(October 10) - Lawrence Kelemen's book on raising children, which is selling like hotcakes over the Internet, is one of a number of Jewish how-to books becoming popular in the wider world
A former downhill ski instructor and Los Angeles disc jockey turned haredi rabbi, Lawrence Kelemen feels the modern world has "missed the boat" when it comes to raising children.
That may sound like the typical message of a hozer bitshuva, or a secular person who embraces religion. Yet Kelemen is an up-and-coming author in the mainstream publishing world, whose latest work preaching against spanking, television viewing and video games, is selling like hotcakes in the on-line bookstores, even before its official release in the US next month. It appeared in Israel in September.
Kelemen's book, To Kindle A Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers, has soared up the Amazon.com sales ranking, reaching 48th out of 50,000 titles, since his recent appearance on Dr. Laura Schlessinger's internationally syndicated radio program. Barnes & Noble ordered 2,850 advance copies, compared to the usual 800 advance copies of non-celebrity authors. This is also despite the fact that the publisher is not one of the giant houses, but rather a combined effort of two small Jewish publishing houses: Targum Press and Leviathan Press, based in Jerusalem and Baltimore respectively.
The unique combination of spiritual and cutting-edge research in To Kindle a Soul is seen as part of a growing trend of the mainstreaming of Jewish-based literature with what used to be categorized as strictly religious writing.
Some even muse about the possibility of Orthodox Judaism becoming an "in" philosophy, a kind of ancient wisdom for modern minds, resembling the way eastern religions were revered in the 20th.
"Our distributor - the National Book Network - was in shock," Kelemen says, "They never got a book order like this before. The book has struck a chord in the mainstream book world."
Kelemen, a Harvard-educated 40-year-old father of five and professor of education at the Neveh Yerushalayim College of Jewish Studies for Women, is scheduled for a coast-to-coast US tour next month, including television and radio appearances.
In his book, Kelemen reaches back 3,300 years into history to reveal an ancient system for parents to raise their children, drawing on the Bible, Talmud, midrashim, and the writings of rabbis and other sages. He backs up his approach with more than 400 studies from Harvard, Yale and elsewhere, in addition to his own 12 years of field work.
Kelemen, who earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard before embracing Orthodox Judaism, outlines a plan of discipline for children that eschews all forms of violence, such as yelling or hitting. He designs a plan for cultivating love and attachment, developing the child's psychological resilience and satisfying the child's need for spirituality, all linked to Jewish sources and modern research.
Some of his ideas are controversial, such as a conviction that television and video games should be eliminated from children's lives. His basic premise, backed up by the sources and the sages, is that great parenting requires great human beings and only by parents learning how to develop their own potential is it possible to help children do the same.
Kelemen explains that the book grew out of a transformation that he himself went through beginning about a decade ago, when he listened to lectures by talmudic sages trained in pre-Holocaust Europe.
These men were "the last remnants," Keleman says. "The youngest of them was 75 years old at the time. I fell in love with them; they had such huge hearts. They welcomed me with open arms and shared their wisdom with me, answering all my questions with great patience and love.
"I consistently heard from them the same themes about good parenting - ideas I had not heard at UCLA or Harvard or in Western psychology classes.
"I spent 12 years listening to them," Kelemen says.
In one particularly persuasive lecture, Kelemen relates: "I was sitting in a beit midrash in Jerusalem's Mattersdorf neighborhood when I heard a sage talk about the problem of hitting children. I was sick to my stomach. Up until then, I had spanked my children; now I realized what damage I could be doing."
Kelemen believes that hitting is not an educational philosophy. It produces short-term obedience, but the child will do what is forbidden when the parents are not around. He says: "Physical violence damages the child/parent relationship. The child internalizes the behavior of the adult - to beat. Parents who hit their children are responding physically to what they perceive as inappropriate behavior. This is no different from the abusive spouse. Although only a very small percentage will move to beating in later life, this is a dangerous seed to plant."
Kelemen believes that child rearing boils down to parents "firing up their own soul and then passing that flame on to their children." He maintains that parents must improve their own characters and work on their own moral values. And that is a universal message that both Jews and non-Jews can say amen to.
To Kindle A Soul is only one of a number of Jewish books which have broken through from the Jewish to the larger US market in the last few years.
"The trend these days is for Jewish subjects to cross over to general audiences," says Rabbi David Aaron, dean and founder of Isralight, an international Jewish education organization with branches in the US and Jerusalem. Two of Aaron's books, Endless Light: The Ancient Path of the Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth, and Personal Power, published in 1997, and Seeing God: Ten Life Changing Lessons of the Kabbalah, which came out in 2001, are examples of this crossover phenomenon. Both were published by mainstream US publishing houses.
