Life lessons from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), as recounted by his longtime student.
Debut writer Burger, an artist and rabbi, was just 15 when he first met Wiesel. He didn’t know then that his college and doctoral work would be organized around Wiesel’s classroom. Here, the author brings readers into the classroom, sharing with us Wiesel’s readings and analyses of Kierkegaard, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and others. Such a book could seem exploitative, sentimental, or cheesy, but Burger has managed to craft something both inspiring and substantive. He recounts the profound moral insights Wiesel scattered abundantly through his classroom discussions and his one-on-one conversations with students—e.g., “superficiality is the enemy of everything,” or how faith can be an act of protest. Wiesel’s reading of the book of Job illustrates his compassion and profundity: “Job is…included in the canon…to ensure that we do not take the earlier theology of reward and punishment too far, that we do not make it a weapon.” In response to a student’s question about literature that depicts madmen, Wiesel opines that some people are so possessed by the vision of a world without hatred and cruelty that they “raise the alarm” whenever anything threatens peace. The rest of us, comfortably squirreled away writing the occasional letter to our elected officials, label the messianic visionaries “mad”—but it is by paying attention to them that we learn how “to effectively resist evil.” Amid all the Wiesel wisdom, Burger interweaves bits of his own autobiography, including his childhood and an account of the years he spent in Israel before his doctoral studies. Neither irrelevant nor self-indulgent, these strolls into memoir help establish Burger as a trustworthy and likable guide, a fellow learner who has invited us to sit next to him as we absorb hard-won knowledge about the shape of a good life from a sage.
An insightful and winsome love letter—and, for newcomers to Wiesel, a good introduction.