Our kids need heroes. This book will give them who they need.

Call it the altruism deficit. It's real, and there are solutions.

Natalie Portman, from Heroes With Chutzpah

I must tell you: It was one of the most sobering mornings of my career.

There I was, teaching our sixth and seventh grade students in synagogue.

The topic: civil rights and the Jews.

I talked about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, and about the Jewish activists who traveled South in the early 1960s to fight for civil rights.

At the top of the list: Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, who suffered physical wounds for his activism, and the three civil rights workers — James Chaney , Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — whose bodies were found in a shallow grave in the summer of 1964, killed by Southern racists. Two of them — Goodman and Schwerner — were Jews.

That was the legacy, and I needed to teach it.

I asked my students the question: “Who can tell a story about courage?”

A few kids talked about learning to scuba dive, or acting in the school play, or learning enough Hebrew to chant Torah in front of the congregation when they became b’nai mitzvah.

“What about moral courage?” I asked. “Anyone have any stories about that?”


They could not name a single one, with the exception of Dr. King.

Our kids do not have moral heroes. They certainly do not have Jewish moral heroes. Ask them to name a few, and you might get Moses and Judah Maccabee. Push a little harder: Queen Esther.

That is why I welcome a new book by my friends, Kerry Olitzky and Deborah Bodin Cohen. The book is “Heroes with Chutzpah: 101 Tales of Jewish Trailblazers, Changemakers, and Rebels.”

This book is just what the doctor ordered.

As in: Doctor King.

This is a wonderful collection of Inspiring stories for kids and teens— stories of Jews whose life lessons will, to quote the name of this column, shake and stir you.

What do they all have in common? They are heroes, and they express their heroism in many ways — and, most often, for standing up for their ideals and their goals.

The stories and the personalities are the very definition of Jewish diversity. Forget about looking Jewish. This book features the stories of Jews of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as gender and sexual identities.

Many of these people are famous — sports heroes, entertainers, rabbis, social activists, scientists, tech entrepreneurs, scientists, photographers. But, many are not, and we need, and therefore we must read, their stories as well.

Oh, before I forget. Look at that drawing of Natalie Portman, whose story is in the book. That is an example of the quality of the artwork. It is simply stunning. You would want this book on your coffee table, though the stories will take the express lane to your soul.

And — shout out to all of my colleagues in Jewish education! — You will want to teach these stories to your students!

OK, so, who’s in the book?

Some of my favorites:

  • Aaron Lansky, who rescued Yiddish books from the garbage pile and created a unique center for Yiddish literary culture.
  • Abby Stein, a transgender activist who transitioned from being a male Hasidic rabbi.
  • Aly Raisman, Olympic gymnast. “Striking her opening pose, lifting her chin to the ceiling and smiling ever so slightly, Aly waited for the music to begin. Hava Nagila, a Jewish folksong of joy, blared into arena. In her moment of glory, Aly would not be quiet about her Jewish pride. To the beat of her ancestry and her own heart, Aly took off down the mat, propelling herself into midair twists and flips…”
  • Anat Hoffman, fighter for religious rights in Israel. “Anat served 12 years on the Jerusalem City Council. She used her position to fight gender discrimination and advocate for equal pay for women and equal city services for Palestinians. Since 2002, Anat has led the Israel Religious Action Center, which advocates for equal religious rights for all Jews in Israel and civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities. But Anat is perhaps best known for Women of the Wall, which she helped found in 1988 and now leads.”
  • Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize winning physicist. “When Nazis took power in Germany, Arno’s family became desperate to leave. A sensitive, alert boy, Arno overheard bits and pieces about the Nazis and could sense his parents’ tension…Arno and another scientist used a special antenna built to measure radio waves emitted by gas surrounding the galaxy. But like the young boy overhearing his parents and sensing tension, Arno kept being hearing a constant radio noise picked up by the antenna. Arno felt this noise pointed to something bigger. This noise turned out to be cosmic background microwave radiation, left over from the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. He had found remnants from the universe’s birth!”
  • Avital Sharansky, Soviet Jewry activist. “Avital waited in a German airport lounge, anticipation beating her heart. She had not seen her husband Anatoly for 12 years. The day after their wedding, Avital left Moscow for Israel but the Soviets did not allow Anatoly [now Natan] to join her…Avital saw an airport transport rush across the tarmac. Suddenly Anatoly appeared in the lounge and pulled Avital into his arms. ‘I’m sorry that I’m late,’ he said.”
  • Elena Kagan, Supreme Court Justice. “Elena clashed with him {the rabbi at their modern Orthodox synagogue]. She wanted to have a bat mitzvah. But the congregation only had bar mitzvah for boys, not bat mitzvah for girls. Elena negotiated a compromise with the rabbi. The synagogue would celebrate its first “bat torah.” As a result, Elena didn’t read Torah but read the book of Ruth on a Friday night. “It was sort of a disappointment, because I didn’t get to do all the stuff my brother had done,” she says. “But I have to say that they came a super long way even to do that.” Get that? The first “case” that Elena ever argued was before her synagogue rabbi, defending the idea of her becoming bat mitzvah!

And yes, there are many others: the late Barbara Walters, Bella Abzug, Sen. Joseph P. Lieberman, Gal Gadot, Bob Dylan, David Ben-Gurion, Debbie Friedman, Elie Wiesel, and Idina Menzel.

Some will surprise you: did you know that the artist, Frida Kahlo, had a Jewish background?

Which is part of the triumph of this book. Earlier, I mentioned “diversity.” The Jews in this book span the spectrum of Jewish identity — from the absolutely Jewishly disconnected, too cool for shul, to the absolutely Jewishly connected, from the ultra-secular to the Orthodox. Likewise, their political identities — from Bernie Sanders on the way left, to Sen. Joseph P. Lieberman, on the center-right — and probably beyond.

That is part of the point. The authors see Jewish identity as Joseph’s coat of many colors — a rich garment with many different threads. They do not judge the Jewish identities of their subjects. They know, rightly, that the Jews are a people and a large family, and that each of our stories has something to teach. Moreover, they know that the intended readers of this book will locate themselves on all points of the spectrum, and they need to find role models for themselves.

I want this book to be in everyone’s hands — and the sooner, the better.

So, if you agree — donate to the Kick Starter campaign http://bit.ly/3YWJAeF.

As for me, I will be spending today — Dr. King’s birthday — going through its pages.

And getting ready to tell my students more of these wonderful stories.

Which they so desperately need.

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