When asked about the timing of his new book, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg starts to get a little emotional.
Last month, Wohlberg, rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, published “What We Can REALLY Learn From the Rich and Famous.” Wohlberg is set to retire at the end of this year after more than four decades serving the congregation, just a few months after the book’s publication. In the future, Wohlberg said, he hopes people turn to this book to learn about him and his perspective on life.
The new book is divided into sections titled “Hopeful Thoughts for Modern Times,” “Building Identity,” “To Have and to Hold,” “Parenting and Perspectives,” “Growing Up and Growing Old” and “Words to Live By.” Each chapter starts with a quote from a rich or famous person, which Wohlberg then shares his thoughts on. The stars include TV show host Jay Leno, the late musician Elvis Presley, gymnast Kerri Strug and many, many more.
Wohlberg spoke to the JT about the book and what he wants readers to take away from it.
What’s the crux of this new book?
For 42 years, I sermonized, and the efforts of my sermon was to make Judaism relevant to contemporary times, to bring Judaism’s perspective on to contemporary events. In focusing on contemporary events, I am invariably using popular artists, singers, politicians and things that they had said and [showing] how a Jewish perspective [agrees] or [disagrees] on that. That was the makeup of my sermon. What I did now was I took it out of a sermon and made it lessons for life. Lessons on money, lessons on parenting, lessons on letting go, lessons on marriage, lessons on love, always taking a quote from someone famous and analyzing it. I use the famous because everybody knows the famous.
I use a quote from Taylor Swift because she has, like, a billion followers. So if they are listening to Taylor Swift, I want to give them a Jewish perspective on some of the things she is saying. Or Martha Stewart or Donald Trump or countless others that I have in the book. What we can learn from what they have to say, for better and for worse. Frequently it’s for worse.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Because over the years, people said that they heard me say something that really made a difference.
Like the one about divorce, where I quoted Willie Nelson and I spoke about how good it is for the children and for everyone, if even though you’re divorced, you still maintain a civil, cordial relation, how everyone benefits from it. I give stories about that, and I know people who were affected by that, and whereas they weren’t speaking to the ex-wife or husband, [they] develop some sort of a working relationship.
Or I told this story about my son, [who] used to have very long hair when he was a teenager, and someone in the synagogue said to me, “You know, you should do something about this, it doesn’t look right that the rabbi’s kid walks around so gruffy.” I said, “You know, you should consider yourself lucky that you have a rabbi who is smart enough to know when to pick his fights, and that not everything is worth fighting about, and that there are just so many times you can say to your children, do this because I said so.”
When I saw that [my sermons] did have an effect on people, maybe more people it can have an effect on.
Is there a significance to this book coming out so close to your retirement?
Yeah. There’s going to come a time, very quickly, when people are going to say, “Who is this Wohlberg guy?” I wouldn’t mind if they go to Amazon to buy the book and find out. Because the book is me, and the book, for better or for worse, it’s a certain outlook on life, a very positive, happy, contented outlook on life.