The Unexpected Road: Storied Jewish Lives Around the World
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Reviewed by Leah R. Lightman
There is no question that the Orthodox Jewish community in the second decade of the twenty-first century is in search of “inspiration.” Note the growing number of Jewish organizations, web sites, seminars and lectures devoted to inspiration. The plethora of titles falling under this genre abounds, including Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s newest book, The Unexpected Road: Storied Jewish Lives Around the World.
Executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, an award-winning family-owned weekly newspaper in Denver, Rabbi Goldberg observes and listens with a keen journalistic mind, capturing the universal in the particular. (Full disclosure: Rabbi Goldberg is a contributing editor to Jewish Action.) An expert on the Musar Movement, Rabbi Goldberg earned his doctorate in Jewish intellectual history from Brandeis University and has published Hallel HaCohen (Hebrew) on the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of the laws of mikvah as well as several books on the Musar Movement. His travels over a period of more than forty-five years have afforded him countless opportunities to speak and interact with other Jews and gather their stories—many of which he published in The Unexpected Road.
Each chapter of The Unexpected Road stands alone and tells yet another story. Because of the range of styles and settings, which span forty-two cities across the globe, there is an unevenness to the book which sometimes makes it difficult to follow. Clearly some chapters are stronger than others, but there are outstanding chapters which will, no doubt, appeal to readers both young and old.
In one chapter, Rabbi Goldberg recounts how he researched and tracked down names and dates of about two hundred previously unknown relatives. He then presented his children with a family tree.
He goes on to tell how years later, in a serendipitous taxi ride, his son met up with a young man by the name Yitzchak Zev Marcus. Rabbi Goldberg’s son replied, “You mean Yitzchak Zev HaLevi!” He had remembered the name because of the family tree. Turns out, they were related.
Another chapter tells the riveting life story of the late Rebbetzin Menucha Etel Nekritz who volunteered to go to Siberia during World War II. The Nekritzes fled Bialystok, Poland to a small town near Vilna, which was under Soviet control. The Soviets ordered Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz, along with other Jewish men who refused to accept Soviet citizenship, to evacuate to Siberia, indicating that the women would join them later. Refusing to leave her husband, Rebbetzin Nekritz convinced the Soviet officer to allow her and her two daughters to accompany the men. (This ended up saving their lives; the women and children who stayed behind fell into the hands of the Nazis.)
The Nekritzes lived in a small hut, and there was little food available. The temperature constantly hovered about forty degrees below zero. A mikvah was a practical impossibility.
During the day, Rabbi Nekritz was forced to engage in backbreaking labor; at night, he taught Torah to the few young men with him. The Rebbetzin cooked for the men with whatever little food there was. Despite the risk, Rebbetzin Nekritz never tried to dissuade her husband from teaching Torah. They were further endangered by their refusal to work on Shabbat.
The Nekritzes remained in Siberia for the duration of World War II, after which they came to America.
Reading how the Rebbetzin, even in the midst of dire poverty, managed to maintain her regalness and dignity was deeply moving. In the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances, she emerged with ever-stronger yirat Shamayim and emunah. It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that many of the Nekritz descendants and their spouses are luminaries in the Torah world today.
Some of the stories reveal blatant Hashgachah pratit. In a chapter entitled “Tuvia Ariel’s Story ‘7-4-0-1,’” the protagonist, Tuvia Ariel, undergoes several transformations, most dramatically from nonreligious to shomer Torah u’mitzvot and from able-bodied to amputee. Ariel lived on a kibbutz before he has an accident that leaves him handicapped. Years later, Ariel, now working as a taxi driver, notices a number on the arm of one of his passengers, an American in Israel on business. From his kibbutz days, he recalls an Auschwitz survivor with a number on his arm: 7-4-0-1. Without a word, Ariel drives the American to the kibbutz he had left after his accident. He reunites his passenger with the Auschwitz survivor; they were long-lost brothers. How did Ariel know? The number on the passenger’s arm was 7-4-0-2.
The Unexpected Road is a compilation of the fascinating people and the stories that have inspired Rabbi Goldberg over the decades. Having lived in Jerusalem, Denver and Atlanta, Rabbi Goldberg has had many varied and interesting experiences and has much to share. While Rabbi Goldberg’s stories are compelling—some more so than others— his writing is always enjoyable.
Leah R. Lightman is a writer living in Lawrence, New York, with her husband and family.
Listen to Rabbi Hillel Goldberg discuss his new book at www.ou.org/life/inspiration/savitsky-goldberg/.