Book Review: 180 Degrees: Amazing Stories that Caused a Turning Point in People’s Lives, Abraham Leib Berenstein (Feldheim Publishers 2017, 340 pages)
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
“As long as a person lives, as long as his soul retains a spark that can be ignited, he can start anew.” These are the pithy last lines of 180 Degrees: Amazing Stories that Caused a Turning Point in People’s Lives, by Abraham Leib Berenstein, and they perfectly sum up this book of true stories that will leave you captivated, incredulous, and deeply humbled.
Each of the 25 stories in this anthology is unique, yet covers the same theme: adopting a Torah-observant lifestyle after living a life diametrically opposed to yiddishkeit (either through increased religiosity or conversion).
The stories take place all over the world – South America, Israel, the United States, Poland, and the Ukraine – and their protagonists run the gamut, from a man who scaled glaciers, to a top executive at Microsoft; from an Israeli secret service agent, to an expert in Kung-Fu. Many stories seem too eccentric to be true. Take, for example, the story of the “Israeli Houdini,” Shimmy Illuzini. After growing up in a traditional Moroccan family, he joined the army. However, he snuck out of the barracks regularly to practice his tricks. He became a famous magician, in both Israel and the United States, yet felt a nagging sense of emptiness despite his fame and wealth.
Not surprisingly, many of the protagonists felt the same; they “had it all,” yet felt unsatisfied and either began searching for something deeper or had it thrust upon them. As an Israeli fighter pilot, who had several brushes with death, says, “Every person receives signals from G-d at a certain point in his life. There are various types of signals – some delicate and some more blatant – but some signals are so strong they give you no rest, and the harder you try to ignore them and get rid of them, the stronger they become.”
Famous names share their stories as well, such as Rabbi Uri Zohar, performer Rachel Factor, and writer and teacher, Sara Yocheved Rigler. Their stories, while familiar to many, are nice to hear in their entirety. Other personalities are well-known actors, musicians, performers, and athletes, including “Mr. Mexico,” and the first Jew to ever bear the title of “Super Bowl Champion.”
I found his story of interest, given that it is a prototypical “American” dream saga and had a relatable upbringing. Poignantly, even though his father was his biggest fan, recording and watching all his games, before he died he told his son, “I want you to know that I am prouder to see you wearing a kippah on your head than I was to see you with the Green Bay Packers or the Dallas Cowboys helmet.”
The most harrowing story is about a Jewish man lost hiking with his travel companion for 35 days. The story of his journey is unbelievable, both in terms of his rescue and his path to Torah Judaism.
The stories are told in the first-person, which brings an intimacy to their telling. On the other hand, Berenstein wrote the book based on interviews, and this brings a consistency of voice throughout the work. At times I wanted to “hear” the individual voices better, but compiling each story written by that person would have likely been not only a logistical challenge. Also, given the fact that many protagonists’ first language is not English, it might not have been possible.
Several of the stories chronicle the teshuvah of South American Jews, including those from Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. Having been largely ignorant of the ba’al teshuvah movement there, I found these stories enlightening. There’s a beautiful excerpt in one story about the effect that Rav Avigdor Miller, zt’l, had on Venezuelan Jews, in particular the narrator of “The Microsoft Director.”
The author’s own story commences in Argentina. He relates his life, originally as a ski instructor, which culminates in his learning and living in Bnei Brak. In his chapter he quotes Koheles, “‘One who loves silver will not be sated by silver.’ A person’s soul is nourished only by Torah and mitzvos…When I began discovering Torah, I felt as if I had discovered a spring in the middle of the desert.”
Berenstein, along with the individuals in these stories, merited to find true nourishment. In truth, we are all sent messages; our daily lives are replete with little and not-so-little opportunities to “start anew.” The bravery of these Jews is an example for all of us.