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 Americais 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 Americashould 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 Americais not just an entertaining memoir, it is an important one.
Jewish Book Council - Cathy Sussman
The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses by Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University, Bel Air, CA
Anyone who has heard Dr. Wolfson speak at a Scholar-in-Residence weekend, Synagogue 3000 program, Bureau of Jewish Education seminar, USCJ Convention or the frozen yogurt shop in Encino, has heard the delightful and insightful stories of the tight Jewish community of Omaha, Nebraska.
The Best Boy in the United States of America is full of the wit, humor, charm and deep wisdom of Dr. Wolfson's world.
Dr. Wolfson is the prolific writer of twelve books, including the popular
Art of Jewish Living series and Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. Dr. Wolfson is available for speaking engagements through the Speakers Bureau of Jewish Lights Publishing.
Kehilla Magazine - Debbie Green
THE BEST BOY IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA by Ron Wolfson, Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt. 2015, 178 pages, $19.99
Reviewed by Jack Riemer
I love this book.
I love it for several reasons. The first is: when did you last read a Jewish book that was absolutely hilarious from the first page on? Ron Wolfson's description of his growing up in Omaha, Nebraska is so funny that I found myself buttonholing anyone that went by and making them listen to some of the lines that tickled me the most.
The second reason is: When was the last time that you read a book about Jewish life that was upbeat and optimistic? Most books about Jewish life in America are books that 'shrei gevalt'. They are full of gloom and doom. They tell you how many young Jews we are losing, and how boring our services are and that we are the last of the Mohicans and that there will be very few caring and committed Jews after us. This book does not waste space telling us how bad things are. Instead it is jam packed with success stories and with practical suggestions of what we can do to transmit the heritage to those that will come after us. And for that alone, it is a joy to read.
The third reason I love this book is that it makes you cry as often as it makes you laugh. The key to this book, the key to Ron Wolfson’s educational philosophy, is that Judaism is the story begun by the prophets and the sages, continued by the saints and scholars of all the generations, treasured by our parents and grandparents, and now turned over to us to safeguard, to treasure and to transmit. And that it will only be transmitted if we teach our children the joy of being Jewish, and not just the woes that sometime go with it, and that the key to Jewish education is in the home and the family more than in the school or the library. The key to the Jewish future lies in creating precious memories that our children will be able to live off of, even after we are gone.
This book is a very unusual kind of an autobiography. There is some mention, but not much, of his day job as an administrator and a fund raiser and an educator. The focus of this autobiography is on more important dimensions of his life: on what it meant to have an adoring grandfather, what it meant to have devoted parents and a very good wife, what it meant to see the recipes and the stories that he inherited take hold in the lives of his children, and what an incredible privilege it is to be a grandfather, and to try to spoil and love and teach and model for his grandchildren the way his grandfather did for him.
This is a book that will tickle your funny bone many times. This is a book that will pull at your heart strings even more often. And this is a book that will prod you to think about what your own priorities are and what your own goals in life are.
For all these reasons, I love this book, and I think that you will too.
Hilarious and heartfelt, Ron Wolfson's inspiring memoir is filled with stories of growing up in a warm family, encountering colorful characters like the merchants of Omaha and the famous Warren Buffett, navigating adolescence and learning never to underestimate his mother.
With easygoing Midwestern humor and profound poignancy, Ron's "true stories" of family and community in the United States of America will resonate with anyone seeking to shape stronger families, create compelling communities and live their best life, a life of joy and laughter, meaning and purpose, and, yes, blessings and kisses.
A delightful bookeasy read, thoroughly enjoyable.
Jewish Media Review - Dov Peretz Elkins
The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses by Ron Wolfson is replete with powerful life lessons in a funny and moving portrait of family, community and spiritual discovery in America. Hilarious and heartfelt, Ron Wolfson's inspiring autobiography is filled with stories of growing up in a warm family, encountering colorful characters like the merchants of Omaha and the famous Warren Buffett, navigating adolescence and learning never to underestimate his mother. With easygoing Midwestern humor and profound poignancy, Ron's "true stories" of family and community in the United States of America will resonate with anyone seeking to shape stronger families, create compelling communities and live their best life, a life of joy and laughter, meaning and purpose, and, yes, blessings and kisses.
Critique: Impressively well written, organized and presented,
The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses is absorbing and entertaining from beginning to end. Very highly recommended for community library American Biography collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that The Best Boy in the United States of America is also available in a Kindle edition.
Midwest Book Review - Cowper's Shelf
Writing memoirs can be a tricky business. What happens if you bare your innermost thoughts, only to find out the readers aren't all that interested? Sure, your friends and family will love it; they share your memories and therefore are part of your story. Besides, they love you, so they have to like it. But what about strangers? Will they be able to connect? How do you predict that? I think we've all read memoirs where we as the readers were left on the sidelines, looking in. As if the author has no reason to expect anything more from us, and refuses to even say 'hello.’
