November 20, 2019

Ron Wolfson: A precious gift from his Zayde and Bubbe

The Jewish community in Southern California is richly blessed with high-profile pulpit rabbis, and we tend to turn to these influential women and men when we want to know about Jewish identity and practice. But respect must be paid, too, to those whose teaching takes place outside the pulpit. Ron Wolfson, a beloved Jewish educator and author of “The Art of Jewish Living Series” and other influential books on Jewish observance and values, is one such figure.

Now Wolfson looks back on his life experiences in “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights Publishing), a funny, endearing and wise memoir. The title is explained in the opening pages, where Wolfson recalls his childhood in Omaha, Neb., and the praise bestowed upon him by his doting and beloved zayde. “I believed him,” Wolfson writes. “And in a certain way, I’ve lived the rest of my life trying to be that best boy.”

Along the way, Wolfson experienced some of the frustrations that ultimately inspired his uplifting approach to Jewish education. He was bored by Hebrew school: “I wanted to be home watching cartoons, or playing ball, or ogling Annette Funicello on ‘The Mickey Mouse Club.’ ” He picked up a vocabulary of Yiddish abuse from his frustrated Hebrew school teacher. And so he began to understand what was lacking in old-fashioned, Jewish classroom education, and he undertook the self-assigned mission of “bringing Judaism alive in a joyous and meaningful way in the home.”

Indeed, his glowing reminiscences of family observance are a clue to his philosophy of Jewish life. Every recalled detail adds to the vivid picture he paints. His bubbe, for example, washed the floors in advance of Shabbat and covered them with newspaper so they would still be clean after the meal was prepared: “She always used the Omaha World Herald for this purpose — never the Forverts, her beloved Yiddish newspaper.” And, significantly, it was the “big, wet, slobbery, scratchy” kisses bestowed upon him by his grandfather and grandmother after the Sabbath blessings that revealed to young Ronnie the inner meaning of Jewishness.

“At that moment, I learned the most important lesson I ever learned — or taught — concerning Jewish family life: it’s about the blessings and the kisses,” he writes. “The rituals without kisses are empty.” 

Another theme of Wolfson’s work is that patience and insight are as necessary as wisdom and knowledge in the task of bringing American Jews back to Judaism. He recalls, for instance, one woman who insisted that her mother’s Jewish name was “Brontosaurus,” and it took some imaginative effort to discover that “the mother’s Yiddish name was Branka Sureh, which, for obvious lack of use, had turned into ‘Brontosaurus.’ ”

Although Wolfson relishes a good joke, he is willing to share even the most painful moments of his life. Wolfson and his wife, Susie, lost a newborn child, which was the occasion for a theological crisis: “Why did this happen? How could God let this innocent baby die?” On another occasion, his interview for rabbinical school went horribly wrong, although he was ultimately praised by his interviewer for his candor. But the awkward interview may help to explain why he chose Jewish education over the rabbinate and ended up a professor at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University), which was then housed in “the old Hollywood Athletic Club in the grungiest neighborhood, dotted with X-rated movie houses and deserted storefronts.”

Here begins Wolfson’s ascent to the stature he now enjoys in the world of Jewish education. But Wolfson insists throughout his winning book that the classroom is not the place where Jews learn how to be Jewish, and he tells a charming story to illustrate the point. At a Los Angeles restaurant where he had taken his family for dinner, his 1-year-old daughter saw a decorative candle on the table and began to re-enact the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles that she had seen countless times at home, passing her hands over the flame and then covering her eyes.

“Suddenly I understood something that literally transformed the course of my teaching for the next twenty years: the family is the most powerful Jewish educational setting,” he writes. “We Jewish parents and grandparents are the most influential Jewish teachers our children will ever have.”

Ron Wolfson will share memories from his book “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at