Ariel Burger was just 15 when he met Elie Wiesel. A few years later, he was Wiesel’s student; finally, he became Wiesel’s teaching assistant.
Wiesel said that learning is what kept him going after surviving Auschwitz—so passing along what he’d learned became a priority for him. “Listening to a witness makes you a witness,” he said, and these words form the epigraph of Burger’s new book, Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. Teaching, Wiesel believed, is the process of creating witnesses.
Burger describes Wiesel’s teaching methods and interactions with students of all religious, ethnic, and national backgrounds at Boston University, where he was on the faculty for 37 years before his death in 2016. Witness also contains lessons about the texts Wiesel taught, which range from biblical texts like the Book of Job or the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, to the teachings of Nachman of Breslov and other Hasidic rebbes, to classics of Western literature like Faust, Romeo and Juliet, and Medea, to modern fare by Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, or Franz Kafka.
But since teachers must have students, the book is also about the student/teacher relationship between Wiesel and Burger. When a student finds a true teacher, Burger says, that person enables the student. In a conversation this summer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Manhattan, Burger told me that a teacher’s “most important gift to a student is the ability to be his or her own guide to find and honor his or her own voice.” And Wiesel’s central message, he said, was clear: “The message I got very clearly from him, that the greatest masters give to their students, is to find your own inner rebbe.” Burger noted that he has a passage in the book where Wiesel asks him who his rebbe is, and when he says, “You are,” Wiesel says, “You need to be your own mashgiach now.” As Burger told me, “The goal is not to be dependent on the rebbe but to be empowered by the rebbe.”
Writing Witness was Burger’s opportunity to demonstrate that he is now a teacher and rebbe (he received rabbinic ordination in Israel). Burger was a child of divorced parents; his composer father was less committed to traditional Jewish observance than was his choral singer mother—who insisted that he attend an ultra-Orthodox cheder until eighth grade and then an all-male modern Orthodox Manhattan high school, though his father had advocated for public school all along. The divide between his parents created many conflicts for him in his connection to Judaism as well; other issues he discusses are his commitment to creativity, and his sister who is blind from birth and how her difference is dealt with both by strangers and peers. Burger is also an artist who exhibits his work, most recently at Mayyim Hayyim in Boston.
For Wiesel, since learning saved him, the classroom became a space to save others. Burger writes: “He had a passion for learning and it did indeed save him, by breaking his isolation after the war and providing meaning, and even more important, the quest for meaning.” The book recounts conversations with students who turned from wanting to be a park ranger to becoming a priest in the inner city, and those who learn to speak about their experiences of genocide in their childhoods in Africa. Mostly, Wiesel taught them that “if we want to do anything good, we cannot do it alone,” Burger writes. Wiesel functioned for his students in many ways as a rebbe, according to Burger’s account. Burger defines the term this way: “A rebbe, unlike a rabbi, is more than an authority figure—he is a friend, a guide, a supporter of each student’s spiritual journey. Where a rabbi builds community and emphasizes its norms, a rebbe builds souls and nurtures individuality.”
Wiesel opened each class session by saying simply, “Let us begin with your questions.” He would then make time for 10-minute presentations on the day’s reading by two students assigned this task. At the last class, he invited the students to ask anything they would like. He was asked to show the students the number tattooed on his arm (he did, and silence followed) and to communicate precisely what it was that sustained him and kept him going after the war. “Learning,” he said.
“Someone needs to write a book about your classroom,” Burger told Wiesel. “I don’t care if it is me or someone else.” Witness had its genesis in a paper Burger wrote in honor of Wiesel’s 80th birthday in 2008. Burger later published it as “Toward a Methodology of Wonder,” which appeared in the anthology Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives.
Burger was profoundly moved by his time as Wiesel’s TA, because, he told me, he could “sit in the classroom, watching him and watching the students, seeing how they were deeply changed by that encounter, how profoundly transformed by a particular exchange, and experience reading.” Many times, Burger said, he heard students say, “I will never see the world the same way again.”
Burger had hoped to open an institute devoted to Wiesel’s teaching methods. The project never got off the ground because the year was 2008 and the Wiesel Foundation lost $15.2 million in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. After that loss, Burger went to see him and Wiesel told him about a young boy in Iowa who sent him $5 to help make up his losses. Burger said, “He had a lot of hope for the world, like this story after Madoff, this child who sent money in an envelope. He focused on that, not on the loss of a lot of money.” For Burger, this story is why he wrote the book: to convey Wiesel’s personality, for “people to feel Elie Wiesel’s joy and humor.”
Burger sees his rebbe and teacher’s approach to education as significant. “Teaching in particular is an important gift because you are investing in someone else, opening them up to a new question, a new way of seeing, a new sensitivity that can drive a lifetime of positive action,” he said. “That requires a deep kind of teaching, not just transmitting information.”
“Wiesel is modeling being rooted in a particular identity, Jewish tradition, stories and texts, radically open to other traditions and texts and conversations and dialogues—and we need that,” said Burger.
Wiesel wrote Burger a recommendation letter, which is printed at the opening of the book: “A teacher wishes for nothing more than a true student and in Ariel I have found one.” Any reader of Witness can now become another student of Wiesel’s, and another witness, as it is clear that Ariel Burger has become a teacher with its publication.
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