how to make a hard choice.
The older I get, the more I realize how Rabbi Twerski and Deirdre Feller shaped me, because they were both singing music that goes straight to the heart. The world of the blues and the world of nigunim go down into the depths of one’s gut and of one’s being. Both transcend time into a sort of heavenly space.
Joey Weisenberg is the founder and director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. His eighth album, L’eila, was released in 2022.
Someone who has had an impact on me and whom I think younger people should know about is the novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887-1970), known also as S.Y. Agnon and the winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature.
I first studied Agnon when I was in high school in Israel and later while writing several books (Anatomy of a Genocide and Tales from the Borderlands) about the area he was from in eastern Galicia—now western Ukraine. Specifically, he hailed from a town called Buchach, the same hometown as my mother’s.
As a young man, he went to Palestine, which was still under Ottoman rule, and lived in Jaffa for four years. There he wrote a story called Agunot. The term is the plural of agunah (“chained woman”), referring to a wife whose husband has disappeared. It was his first major writing in Hebrew, and as a result of its success, he changed his surname from Czaczkes to Agnon. He then spent 12 years, which overlapped with World War I, writing in Germany. After a manuscript he was working on with Martin Buber was destroyed in a house fire, along with his entire library, he returned to Jerusalem and he never left.
Agnon wrote stories, novellas and large novels. And he wrote in a very peculiar Hebrew. It’s difficult to decipher because of his vast learning. The man was mostly an autodidact: He studied Jewish history, he studied the Talmud, he studied Jewish legends. He studied the Bible. And so, his writing has this enormous depth, sophistication and extraordinary psychological subtlety in terms of the various allusions he works into every sentence. It’s therefore a great pleasure but also somewhat difficult to understand Agnon’s writing. And it’s very hard to translate into another language.
One book for which there is a relatively good English translation is A Guest for the Night, about a man who briefly returns to his hometown. The protagonist is much like Agnon himself, who only went back to Buchach twice, once before World War I, which was very destructive in that area and had a terrible effect on the Jewish community there, and once in 1930. With this book, Agnon made me think differently about the history of Buchach and about the extent to which that town, as he presented it, represented much of Jewish civilization before the Holocaust. Published in 1939, on the eve of World War II, it has many premonitions of disaster. It’s a beautiful book, and I think it’s on the basis of A Guest for the Night that he received the Nobel Prize.
You can learn about where you came from by reading history books, but you can also learn from literature. There are so many young Jewish Americans today whose only sense of the fact that they’re Jewish is either that they connect themselves to the Holocaust or they connect themselves to Israel, or to both, but not in a highly informed manner. Which is why I think it’s important for Agnon to be better known to Jewish-American readers, or to those who are interested in that world, because he provides a very different understanding of Eastern European Jewry before World War I and before the Holocaust. If you get to know a writer like Agnon, you learn so much more about that world that you claim to somehow have roots in.
In his final, posthumously published collection of stories, translated in English as A City in Its Fullness, Agnon revisits and reimagines Buchach. When asked by a literary critic why he was spending so many years writing this book about his town, he said, “I’m building a city.” He meant the city’s gone, and he is rewriting it in fiction. And the city is not just his hometown of Buchach but the entire civilization it represents. This was his life’s task.
Omer Bartov is a professor of history and German studies at Brown University and is considered a leading authority on the subject of genocide.
My Jewish role model is Rabbi Mauricio Balter (b. 1957), executive director of Masorti Olami, the international group dedicated to the Conservative Jewish movement. In many ways he shaped the rabbi that I am, starting when I was in rabbinical school. It was 2012 and I needed someone to mentor me in Israel as part of my education for the summer; because I was a mom with dependent children, I couldn’t do the whole year program. So, out of the blue, I wrote an email to Rabbi Balter. And what did he say? He said, “Come.”
At the time, I didn’t know the depth of this person. He arranged a place for me to stay and I shadowed him for the entire summer. What I saw was that every moment for him was a learning moment. “Even if, Mira, you don’t understand all the Hebrew at this moment,” he would say, “what did you see in the room? Who spoke and what happened?” He took me pro bono and it was a big deal, because as a person of color who was not from the Conservative movement, I didn’t have connections.
Another person who has influenced me greatly is Yuriko (1920-2022). She was the first Japanese-American dancer for the Martha Graham dance company. When I was a young dancer, Yuriko took me under her wing. She was another one of those teachers who told me to look and to watch. “Have ears as big as elephant’s ears,” she would tell me. She taught me how to dance with courage and to dare. In the particular repertoire of Martha Graham, we fell and we rose, we would jump and we would fall and then get up again.
“How far do you have to fall?” she would ask.
“Well, from where I am now, all the way down there,” I’d reply.
“Is that very far?”
In many ways, that advice kept me on a solid trajectory when I was at rabbinical school. I looked at the synagogue space as my space and not a scary space. When I would practice, I would go to the spot on the bimah and ask myself, how far do I have to fall?
Mira Rivera, the first Filipina-American rabbi to be ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a rabbinic mentor at Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy.
On the day I left yeshiva for a corporate job, many years ago, I went around to say goodbye to my friends. I was leaving at the age of 22 while most of my friends stayed for many more years studying Torah in an advanced setting. One friend, now an educator in Israel, offered me the following blessing as I moved on to my next stage in life: He wished that I would see the same success in Torah learning as that experienced by Rabbi Shmaryahu Shulman (1923-2021).
