with Cathy Sussman
Jewish Book Council sat down with Jewish community leader, educator, and author Ron Wolfson to discuss The Best Boy in the United States of America, his new book of personal stories of growing up Jewish in Omaha, Nebraska
Cathy Sussman: How did you come to write Best Boy?
Ron Wolfson: I have always told funny and heartfelt stories in my teaching as a speaker and scholar-in-residence. I find people resonate with them. For example, I tell a story about my Old Country Hebrew school teacher who called me vildeh chayeh—“wild animal”—I was such a class clown at four o’clock on Monday afternoon. Many people have had similar experiences. Since that time, I’ve visited hundreds of synagogues and Jewish institutions during my career and seen some very funny things happen that illustrate the challenges of engaging Jews with Judaism. I thought it would be a good idea to finally write down these stories, not simply to entertain, but to educate and inspire. For me, a book is an extension of my “classroom.” I reach thousands of people I will never meet in person, but I can in the pages of the book and then engage with them on social media platforms.
I really want readers to think about what they can do to shape their family’s ethical Jewish legacy. This book is about generational continuity and what we can do to ensure the Jewish future for our children and grandchildren. And the response to Best Boy has been extraordinary: people of all ages—particularly Jewish Baby Boomers—are reporting that they are deeply moved by the book. What’s interesting to me is which stories are reader favorites; so many are cited. And they “get” my purpose in writing the book: Zaydie Louie didn’t simply call me “the best boy in the United States of America;” he called upon me—and all nine of his grandchildren—to be the best human beings we could be. Isn’t that the goal of a life well lived?
CS: How did you decide which stories to include? Were there stories that you considered including but ultimately decided not to?
RW: There are so many stories to tell, but I believe “less is more.” I wanted the book to be an easy read, something that anyone, not just deeply involved Jews, could enjoy and come away with an understanding of just how powerful family and community is in shaping Jewish identity. So, yes, there are stories about our daughter Havi winning a contest when she was just six years old by naming a koala at the LA Zoo that took us to Sydney, Australia, where we met long lost relatives; stories about my grandmother Celia from Brooklyn who crocheted a baby blanket I ate; and more stories about Warren Buffett, like the time he bought Omaha’s chametz: “Buy low and sell high, I wish I had known about this investment earlier in my career!” Maybe I’ll write Volume II of Best Boy some day.
CS: Best Boy champions the value of creating a Jewish identity within the home. But what about the children who grew up in Number 5’s home? What can theydo to reintroduce a Jewish identity into their family? What is the role of the rabbis and Jewish educators?
RW: One of the funniest stories in the book describes the intimidation some people feel when asked to engage in a Jewish ritual, like reciting the blessings for a Torah reading. There are so many Jews who feel uncomfortable with Jewish practice. There is so much to know and so many rules. My friend and colleague Harlene Appelman, executive director of The Covenant Foundation, often says: “People would rather say ‘I don’t care’ than ‘I don’t know.’” My whole career has been focused on inviting those Jews into a relationship with a joyous Judaism that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. My first four books are guides to Jewish practice in the home. They feature the stories of real Jews representing all kinds of family structures and denominations, talking about how they have made Jewish rituals come alive. Our work in Jewish family education has the same goal: encouraging Jews to embrace Jewish experiences that can strengthen personal identity and family cohesion.
CS: You reached a certain generation of youth. What do you think we need to do to reach the next generation? Are there two songs you would use today?
RW: When I first began teaching teenagers, I used songs like the Beatles “Revolution” and “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof as texts. Today, I might use “Happy” by Pharell Williams and “Rumor” by Adele.
CS: What would Zayde Louis tell to Ellie and Gabe’s generation?
RW: Zaydie Louie embraced new technologies. He and his sons-in-law built the first modern supermarket in Nebraska with self-serve aisles, checkstands, and that amazing conveyor belt system that I write about in the book—it was like our own personal roller coaster in the basement! I think he would tell my grandchildren to use the incredible technologies of communication and social media, but to never forget that nothing replaces in person, face-to-face relationships.
CS: Tell me about your Facebook contest: "How did a grandparent influence you"?
RW: Many people wrote lovingly of grandparents who taught them about the power of telling stories, the importance of making friends with everyone, the mitzvah of visiting the elderly and the homebound, helping others quietly, and the joys of being generous. Grandparents have enormous influence. Best Boy is a reminder of that important role as many of the 1.3 million Jewish Baby Boomers are blessed to become grandparents themselves.
CS: What is your next project?
RW: I hope to write a follow-up to Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. It will have reports from the field of Jewish institutions doing a great job in shifting the paradigm of engagement from transactional to relational. I am very grateful that so many Jewish professionals and lay leaders have heard this call and are increasingly focused on putting people first. As I’ve learned in writing Best Boy, it’s all about relationships— in our families, in our communities, and with Judaism itself.
CS: You have led joint educational efforts with the Conservative and Reform movements. What advice do you have for their leadership?
RW: We are getting better at the first step in building a relationship: a warm welcome. But there’s still a lot to be done, even in the smallest ways: when I am invited to a synagogue, for example, the first place I visit is the coatroom; many synagogues dump junk there, but it is often the first stop for your guests!
Reform and Conservative synagogues should not assume anything. Certainly don’t assume people know what to do. There are several very funny stories in Best Boy about what happens when congregations do not understand this. The synagogue should be welcoming, not intimidating.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to build relationships between the clergy/staff and the members and guests, between the members and other members in small groups so they have friends in the community who will be there for them in good times and bad, and between everyone and the Jewish experience itself. Judaism can be a path to meaning, purpose, belonging and blessing, a way to be the “best” you one can be.
Cathy Sussman graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, children, dog and cat. For her day job, she specializes in reinsurance and is a principal at Dubraski & Associates.