Traveling through our Legacy

April 18, 2024

Behind the book with Rabbi Yosef Deutsch, Author of the Let My Nation series

  1. Brejt | Photos by Jacob Elbogen

Hashem’s hand is everywhere. His presence is obvious in the big and the grandiose, in the endless array of punishments inflicted on our enemies, in the crash of the waves as they split and pulled away to let His people through, in the hush of creation as His Torah was given.

Pesach is the Yom Tov of emunah, the time when we look back at the open nissim of our past to understand the hidden nissim of today. It’s only by understanding and fully grasping the magnitude of those miracles that we can see His hand in the smaller daily events of life.

Rabbi Yosef Deutsch gives us the ability to get a small glimpse in his internationally acclaimed Let My Nation series.

“While I didn’t realize this when I first wrote the books,” he says right when we start, “it’s become clear to me that running through each book is the theme of emunah and bitachon. It’s seeing the way Hashem runs the world.”

But it’s not only the books he so masterfully pens that give insight to the hashgachah pratis that guided Klal Yisrael. Hashem’s hand is no less evident in his own personal journey.

The influence of a yeshivah

Young Yossi Deutsch was the last person anyone would have dreamed will write a book. Although his father was a well-known writer, penning articles for the Jewish Press and a Hungarian newspaper, Yossi never showed signs of following in his footsteps.

“I may have inherited his creativity, but not his talent,” Rabbi Deutsch says with a laugh.

He was the archetypical yeshivah student, and as he readily admits, English didn’t interest him. The push for his publishing career came from another direction.

Rabbi Deutsch is an alumna of Yeshivas Stolin in Boro Park and Mesivta of Long Beach, but it was his stretch in Adelphia for Beis Medrash that shaped his personality, his outlook, and his direction in life.

“Adelphia specialized in bringing out the inherent ability of each talmid. I was very close with Rabbi Shain and Rabbi Trenk, and their style, their varemkeit, really resonated with me. There was a focus on each person, each individual. I’m out of yeshivah for thirty-five years, but I still have my rebbi, Rav Yirmiyah Gugenheimer, and I don’t make a move without him.”

It was the Adelphia influence that helped propel an innocent question, a fascinating lesson, and a devoted rebbi into his first book.

Becoming a somebody

The fifth-grade class in Shalom Torah Academy was quiet, all eyes pinned on their rebbi as he dramatically enacted the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. In the middle of his recital, one boy raised his hand.

“Rabbi Deutsch, why is it fair that the Egyptian children were punished if they didn’t do anything wrong? They didn’t hurt the Jews.”

The question was asked with total sincerity. The Gulf War was raging at the time, and the media was discussing the attempt not to harm innocent civilians. For a child from a non-religious home, the question was logical.

It might have been a valid question, but it wasn’t one that would have been asked in the average cheder, and Rabbi Deutsch knew that the average answer wouldn’t cut it. He had put together a kuntres of sources for his students on Pesach, but there was nothing in it that would satisfy his student’s curiosity.

“I went back and did more research and then some more, and soon my original 20-page kuntres was 50 pages long.”

Then Rabbi Deutsch turned to his rebbi and colleague Rabbi Kalman Krohn to show him what he had accomplished. Rabbi Krohn’s response couldn’t have stunned him more.

“I think you should write a book about Pesach.”

“A book?” Rabbi Deutsch asked in surprise. “But I’m not Paysach Krohn!”

“Do you think Paysach Krohn was Paysach Krohn before he wrote a book?” Rabbi Krohn responded swiftly. “He wrote a book, and he became Paysach Krohn!”

It was a cute exchange, but the message was classic Adelphia.

“Don’t diminish yourself,” Rabbi Krohn was saying. “You can also be a somebody. Everyone can accomplish and become great.”

The message might not have been enough to convince him, but Rabbi Deutsch was a true Adelphia talmid, and so, he got started. “My rebbi told me to write a book, so I wrote a book.”

Where to start

Every new author struggles with doubt and lack of knowledge. In his case, Rabbi Deutsch was creating a brand-new concept, and he didn’t even know where to start.