Rabbi Shulman, who passed away last November at the age of 98, was already legendary in 1995, when I left yeshiva. As a young man, he had served as a rabbi and teacher for a few years but then joined a Wall Street firm where he worked for decades. Despite his corporate career, he published many books of traditional Torah scholarship, demonstrating breathtaking knowledge and distinct creativity. He published articles in prominent Torah journals, with his name appearing in the table of contents alongside the names of the leading Torah scholars of the generation. He served in various capacities in rabbinic organizations and lectured in a variety of venues, all outside normal working hours because he had a day job. He was the proof, the prime example, that someone could work outside the rabbinic profession and still accomplish great things in Torah scholarship.
Of course, to reach that level of achievement, Rabbi Shulman had a blessed combination of natural brilliance and early training in fundamental textual and analytical skills. He also had another key element that allowed him to rise to that level—diligence. He pushed himself to continue studying Torah at every available moment. In this way, he was constantly moving forward in his studies, throughout his lifetime. He may have had a day job, he may have been involved in communal projects and helping others, but his passion was studying and teaching Torah.
Even those of us with lesser intellectual gifts and training can learn the lesson of how to make great strides in our Torah knowledge. Rabbi Shulman’s persistence and commitment are an inspiration to all laypeople that we, too, can become greater Torah scholars in our own fashion. We can cover more ground than seems possible, know more information and understand with greater depth than seems reachable. We can do this by looking at the many great laypeople who have already accomplished this.
I look to Rabbi Shulman and others like him as an inspiration that even as life gets busy, even as my commitments to my job, my family and my communal service grow, I can still find time to make growth and achievement in Torah study a lifelong project.
Rabbi Gil Student is the editor of TorahMusings.com.
It is really hard to narrow down the figures who formed and informed you to just a few, so I’ll select three from my youth who had a lasting impact on my identity and my future life choices.
The first was Ester Jasper (b. 1935), the principal of Bialik School in Buenos Aires where I completed elementary and secondary school. Mora Ester ran the school for 38 years and made it into a model Zionist day school in Argentina, and maybe the world. The secular education was good, but the Jewish and Zionist education was something else. It went straight to your core. The emphasis on the Hebrew language was, I think, key, but there was something else: During the dark years of the military government, when everything was repression and silence, we were encouraged to argue, debate and express our opinions.
Simon Maccabee (d. 135 BCE) is another role model of mine. He was an unlikely hero—the most “plain” and least martial among the five Maccabee brothers, the most reflective and intellectual. Yet he was the one who finally won the 30-year war of the Jews against the Seleucids. And, most important, he created the Jewish independent polity that replaced the oppressive regime of Antiochus. As a sad and melancholic kid, I was drawn to Simon’s quiet determination, a force that comes from vulnerability and that helped me find my own strength. It also exemplified the type of government we aspired to: a democratic one based on justice and freedom. In some bizarre identity salad, I compared Simon’s state to modern Israel and also to Raúl Alfonsín, the moderate political leader who brought Argentina back to democracy. Simon also serves as a cautionary tale; like another of my heroes, Yitzhak Rabin, he was murdered by a fanatic Jew, and his story represents a warning about the dangers, especially internal, that still besiege Israel.
My third role model was Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer (1930-1993), an American expat who was the spiritual leader of the Bet El congregation and probably one of the most influential figures in the history of Argentinean Jewry. In the 1960s, Marshall (nobody called him “Rabbi”) established the Conservative Movement in the country. Besides creating Bet El, he created the Conservative Rabbinical Seminary, which has brought newly trained rabbis to hundreds of congregations around the world.
But Marshall was something else besides a visionary and a peerless community builder. He had studied and marched with Rabbi A. J. Heschel and, following in his footsteps, became one of the most vocal human rights activists in Argentina during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1976-1983. He lobbied the American government and wasn’t afraid to confront the generals face to face. In a well-known episode, he showed up, accompanied by a foreign journalist, at the office of the rabidly antisemitic General Ramon Camps, who had made Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman “disappear.” Paraphrasing Nathan the Prophet, he yelled, “I’m a shepherd, and you stole a sheep of my flock! I want it back. His name is Jacobo Timerman and I know you have him!” (Timerman’s book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number is dedicated to him). What Marshall did during those years taught me (and scores of others) three key things:
1) Jews aren’t afraid. Yes, Marshall was an American and, some said with malice, that’s why he could do what he did, but that’s not the entire truth. The generals had killed French nuns and the famous Swedish citizen Dagmar Hagelin. They had also threatened the life of Englishman Robert Cox, director of the Buenos Aires Herald, the only newspaper that dared publish a list of “desaparecidos.” But there was something we all envied in how Marshall confronted the generals with his kippah and his tallit. He’s a proud Jew, we thought, and too bad if a stinking bigot doesn’t like it.
2) Judaism is inextricably linked to human rights and values. Marshall didn’t say that Judaism was only the fight for justice. After all, he created a seminary that was extremely rigorous in its demands for traditional Jewish learning and took entire generations along the path of religious observance. He was also fervently Zionist. But whoever was influenced by him will place the respect for human dignity at the center of their Jewish identity. Marshall wasn’t a revolutionary—it took, for example, several decades for Bet El to became fully egalitarian—but he established the notion that fighting for human rights is a central part of being Jewish, probably as important as celebrating Shabbat or eating kosher.
3) Judaism is about providing meaning and direction. The dry, incomprehensible liturgy of Orthodox synagogues back in the 1970s wasn’t equipped or poised to help Jews deal with existential questions and anxieties. He understood that Judaism had to be both authentic and relevant, even if those two dimensions are sometimes in tension.
Marshall taught me a love for traditional Jewish learning and gave me a universe of values that place human dignity at its center. He made me an activist and helped me understand that Jewish engagement can be both meaningful and beautiful.
Andrés Spokoiny is an Argentine-Jewish activist and president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.