Book review and personal reflection by Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish
I recently reread the wonderful little book by Mitch Albom called Have a Little Faith, originally written in 2009, in the midst of the economic downturn in the U.S., which affected his home city of Detroit very badly.
In this book, Albom, renowned author of the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie, interweaves the personal life stories of two clergymen whom he came to know very well. One is his childhood rabbi from New Jersey, Rabbi Albert Lewis, of blessed memory, who asks Albom to delivery his eulogy, which leads to the author and the rabbi spending much time together in the last 8 years of the rabbi’s life. The other is an inner city minister in an African-American church in Detroit, who has an amazing life history which Albom finds captivating and in some ways similar to his rabbi’s story, notwithstanding totally different content and context.
The invitation to write a eulogy for his hometown rabbi is the inspiration for this book.
In great contrast to the Coen brother’s film A Serious Man, which pokes fun at the rabbis of their suburban childhood of the 1950’s, this book is a song of praise for Rabbi Lewis, whom Albom affectionately calls throughout the book “The Reb” (the term that teenagers used for the rabbi when the author was young). The book is peppered with beautiful conversations about God, faith, community, marriage, and life between the author and the rabbi, whom we get to know in a very personal intimate way, and by the end of the book, I felt that I knew this man in a poignant way which was inspiring to me.
I may add that Rabbi Lewis’s biography is similar to my own father’s in many ways. He grew up in the Bronx, was a one-pulpit rabbi for his entire professional career (in fact, their synagogues both had the same name—Temple Beth Sholom, House of Peace), loved to sing, was a charismatic spell-binding speaker and had a good sense of humor! So as I read this book a second time, I was mindful all the time my father’s life and journey. (A biography was written in 1996, the year my father died, by Henry A. Green of the University of Miami, entitled Gesher va’kesher. Bridges and Bonds. The Life of Leon Kronish.)
I also share in common with Albom that we are both proud graduates of Brandeis University. I feel that we both received superior educations which enabled us not only to read and write and think, but also to be sensitive to other people in our troubled world.
While this is a book about two people of two very different faiths, it was written, as the author tells us in an “author’s note” at the beginning of the book “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in this story.” This is not an easy task, but I think that he succeeds in this goal since this is not a book simply about two people but one that deals with many issues and questions and crises of faith in the contemporary world.
The second main character in the book is Pastor Henry Covington, who grew up in New York and had a very difficult childhood and young adulthood (including a term in prison) but now serves as pastor of an inner city church in Detroit, which is home to many homeless people. I love the name of his ministry, the “I am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry”. I know of no synagogue by this name (although perhaps some should try it)! The name tells you the story. This pastor spends his life ministering to the poor in his city, and he does so out of deep devotion as a Christian of profound faith.
The book has many wonderful stories and conversations with both religious leaders. In one of them that I liked the best, The Reb explains to the author the essence of his personal faith:
“This is why faith is so important. It is a rope for us to grab, up and down the mountain. I may not be remembered in so many years. But what I believe and have taught—about God, about our Tradition—that can go on. It comes from my parents and their parents before them. And it stretches to my grandchildren and to their grandchildren, that we are all, you know….” Albom: “Connected?” The Reb” “That’s it.”
This is also very much an interfaith or a multi-faith book. In a chapter which Albom calls “Your faith, my faith”, he raises the question: “How can different religions coexist?” He goes on to ask, “If one faith believes one thing and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And, is there any winning a religious argument? Whose God is better than whose? Who got the Bible right or wrong?” Albom answers his own questions: “I preferred figures like Rajchandra, the Indian poet who influence Ghandi by teaching that no religion was superior because they all brought people closer to God; or Gandhi himself, who would break a fast with Hindu prayers, Muslim quotations, or a Christian hymn.”
He also asks his rabbi: “How can you –a cleric—be so open-minded?” The rabbi responds: “Look I know what I believe in—it’s in my soul. But I constantly tell our people—you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything. And since we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe something else.”
The book ends with Albom’s eulogy for his rabbi, which was extraordinarily sensitive and substantive, capturing the essence of this man’s life in a beautiful and meaningful way.
And there is a short epilogue, where Albom shares one last memory of a conversation with his rabbi about what he would say to God if he were to get only 5 minutes with him. In the final minute, the Reb tells his student: “Look, Lord, I’ve done x amount of good stuff on earth. I have tried to follow your teachings and to pass them on. I have loved my family. I’ve been part of a community. And I have been, I think, fairly good to people. So, Heavenly Father, for all this, what is my reward? And what do you think God will say?” He smiled. “He’ll say ‘Reward? What reward? That’s what you were supposed to do!’”
The author’s response: “I laughed and laughed, and he bounced his palms on his thighs and our noise filled the house. And I think, at that moment, we could have been anywhere, anybody, any culture, and faith—a teacher and a student exploring what life is all about and delighting in the discovery.”
I recommend this book for Jews, Christians and others who will want to become inspired by the lives of two deeply committed spiritual leaders, who, although similar in some ways, live in two completely different worlds in America. You will find the simple yet profound stories in this beautiful book, humanly touching and spiritually inspiring, as I did.
And don’t forget the title in your lives: Have a little faith!