"The mainstream book companies and bookstores are buying Jewish books because they think they can sell them," Aaron says. "There is a trend now on the part of non-Jews to read these books, reflecting a greater interest by non-Jews in learning about Judaism. It could be because of the current political situation in Israel, or it could signal the beginning of the Messianic Age."
A book by popular Jerusalem teacher Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, called The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Exodus, was picked up by Doubleday. Jerusalem scientist Prof. Gerald Schroeder's first book, Genesis and the Big Bang, published by Doubleday, has been translated into seven languages. His second book, The Science of God, published by Simon and Schuster, was a bestseller in the physics category for Amazon.com in 1998.
Kelemen's first book, Permission to Believe, sold more than 30,000 copies in the general book market, although it was never even marketed for such a wide audience.
Some observers regard the growing popularity of books written by religious Jews as part of a religious revival sweeping the US.
In the September 3 issue of Newsweek, Kenneth Woodward quoted sociologists as saying the US is "experiencing a third great awakening echoing those of the 18th and 19th centuries." Two out of five self-help books that appeared the same week on The New York Times Bestseller List are also about spiritual counseling. Rabbi Moshe Dombey, publisher of Targum Press, says Kelemen's book is Targum's first publication that is "trying to hit non-Jews in a serious way."
"Kelemen writes in such a way that anyone can appreciate what he is saying. He is neither threatening nor overbearing. He writes in an open way, explaining but not pressuring. He shows what Judaism has to say."
Dombey was surprised by the response from the Dr. Laura radio show devoted to the book. "There were more than 400 orders placed as a result of that show. I was amazed to see where they came from. They were from little towns and small cities in Montana, Idaho, Utah and South Dakota. There was not one order from a big city such as New York or Chicago. I think there were maybe three obviously Jewish names among those ordering. This book appeals to traditional families, to conservative America."
The book is Kelemen's third volume. The previous titles, Permission to Believe: Four Rational Approaches to God's Existence (1990) and Permission to Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah's Divine Origin (1996), were also published by Targum.
Kelemen has also translated into English Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe's acclaimed Hebrew work on educating children, Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child. He has aimed his latest book at an audience with backgrounds "similar to what mine was - Jews who have had little or no contact with Judaism, but are open-minded and thoughtful and seriously consider ideas," Kelemen says.
He feels that To Kindle A Soul has sparked such interest because "there is a widespread recognition that the modern world has missed the boat."
"There is deep wisdom in ancient cultures. People are looking to tap into this and To Kindle A Soul presents wisdom which has not been explored by the general population," he says.
"There is also a back-to-basics movement in the world," he continues. "People are attracted to this book because it iterates basic fundamental values and practices. Give your kids a hug. Spend time with them. Don't hit your children. These may seem obvious, but modern society has created great confusion about how to raise children. Today, when too many parents are intent on creating a super-child, the things that are the most obvious are often the least considered and the most quickly forgotten," Kelemen maintains.
"It is refreshing for parents to see things that make sense and are laid out in a framework. Because the book is drawing on a wealth of ancient wisdom in very few pages, it is a high concentration of common sense. Most popular parenting books have maybe four or five valuable points. One reader told me that To Kindle A Soul has literally hundreds of valuable points and he had to reread it several times in order to master its common sense.
"Modern society moves between permissiveness where everything is allowed to harshness," Kelemen adds.
To Kindle A Soul presents an effective way to convey limits while maintaining values. The book is unique in that it is neither permissive nor harsh. It advocates firm and consistent discipline that allows children to internalize good values and idealism.
Mindful of some criticism he has heard in his community of Har Nof, that his book lacks any overt references to Judaism, Kelemen maintains that it is not geared to move someone towards observance of Orthodox Judaism. After the book was distributed to a sample audience before publication, several in the Orthodox community also criticized the lack of any mention on the cover of Kelemen being a rabbi, and the absence of Jewish symbols or other indications on the cover that the book is connected with Judaism.
Kelemen counters that the volume is intended as "simply a sharing of the 3,000-year-old wisdom with those who would never otherwise have access to it," he says.
Aaron also addresses this issue. "I write my books for Jews. I decided to go into the mainstream market because that is where you find unaffiliated Jews these days. Most unaffiliated Jews don't frequent Jewish bookstores. But they do go to Barnes & Noble. It just happens that non-Jews are attracted," he says. "I am not disturbed by this. I am not actively, aggressively teaching non-Jews about Judaism. They are seeking it by their own choice. That is what is meant by being a 'light unto the nations.'"
