Joseph Berger is a one of a kind. As an accomplished journalist at the New York Times he has covered religion, education, New York’s ethnic diversity, the Middle East and all things Jewish. For almost 30 years, he made a defining contribution to the face of American journalism.
However, his prowess goes beyond just the newsprint and I will always love his writing most for the tender and revealing way he paid tribute to his inspirational parents and their journey through the Holocaust, refugee camps and into the land of the brave and free. In his book, Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust, Berger clearly defines himself as an exemplary story teller, a master of the rarest kind.
What I didn’t know about Joseph Berger was his incredible and passionate commitment to detailed research and it was this that I discovered in his latest book, The Pious Ones.
I’m not always a fan of the well researched non-fiction. Often I find these types of books hard going, laborious reading filled with meaningless statistics and mindless interviews and so I was somewhat apprehensive when I picked this book up and started reading. I was only marginally placated by the fact that my husband couldn’t move for 2 days while he read The Pious Ones – marginally because he has more reading stamina than I do when it comes to this type of non-fiction.
There was not one page in Berger’s latest book that disappointed me. I flagged pages so that I could revisit them. I reread whole paragraphs to myself repeatedly so that I could drown in the intense detail. I fell in love with Yitta Schwartz, a survivor who when she died at age 93 left behind over 2000 relatives. I carried her with me throughout my reading, thinking about her often and wondering at the tenacity that allowed her to live through such tragedy and survive, smiling, creating a whole new world and legacy. I marvelled at the way that Berger infiltrated these closed communities – Satmar, Bobover, Vizhnitz. His greatness is partially revealed in the very fact that such respected Rabbis allowed him to pray with them in their synagogues, gave him access to the private details of this world and embraced him with what seems like true friendship.
Mostly, what I appreciated about this book was the balanced way that Berger depicted these austere Chassidic communities. He acknowledges them as closed, as often antiquated and rigid. He interviews people who have left these communities because of these strictures. But despite his honesty and objectivity (Berger is not a Chassid himself), he paints Chassidim as quite magical and despite their shades of black (I am being quite literal here), I found myself wanting to dive into these worlds just to taste some of the wonder that clearly lies there.
This is a book that everyone should read. Not just because I loved it and my husband loved it. But because it allows us such a tremendous insight into the workings of a community which functions as a separate world inside American society, which has its own laws, which is powerful and influential and yet totally closed to outside influences. Most importantly, this book teaches us that we should never judge others just because they look or act a particular way.
You might enjoy watching and listening to Joseph Berger lecture about his book.