But then, with another twist of Divine Providence, he stumbled upon a sefer that gave him the model he wanted to copy.

“I was in this little sefarim shop, Biegeleisen’s, and I found a Hebrew sefer written on Parshas Shemos, and I loved the style. It was written like a rebbi talking to his talmidim, and every few words, there was a footnote with a source. I immediately decided that I would use this concept.”

The strange thing was that the book offered no clue about who had written it. There was no author or contact information, and it had been printed years ago. It was obvious that Hashem had put it there for him to find it.

That first book took over three years to create.

“On the one hand, it was simple to write. I wasn’t competing against my own success. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.”

However, just having the style wasn’t enough. He was also walking into uncharted territory. The research needed for this project was endless, and Rabbi Deutsch wasn’t sure how to go about it. This was in the days before computer programs offered every medrash one might need with the push of a button.

“After I found the sefer in Biegeleisen’s, the owner guided me toward another sefer, Torah Sheleimah, which gives every single midrash on every pasuk in Torah.”

From there, he was able to take the research further. Even today, it’s a point of pride to him that he never uses Otzar Hachochma.

Rabbi Deutsch’s books include a wealth of midrashim and Chazals, but it stops there. There are no divrei Torah in his books. They’re designed to tell the story, make it come alive, and add depth and meaning. And they’ve been successful.

The language of the Torah

The funds for publishing the first book came from Rabbi Deutsch’s own pocket, but there was such a positive response that a publisher contracted him for the Purim story, and he created the vividly dramatic Let My Nation Live. “Then my publishers wanted to continue with the Yamim Tovim, so I wrote Let My Nation Serve Me, based on the story of Matan Torah.”

When it came to Let My Nation Descend, which is about mechiras Yosef, he hit a snag. The story of Yosef is complex and difficult to understand, and to the uninitiated, the language of the Torah seems harsh, painting the story in dark colors.

Rabbi Deutsch’s publishers wanted him to soften the tone, but Rabbi Deutsch wasn’t ready to do that. “I have a psak from my rebbi. You don’t edit the Torah.”

They took the question to Rav Matisyahu Salamon. R’ Matisyahu heard the dilemma and delivered a stunning psak, one only a gadol with his incredible insight can give.

“True, we don’t edit the Torah. But once we’ve translated the pesukim from Lashon Hakodesh, we already lose some of the meaning,” he explained. “Lashon Hakodesh is a language of kedushah. A negative word said in Lashon Hakodesh sounds much worse when translated into English. Even though it’s technically a translation, it doesn’t have the same meaning.”

And so, a compromise was reached. In the text of the book, the language was softened, but the words of the midrash were put in the footnotes.

Traveling through our legacy

Today, Rabbi Deutsch has a book for nearly every Yom Tov (for Shavuos there are two!), and with the recent printing of Let My Nation Begin, he covered most of Chumash.

Let My Nation Begin is very close to my heart. When something is done through hardship, it becomes more precious.”

Let My Nation Begin, which chronicles the life of Avraham Avinu, took Rabbi Deutsch the longest to write, as it was written during the covid-19 pandemic.

“The subject matter also changes drastically from one chapter to the next. The Bris Bein Habesarim is written in a very different style than the story of Sedom.”

While some subject matters are easier than others, and some lend themselves to be more serious and dramatic, while others are more humorous, in the end, it’s all Torah.

In many ways, that’s the takeaway from his books. Torah doesn’t have to be, and isn’t supposed to be, dry and boring. With the proper perspective, Torah comes alive.

Rabbi Deutsch also wrote books on Sefer Rus and Sefer Yonah, two books about the midbar, one about the creation of the world, and one about the Mabul. While they’re all entertaining reads, the message of the greatness of Klal Yisrael clearly comes through.

Making it come alive

The most common praise given to the books is that they read like novels despite being solidly blacked up with midrashim. They take a time in our history and make it come alive to the reader. How did the uninterested English student accomplish this feat?

