The Best Boy in the Unit­ed States Of Amer­i­ca: A Mem­oir of Bless­ings and Kisses

  • Review
By – October 16, 2015

Through his col­lec­tion of true sto­ries in The Best Boy in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, Dr. Ron Wolf­son cap­tures the heart of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish experience.

Framed between his Russ­ian immi­grant grandfather’s wet slop­py kiss­es and Dr. Wolfson’s own wet slop­py kiss­es to his grand­chil­dren, The Best Boy in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is more than a mem­oir of a sin­gu­lar person’s expe­ri­ence, it is the mem­oir of the Amer­i­can Jew. His sto­ries will make you laugh and cry — some­times at the same time. 

Dr. Wolf­son, a keen observ­er, chron­i­cles his fam­i­ly, friends, teach­ers — vir­tu­al­ly any­one he meets. He relays his expe­ri­ences with humor and com­pas­sion. In his jour­ney from an unruly Hebrew school stu­dent to renowned Jew­ish edu­ca­tor he encoun­ters and presents a fan­ci­ful but true-to-life cast of char­ac­ters. From Mrs. B, who finan­cial­ly out-maneu­vered War­ren Buf­fet, to his mother’s eth­i­cal will, his mem­oirs delight, move, and inspire his readers. 

Because his reflec­tions teach us the val­ue of the Jew­ish fam­i­ly, the joy of being Jew­ish and how to be a men­sch, the book should be read by every Jew­ish edu­ca­tor and par­ent, but is also an enjoy­able read for any­one who has ever been a child or grand­child. It is worth not­ing that Dr. Wolfson’s nar­ra­tive has a uni­ver­sal aspect that will make it appeal­ing even to a non-Jew­ish audi­ence, as he painstak­ing­ly explains every Yid­dish or Hebrew word and Jew­ish custom.

Dr. Wolf­son under­stands the pow­er of a sto­ry, espe­cial­ly a shared one. These sto­ries, in essence, are a reflec­tion road map on how to cre­ate a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the next gen­er­a­tion of best boys and girls in the Unit­ed States of America.” 

The Best Boy in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca should come with a warn­ing: the read­er could find them­selves laugh­ing at inop­por­tune times or hav­ing the insa­tiable urge to read the book aloud to fam­i­ly and friends. 

For all its humor, Dr. Wolfson’s mem­oir has a seri­ous call­ing to all Jew­ish adults — what Jew­ish lega­cy are we pass­ing to the next gen­er­a­tion? The Best Boy in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is not just an enter­tain­ing mem­oir, it is an impor­tant one.

Relat­ed Content:

Inter­view with Ron Wolfson

by 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Cathy Sussman’s pas­sion is books. She 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.

Discussion Questions