Kelemen explains his metamorphosis from secular to Orthodox Jew as stemming from a thirst he has had for Judaism since his boyhood in a non-Orthodox Los Angeles home. He recalls attending a synagogue where "members came on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but never the rest of the year. From this synagogue, I understood that Judaism was something very superficial, something just for the High Holy Days. But I wanted more," he says.
Despite their not being observant, Kelemen's parents instilled enough Jewish identity in their three children to bring them to rediscover their religious roots by early adulthood, he says.
"My parents are wonderful people with a strong Jewish identity. They are very ethically driven. They would be very disappointed if we felt something was the right thing to do and we did not do it. All three of us inherited our idealism from them. Both my sisters today work with handicapped children."
Jewish ethical imperatives survive in most Jews even a couple of generations after their families have eschewed a religious way of life, Kelemen maintains. Often this translates into a drive for tikkun olam (making the world a better place), which is why Jews are disproportionately represented in revolutionary and social movements aimed at "saving" the world, Kelemen says.
Kelemen also had this penchant when he went to university at UCLA. "First, I checked out the political science department as a major, but the teachers seemed only interested in landing cushy jobs in government. Then, I checked out the Jewish studies department, but the teachers were all atheists. Finally, I checked out the English department. There, the teachers were into Milton and God. There was a sense of transcendence and ethics, a vision of something right that had to be done in the world. I ended up getting a degree in 17th-century English literature," Kelemen says.
Kelemen taught at a local synagogue while attending graduate school. "I was not very affiliated [religiously], but I was teaching a course on God and goodness to both children and their parents," Kelemen explains. "The course taught that there is a right and a wrong and that God expects us to be good people." One evening, as Kelemen was teaching, a beggar entered and went straight for the coffee and doughnuts in the back of the room.
"The rabbi, enraged, raced over and threw the bum out. He then turned to the parents and declared: 'See, you don't have to worry about your children in our synagogue.'
"I was so upset," Kelemen relates, "that I resigned on the spot. I was in despair. All I wanted to do was make the world a better place but nothing seemed to work - not politics and now not religion."
Kelemen's sister suggested he discuss the issue with Rabbi Sholom Tendler of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. "I had no idea what I would tell him was the reason for our meeting," Kelemen recounts. "I had no idea what a yeshiva was. I thought it was where you learn to be a rabbi. So, when we met, I said I wanted to become a rabbi. We spoke for a long time. Then, Rabbi Tendler told me he was sorry but the yeshiva had no program for training rabbis. He said the hour was getting late and he was going to pray minha. He invited me to daven with him. I wanted to make a good impression, so even though I hadn't a clue what he was talking about, I said yes."
Kelemen and Tendler went down the hall and Tendler opened the doors to a large room. "The room was a sea of men and boys with massive books, pointing and shouting. I was sure that I had entered into an insane asylum. But as soon as Rabbi Tendler came into the room, there was silence. He picked up a book and started praying. Everyone else did the same and so did I. The only difference was that they were praying and I was simply babbling."
During the Amida, a beggar wandered in. He went over to the first yeshiva student. The young man opened his eyes for a second, reached into his pockets and, with a smile on his face, gave the man some change. The beggar went to the next student, who did the same. And so he went on until he reached the rabbi.
"I was terrified of what was going to happen," Kelemen recounts. "I ran towards the beggar to catch him and stop him. But he had already reached the rabbi. Rabbi Tendler turned toward him, smiled and pressed some money into his hand. It was so beautiful. I was so impressed. After prayers, I went back to Rabbi Tendler's office and I told him that I would like to move and sway like the men and boys in that room."
Kelemen started yeshiva the next day, and stayed for 12 years. In 1985, he married his college sweetheart, Linda, and the couple honeymooned in Israel. Then they returned to LA and Kelemen taught Hebrew school, worked for NCSY (the youth movement of the Orthodox Union) and taught part-time at a yeshiva.
Later he also did graduate work at Harvard University, earning a certificate in moral education. At Tendler's suggestion, Kelemen moved to Israel and studied at Yeshivat Darchei Noam (Shapell) in Jerusalem and a kollel, eventually being ordained as a rabbi after an advanced course in Jewish law.
Kelemen's eclectic background later helped him obtain a teaching position in education and philosophy at Neveh Yerushalayim. The college, which grants BA and MA degrees, is modeled on a US university.
"They offered me this position because I had the academic background plus more than a decade of looking at the Jewish side of things." I could present traditional Jewish wisdom in an academic style," Kelemen says.
For more information on Rabbi Kelemen go to: www.lawrencekelemen.com
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