And Now for Something Completely Different
Rabbi Pini Dunner might as well have called his debut book And Now for Something Completely Different, as it talks about off-beat characters in Judaism that mainstream narratives either fail to mention or speak about only marginally. The actual title, Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History (Toby Press, 2018), launched November 7th at the Beverly Hills Synagogue, where Rabbi Dunner presides as senior rabbi.
Hailing from a prominent German rabbinic dynasty that reestablished itself in London after miraculously surviving the Holocaust, Rabbi Dunner, an acknowledged expert on antiquarian Hebrew books and manuscripts, frequently consults with libraries, academics, dealers and private collectors. He and his wife, Sabine, live in Beverly Hills with their children.
After being introduced by Koren/Toby Press publisher Matthew Miller, Rabbi Dunner preceded to thank all those who helped him with his book. To his wife, his ezer k’negdo, he presented a bouquet of flowers. “It’s very hard to write a book,” he said. “But it’s much harder to be married to someone who is writing a book!”
Rabbi Dunner then sat with Professor Jessica Marglin of USC’s Department of Religion and Jewish Studies for an hour-long question-and-answer session about the book.
“I literally couldn’t put it down,” Professor Marglin said of Mavericks. “You’re really in for a treat.” She commented that the book read like a “detective novel,” as well as being a “page-turner,” phrases not normally ascribed to historical narrative.
Professor Marglin asked about specific characters and incidents in the book, as well as Rabbi Dunner’s writing and storytelling style.
“I don’t choose the stories,” Rabbi Dunner said. “The stories choose me.”
The self-described “lover of history” told the audience how stories often fall in his lap in a serendipitous way, as when he chose to research Lord George Gordon for Mavericks. Gordon, an unlikely convert to Judaism, lived during the tenure of William Pitt The Younger, in the second half of 18th century England. On phoning a Chassidishe bookseller in North London about a book on Lord George’s life, the bookseller informed Rabbi Dunner that “’Today is his [Lord George’s] yahrtzeit.’” He knew then that Hashem wanted him to go ahead with the research.
When reading about the day-to-day life of an historical figure, Rabbi Dunner explained, “you see that period of history in a completely different light…I love to bring history to life.”
“The Enlightenment had enabled Jews to morph into completely different characters,” Rabbi Dunner said in explaining how learning about con artist Ignatz Trebitsch-Lincoln in Mavericks actually allows one to learn the background of someone more mainstream in modern Judaism, like first Israeli President Chaim Weizmann. Both originally came from Orthodox, cheder-going, Yiddish-speaking backgrounds in European shtetls, taking on completely different personas when they left that world. Of course, Weizmann transformed into a force for good, as opposed to Trebitsch-Lincoln. Still, reading about the latter provides a “window into what was going on at the time.”
Rabbi Dunner spoke with eloquence, intelligence and humor. When addressing the sultan of Turkey’s repudiation of Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic claim, the rabbi jokingly paraphrased a line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You’re not the Messiah. You’re just a very naughty boy!” When asked about the importance of Shabbetai Tzvi on Judaism of today, Rabbi Dunner replied that his story shows “to what extent mainstream Judaism can observe things that are beyond the pale. He was able to throw Jewish life in Europe and everywhere else into complete chaos.”
Indeed, the Sabbatian influence on Jewish life continued at least until the 18th century, during which took place the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy, to which Rabbi Dunner dedicates an entire chapter in Mavericks.
“I don’t see it as a contradiction,” said Rabbi Dunner in response to whether writing about these unsavory Jewish characters shows a break with his tradition and background. “What drives me to the stories are the passion of the people involved.”
After this question and answer session, as well as one between himself and the audience, Rabbi Dunner signed copies of his book.
Will Rabbi Dunner write sequels to Mavericks? “We will have to have subsequent volumes,” he replied.