These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Book Review: ‘A Second Life’ by Walter Orenstein

Posted on December 16, 2013 by Yisrael Ben Avraham

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2940148739388_p0_v1_s260x420What does becoming ba’al teshuva look like? I reckon it can take on many forms. How it is presented in A Second Life, by Walter Orenstein, does so in a way that will reinforce the current ba’al teshuva’s decision and will surely raise the curiosity of those on their path to being observant.

This book is a quick read. Do not be daunted by the four hundred plus pages. It goes quick in that you will find yourself wanting to see what happens next; there’s a quick attachment to the characters. The style is straight to the point; allowing the reader to pause and “read between the lines” and contemplate philosophical and meta-physical concepts as they arise in the book and then get back to the reading. There’s no twenty pages of stream of consciousness trying to explain a five second passing thought that you would find in a Virginia Woolf book. It was during this time of contemplating that I was able to reflect and relate to the characters and material in the book with my past, current and future Jewish observance.

Particularly inspiring is the relationship that develops between Yonasan1, the main character, and his chavruta Dovid (study partner). Eventually their wives end up becoming friends as well and their families become very close. There’s something sublime about the relationships that are created in a community of Torah study. I think reading this book will give a greater appreciation for those on their path of Jewish observance to Torah with regards the community they are becoming a part of. I have developed friendships in my first year of yeshiva study that are unparalleled to my other friendships. It was these friendships I developed in yeshiva that played a large part in my determining to study another year; along with studying Torah too of course.

The book also offers a refreshing look at orthodoxy; turning much of the help conventional wisdom about orthodoxy on its head. Particularly refreshing is that Dovid, the archetypal FFB (frum from birth) on his way to being a big time rabbi discouraging kollel stipends except for top students. Let’s be honest, not everyone is going to a posek (arbiter in halachic issues). A Second Life cleverly marginalizes the “ultra-Orthodox” position of exclusive Torah study without an iota of secular study or getting a job. The unctuous notion of Torah study without any livelihood is strongly discouraged in the book. Not only does studies in secular subjects provide a means of earning a living, secular studies can also help accentuate one’s understanding of Torah. Another deviation from the conventional wisdom of orthodoxy is it’s approach to Zionism. The book advocates the Rav Kook approach to Zionism—the modern state of Israeli being a miracle in our modern times. There’s even a discussion between Dovid and a Haredi soldier that further lends to the respectability of Zionism in orthodox Judaism.

The combination of insights from medieval and modern rabbis adds additional insight without breaking your teeth over Rashi script and a Jastrow dictionary. There are also plenty of Midrashim quoted elucidating points from the Torah.

And yes, the book even goes into the whole deal with yeshiva folks wearing white shirts and black pants; you’ll have to read the book to find out why!

Oh, and the book is an e-book making it friendly on the environment and your pocket book! A Second Life and other books by Walter Orenstein can be seen here.

[1] The Ashkenazi spelling and vocalization for “Yonatan” in modern Hebrew “Yonathan” in ancient Hebrew.