By Jonathan Wittenberg
Robin Clark/Joseph’s Bookstore, £17.95
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg lives life at an extraordinarily intense level. Deeply spiritual and practical at the same time, his mind is always questing while his hands create the garden of which dreams are made. His new book is a cross between autobiography, spiritual journey and a perpetual quest for truth.
In many cases, when authors use their own family story to make a point, it sounds forced, as if the publisher has asked them to personalise the argument in some way. But Wittenberg’s family story is at the root of his being. Child of a family rooted in traditional Orthodoxy on one side and the old German liberal tradition on the other (his grandfather, Georg Salzberger, was the founder rabbi of Belsize Square Synagogue), he links traditional practice with modern thought, a critical approach with a deep love of midrash, profound knowledge of rabbinic sources with a sweeping familiarity with English literature.
But that is not what makes this volume remarkable, although it helps. It is Wittenberg’s simple reflections that so strike the reader. Coming from a refugee family, as a child he felt that sitting seven people around a table was a lot. Only later did he realise the seven was small, and full of the absence of those who perished. When he reflects on death — standing outside the Westend synagogue in Frankfurt, where his grandfather officiated as rabbi until 1939 — he says: “I imagine him standing on the steps outside it with my beautiful and elegant grandmother, greeting the guests after a wedding… They’re dead and gone. At least they’re definitely dead but I don’t entirely know if they’re gone or what precisely that would mean.”
There follows a most elegant and moving account of what the absence of people means — from the widow who has to learn to walk again before she can bear to cross the street on her own, to Jonathan’s own sense of connectedness when he picks up his grandfather’s beautiful kiddush cup.
We have all felt that moment of connectedness with parents gone before when we handle their clothes or their books or indeed their kiddush cup. We have wept into clothes and held the kiddush cup too tight, leaving greasy fingerprints on the stem. But few of us, if any, have written about that sense of connectedness and absence with quite that profundity, and lightness of style.
As the book progresses, we undertake the journeys with Rabbi Wittenberg, even if we cannot share them all. His relationship with his dog might leave some of us cold, and his love of very long walks leaves this reader exhausted sitting on the sofa. But, within this volume, wherever one sits on the spectrum of Jewish belief, there is something to captivate, to provoke, to wonder at, to learn from, and to share.
And all in simple prose, with an intensity of emotion and profundity of spiritual awareness that is beguiling, enviable and immensely attractive.