Ron Wolfson, with his recently published
The Best Boy in the United States [of America] should have no such worries. He literally puts his reader in the room with him. His writing style lends itself to a shared experience; rather then talking at the reader, he grabs the reader’s hand and invites her or him along for the ride. And it’s an excellent ride.
Ever the educator, Wolfson makes you think. When he talks about his experiences as a grandchild, a son, a cousin, a husband and father, he manages to challenge the reader. You can’t read about his mother without thinking of your own, and you can’t follow his career path without asking yourself some tough questions about what you are doing in your own life. Wolfson doesn’t write for passive consumers; reading the words means committing to the journey.
And here I thought this would be easy.
In a way, it is; it’s a fast read, with short seemingly digestible chapters. It’s at times funny, and at times heartbreaking, but never, ever boring: Wolfson has, after all, something to teach his readers and he makes sure nobody dozes off in the back of the class room.
"Sharing our stories is the way we define ourselves in the world," Wolfson says in his after word. He calls it the "Discussion Guide," and neatly adds a list of questions that will help you tell your own story.
How did your grandparents influence you? He asks, and How would you describe your life in one or two lines?
It’s hard to select a favorite segment (although I will forever remember not to buy gribenes from a moyel), but if you forced me to, I’d say it’s the way Wolfson weaves our responsibility as Jewish parents throughout his narrative. In an early chapter, simply titled “Mom,” he says: “Tradition. Tradition. Papas. Mamas. These were the ingredients of my
geshmak (tasty) family. Little did I realize at the time that the traditions of my zaydie and bubbie, our extended family, and my mom and dad would profoundly shape my worldview and my identity as a second-generation American Jew, growing up in our “little village” of Omaha, Nebraska.”
Isn’t that true for all of us? Our lives may not be overly parallel with Wolfson’s; it’s very likely that many of us will have different experiences. But: the bottom line remains the same. Our families, whether they are related to us or not, define us and shape us. The people we surround ourselves with, the holidays we share, the joy and the hurt, it all adds up to a very rich story, which we pass on to our children. And I think that’s the real lesson Wolfson is trying to teach us. We have to see our memories for what they really are: opportunities to grow, to know ourselves, to pass things on to the next generation. And in that light, memories of your grandfather’s favorite arm chair from which he hugged you, the people you’ve known and lost, or the way you cook your brisket are all building blocks that make you, you.
There is one final important question Wolfson doesn’t ask, and I’d like to get an answer: can Bruce Friedlander still do his Elvis impersonation?
The Jewish Press of Omaha - by Annette van de Kamp-Wright Jewish Press Editor
Ron Wolfson: A precious gift from his Zayde and Bubbe
The Jewish community in Southern California is richly blessed with high-profile pulpit rabbis, and we tend to turn to these influential women and men when we want to know about Jewish identity and practice. But respect must be paid, too, to those whose teaching takes place outside the pulpit. Ron Wolfson, a beloved Jewish educator and author of "The Art of Jewish Living Series" and other influential books on Jewish observance and values, is one such figure.
Now Wolfson looks back on his life experiences in
The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing), a funny, endearing and wise memoir. The title is explained in the opening pages, where Wolfson recalls his childhood in Omaha, Neb., and the praise bestowed upon him by his doting and beloved zayde. "I believed him," Wolfson writes. “And in a certain way, I've lived the rest of my life trying to be that best boy.”
Along the way, Wolfson experienced some of the frustrations that ultimately inspired his uplifting approach to Jewish education. He was bored by Hebrew school: “I wanted to be home watching cartoons, or playing ball, or ogling Annette Funicello on 'The Mickey Mouse Club.' ” He picked up a vocabulary of Yiddish abuse from his frustrated Hebrew school teacher. And so he began to understand what was lacking in old-fashioned, Jewish classroom education, and he undertook the self-assigned mission of “bringing Judaism alive in a joyous and meaningful way in the home.”
Indeed, his glowing reminiscences of family observance are a clue to his philosophy of Jewish life. Every recalled detail adds to the vivid picture he paints. His bubbe, for example, washed the floors in advance of Shabbat and covered them with newspaper so they would still be clean after the meal was prepared: “She always used the
Omaha World Herald for this purposenever the Forverts, her beloved Yiddish newspaper.” And, significantly, it was the “big, wet, slobbery, scratchy” kisses bestowed upon him by his grandfather and grandmother after the Sabbath blessings that revealed to young Ronnie the inner meaning of Jewishness.
“At that moment, I learned the most important lesson I ever learnedor taughtconcerning Jewish family life: it’s about the blessings and the kisses,” he writes. “The rituals without kisses are empty.”
