The Elephant in the Room

by Cantor Jonathan L Friedmann, Ph.D. Elephantintheroom

The term “memoir” used to be reserved for thick, comprehensive volumes written by noted individuals nearing the end of their lives. Personal accounts of lesser-known people, however intriguing or expansive, were labeled “narratives” (as in slave narratives); and collections of shorter entries were called “diaries” or “ruminations.” With the advent of self-publishing, blogging, email blasts and publishers eager to experiment with new formats, memoirs have come to include a range of writings by authors from all stages and walks of life. Thus, a memoir might be a lengthy autobiography of a famous personality, but might also be an assemblage of brief reflections by anyone with an interesting point of view.

It is in this latter category that we find The Elephant in the Room: Torah, Wisdom & Inspiration for Life, a compilation of breezy musings culled from “The Short Vort” emails of New York area rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman. In seventy-six short essays averaging two pages apiece, Eisenman gives his idiosyncratic and proudly frum insights into the world around him. The observations are alternately sad and humorous, aggravating and uplifting, and draw out hidden yet apparent insights from everyday experiences. This is what is meant by the elephant in the book’s title—a metaphor for an obvious truth that goes overlooked or unaddressed.

In popular usage, the elephant idiom also describes major problems or issues that people choose to avoid. This sense is present in several of Eisenman’s essays, such as his critique of Jews who rush to blame traffic tickets and the like on anti-Semitic profiling (pp. 143-145). For the most part, however, these sometimes charming and sometimes thought-provoking miniatures celebrate life’s subtle beauty and exude Eisenman’s obvious love for his faith and people. There is, for example, an inspirational story of his encounter with a man in Boro Park who turned out to be a rabbi on Shabbat and a soup kitchen worker during the week (pp. 26-27). And he shares vivid memories of the simpler, more noble days of Major League Baseball during his yeshiva years (pp. 61-63).

These and other reflections on life’s “elephants” will appeal mostly to Eisenman’s devoted followers (thousands of people receive his vort emails). It was, in fact, his subscribers who first suggested that he publish his thoughts in book form. The essays are decidedly orthodox, though not overly dogmatic, and view the whole of life through a pious lens. This will no doubt please like-minded readers. For those who fall elsewhere on the worldview spectrum, there is still much to admire about Eisenman’s honesty, humility and perceptiveness. There are moments when readers of all stripes will respond in the ways he envisions: “Some of the stories will make you cry. Some will make you laugh. Some will make you sad. Some will make you mad. And that is good” (p. 17).

This review first appeared on The Daily Rabbi

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