Rabbi Deutsch refuses to praise himself. When I express doubt, he reveals the secret behind the series.

“It’s not fully my work. I collaborate with Rabbi Reinman on each book.”

Rabbi Reinman a.k.a. Avner Gold, the author of the acclaimed Strasburg saga, is Rabbi Deutsch’s partner in the process. It’s a combination of Rabbi Deutsch’s research and descriptive abilities with the Avner Gold skilled pen. But Rabbi Deutsch doesn’t give himself enough credit. The fact that he was never a reader as a kid actually assisted him.

“When I write, I ask myself, Yossi, would you want to read what you just wrote?”

He’s his own best audience.

The books are filled with detail and dialogue. How much of it is true?

Most of it, as is clear from the multiple footnotes on each page.

“The psak I got was that I can talk about anything that regular human beings do. So I can write that he ate breakfast, because obviously, he had to eat in the morning. The conversations between characters has to have been able to happen and are in keeping with the events and personalities of whoever’s talking.”

Building the brand

With ten books under his belt, the Let My Nation books are not just a series, they’re a brand. But that too is an example of the hashgachah pratis Rabbi Deutsch has seen in the years he’s been writing them.

The original name for the first book, Rabbi Deutsch reveals, was actually Let My People Go, but at the last minute, Rabbi Deutsch had second thoughts.

“At the time, there was a famous Mordechai ben David song with that title, and I wanted something different. I also felt that Let My People Go had a somewhat non-Jewish feel to it, so we switched it.”

Then, when the time came to choose a title for the book on the Purim story, Rabbi Deutsch looked at Esther’s request to Achashverosh, Tinasein li nafshi… V’ami b’vakashasi.

The essence of those words is “Let my nation live.”

“And after that,” Rabbi Deutsch laughs, “We didn’t have a choice. It became a brand.”

Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim

On Pesach, one has the obligation to picture themselves as if they came out of Mitzrayim. Let My Nation Go certainly helps one accomplish that goal. But how can parents give that feeling over at their own Seder tables?

“Rav Kalman Krohn held that the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim is actually telling the story. The goal is to build our emunah and bitachon through hearing the details. Save the vertlach for the seudah. Seder night is for telling the story.”

He quotes a Rashi that says that when you bang a hammer on a stone, no two sparks are the same.

“There are many ways to run a Seder. I’m a big believer in having a positive, uplifting Seder.”

He recommends having a lot of visual content, reminiscing how Rabbi Trenk used to bring Lego people to class.

“I bring toy crocodiles to the Seder and act out the makkos. I try to use lots of slapstick. Bring it down to the kids’ level.”

Rabbi Deutsch relates that the isolated critics of his books complain that his books add in details that aren’t exactly spelled out, such as that Pharaoh was in pajamas. “That isn’t consistent with the psak that I got. Whether Pharaoh was in pajamas or not isn’t really relevant. We know he got up in the middle of the night. What’s important is that the kids are jumping for joy. They can’t wait to hear the rest of the story because they’re so excited by the idea of Pharaoh running around in pajamas.”

The message is simple. Keep the children engaged by giving them details that make it real to them.

Let my nation go where?

Ten books is an accomplishment many writers would envy, but Rabbi Deutsch doesn’t see it as an end goal. He’s currently hard at work on his next book. He informs me of the title, giving me a moment to guess which topic it might be referring to.

“The next book is titled Let My Nation Sing.”

Rabbi Deutsch gets excited as he talks about the plan for his next book, focusing on the life of Dovid Hamelech, which he refers to as his magnum opus. What makes it unique is not just the story but his plan to turn the book into a Tehillim companion. “Sefer Tehillim will be printed in the book, and in each chapter, there will be footnotes referring readers to the perek of Tehillim Dovid Hamelech composed during those moments.”

And beyond that?

“I’d love to finish the Chumash, so I need to put out a book on Yaakov and Esav, and after that, who knows?”

Rabbi Deutsch isn’t ruling anything out. His book-writing experiences have shown him that Hashem will guide him into giving chizuk and joy to His nation.