Another theme of Wolfson’s work is that patience and insight are as necessary as wisdom and knowledge in the task of bringing American Jews back to Judaism. He recalls, for instance, one woman who insisted that her mother’s Jewish name was “Brontosaurus,” and it took some imaginative effort to discover that “the mother’s Yiddish name was Branka Sureh, which, for obvious lack of use, had turned into 'Brontosaurus.’ ”
Although Wolfson relishes a good joke, he is willing to share even the most painful moments of his life. Wolfson and his wife, Susie, lost a newborn child, which was the occasion for a theological crisis: “Why did this happen? How could God let this innocent baby die?” On another occasion, his interview for rabbinical school went horribly wrong, although he was ultimately praised by his interviewer for his candor. But the awkward interview may help to explain why he chose Jewish education over the rabbinate and ended up a professor at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University), which was then housed in “the old Hollywood Athletic Club in the grungiest neighborhood, dotted with X-rated movie houses and deserted storefronts.”
Here begins Wolfson’s ascent to the stature he now enjoys in the world of Jewish education. But Wolfson insists throughout his winning book that the classroom is not the place where Jews learn how to be Jewish, and he tells a charming story to illustrate the point. At a Los Angeles restaurant where he had taken his family for dinner, his 1-year-old daughter saw a decorative candle on the table and began to re-enact the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles that she had seen countless times at home, passing her hands over the flame and then covering her eyes.
“Suddenly I understood something that literally transformed the course of my teaching for the next twenty years: the family is the most powerful Jewish educational setting,” he writes. “We Jewish parents and grandparents are the most influential Jewish teachers our children will ever have.”
The Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch
"A deeply affecting memoir that will leave you laughing and crying and learning all the while.... Will bless you and inspire you. As you read this beautifully written work, you will already be thinking of all the people you're going to give this book to."
Rabbi Naomi Levy, author, To Begin Again and Hope Will Find You
"A warm, loving and wise collection of true stories from one of the most inspiring Jewish educators of our time. With each story, Ron distills life lessons to enrich our days and insights to help revitalize our Jewish community."
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president, Union for Reform Judaism
"For anyone searching for ways to reinvent ritual and find meaning where they haven't, these stories will make you think and make you laugh. [Makes] spiritual discovery feel possible."
Abigail Pogrebin, author, Stars of David; columnist, Forward
“With the same charm, wit and insight that makes Ron Wolfson one of our greatest teachers, he recounts the story of his life: awakenings, disappointments and triumphs. A beautiful book.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles; author, Why Faith Matters
“With humor and honesty, Wolfson reminds us that mensches are not bornthey are made by an incredible village of loving people. A must-read for everyone trying to raise a mensch!”
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, spiritual life consultant at Canyon Ranch; spiritual commentator, The Today Show
“Funny in tone, snappy in stylea leisurely read that makes important points about growing up Jewish and the task of preserving Jewish identity.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor, My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series
“This warm, hilarious and deeply moving story of relationships will resonate powerfully with all those 'best boys’ (and best girls) who grew up in post-war America ... and leave the rest of us wishing we had grown up alongside the author in the American heartland.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president, the Rabbinical Assembly
“An engaging and heartfelt love storylove of home, love of family, love of community and love of the Jewish people.”
Abraham H. Foxman, national director, Anti-Defamation League
“A charming reminder from a master storyteller of the power of our family stories to teach, inspire and remind us of what really matters in life.”
Lee M. Hendler, author, The Year Mom Got Religion: One Woman’s Midlife Journey into Judaism
“An homage to fabulous storytelling, a homespun combination of family, love, hilarity and poignancy only a Jew from Omaha could summon up.”
Robin Kramer, executive director, Reboot, an incubator of Jewish arts and culture
“A touching celebration of the power of family to raise up souls and heal the world. With wisdom and heart, Ron Wolfson offers the perfect antidote to the sour pessimism that afflicts contemporary Jewish life.”
Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, California; author, The Chutzpah Imperative and Tough Questions Jews Ask
“A magic story, one filled with values and love.... Charmingly captures the story of [Ron Wolfson’s] life from his childhood in Omaha to his current roles of educator, husband, parent and grandparent.... This book is a delight!”
Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion; acting director, Schusterman Center for Israel Studies; visiting professor, Brandeis University
“Want to know the secret of becoming a legendary teacher, sought-after public speaker and Jewish educator extraordinaire? You can find the answer between the covers of this book!”
Harlene Appelman, executive director, the Covenant Foundation
“This heartwarming memoir is about
family the ups and downs, the laughter and tears, and the pivotal moments that shape our lives. It’s a great reminder of why families are so important, and it’s a fun book to read!” Rick Warren, pastor, Saddleback Church; author, The Purpose-Driven Life
“A vivid and heartwarming memoir ... filled with the love and warmth of an incredible family for whom Judaism is an essential part of who they are.”
Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director and campus rabbi, Penn Hillel, University of Pennsylvania
“Ron Wolfson is the Mark Twain of the Jewish community.”
Scott Seigel, president, Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach
“Ever the storyteller, Ron invites us into his Jewish journey, a journey filled with laughter, tears and insights.”
Allan Finkelstein, president emeritus, JCC Association of North America