Book Review by Arthur Kurzweil for Parabola magazine
The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov by Yitzhak Buxbaum (Continuum) pp. 422
$24.95 paperback; $49.95 hardcover
Over the years, I have been blessed to develop pen-pal friendships with a few dozen prisoners. I was editor-in-chief of a Jewish publishing house for seventeen years, and the business was mostly mail-order. Inevitably, the mailing lists we rented included names and addresses of individuals who were incarcerated, resulting in similar requests. The letters would typically read, “I am in a correctional institution and wonder if you have any damaged books you can spare?”
My response was always the same: “I don’t have damaged books but I do have books in good condition that I’d be happy to send you.” After shipping the first book, I now had a pen-pal. I have heard from many prisoners often over the years. The correspondence is always satisfying. One federal penitentiary library in Texas even has an “Arthur Kurzweil Collection” named after me, which happened when a group of Jewish prisoners decided to share and to put their books together in the prison lending library. They sent me a photograph of the collection of books, the plaque they made, and the bunch of them standing next to the shelves.
Over the years, of the 650 books of Jewish interest I have published, the most frequently requested book in the dozens of letters from prisoners I have received, is Yitzhak Buxbaum’s masterpiece, Jewish Spiritual Practices. Published years ago, it is a gathering of hundreds of pages of extraordinary and practical teachings, culled from the great spiritual masters of Jewish tradition. For those of us who have found ourselves to be prisoners, whether inside or outside of a correctional institution (do you remember the wonderful book published years ago by the Prison Ashram Project called We’re All Doing Time?), Jewish Spiritual Practices is not just a book. It is a holy book.
In Jewish life, there is a distinction made between books and holy books. The Hebrew word for books is seforim and yet one can find, in front of many Jewish bookstores in the United States, a sign that reads “Books and Seforim.” If the word seforim means books, then why the redundancy?
The Hebrew word seforim (singular is sefer, “book”), as used among Jews in America, does not describe books in general, but rather religious books, spiritual books. But when you go to a Jewish bookstore and look in the “Seforim” section, the books are generally in Hebrew or Aramaic. A book written and published in English, however lofty, spiritual or religious it is, can be found, in a Jewish bookstore, among all the other English language books. But I would argue that Jewish Spiritual Practices, by Yitzhak Buxbaum—and now his new book, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov--are exceptions: they are English language books that deserve to be considered holy books, special books, seforim!
The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov does not feel like a usual book. There is a certain palpable, tangible sanctity to it. The voice of the writer, the “Author’s prayer” in the book’s front matter, and the intense attention that the author has paid to every detail, all come together to form one exceptionally unique volume.
Along with all this, the book does something that happens only occasionally in the field of scholarship: The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, in my opinion, replaces every other book ever published in English on the subject of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, the greatest spiritual revival movement in the history of the Jewish people. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov gathers seemingly every biographical fact, every tale, every teaching of Rabbi Israel, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name. The book is beautifully written. Though it consists of over 300 oversized pages, it is hard to put down. Each tale is wonderful, every teaching is deep and rich, each page feels holy.
And I predict that, like Jewish Spiritual Practices, this rare and amazing book will be popular among prisoners, both those of us who are literally behind bars as well as those of us outside who continue to struggle, to seek true freedom, and to connect with the Holy One in our everyday lives. Our efforts to sanctify each moment, to gather the holy sparks that are embedded in the stuff of the world, to establish a personal relationship with a God we cannot even conceive of—these are the lessons of the Baal Shem Tov that gifted scholar Yitzhak Buxbaum brings to us.
The publisher obviously knows what it has with this book. One sign is that included is a red bookmarker ribbon, bound into the book’s spine. Not many books from secular publishers come with such a fancy attachment. Of course, a ribbon marker can be put into any book, but in this case clearly the publisher knows that The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov is not just a book. It’s a holy book.