The book is absolutely fascinating—and gorgeous, and it instantly had me and my children hooked. For those of you who’ve read Guinness and though it was the ultimate, meet The Book of Amazing Facts and Feats. Jam-packed with all sorts of facts and stories, it’s custom-designed for the Torah Jew, with an entire section devoted to Torah-based “feats” and “records”. Given the breadth and depth of the book, which includes sections on technology, health, science, geography, natural wonders, and almost everything else you can think of, I was naturally curious about the authors. Who had come up with the concept of this unique book? What had compelled him to produce it? And, above all, where did he get his information from?
I was fortunate to catch Natan Hurvitz, who co-authored the book with his friend, Ahron Yosef Hoffman, and interview him for this blog. His spin on things definitely puts this already-amazing book up a further notch. You’ll see what I mean when you read on…
RP: So how did you get started with this great idea?
NH: I had this idea for years, circulating in my mind. I know that the Guiness Book of World Records is a top bestseller all over the world, and I thought it would be good if the Torah world could have something similar. But I wanted it to be something different than the kinds of facts Guinness includes. Many of the Guinness records are “shtuyot”, just simple idiocy, or people wasting their time doing silly things. I wanted something of a higher caliber.
The people on whom I bounced the idea were interested and they thought it would be excellent, but no one wanted to turn it into a reality. So in the end, I did it myself, with my friend, Ahron Yosef. Our original idea was to do a book of only facts and feats that were brought down in Torah, Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara – only Jewish sources. But the problem was, we’d have to have the entire book illustrated, which costs a lot of money. (There aren’t many photographs available for most of the facts and feats in Torah sources.) Then we thought we’d do a book with general knowledge—carefully selected, of course—but with a chapter devoted to Torah sources. Our hope was that once the book was launched, we would engage in two-way dialogue with our readers and they would send us material of a Torah nature. For example, in the book we showcase “The Largest Matzah”. If this particular matzah bakery hadn’t told us about their matzah, we would never have known about it!
RP: So have readers been forthcoming?
NH: Not as much as we’d hoped for, but we think that as the book circulates and the idea catches on, we’ll receive more feedback.
RP: What, exactly, are you looking for to include in the book? Are you looking for “Guinness” type of achievements, but of a Jewish nature?
NH: No, no. Actually, our book, while seemingly similar to Guiness, actually bears little resemblance in terms of content. We’re looking for facts and feats that expand the mind, not just The Most Somersaults in a Row, or other useless records set. We don’t want to show people doing crazy things, or wasting their time. In fact, in the introductions to each chapter in our books, we try to subtly explain this to our readership, defining the balance between being crazy and being interesting, in the material we’ve selected. We’re looking for things like “The Biggest Tallis”, “The Most Expensive Aliyah l’Torah”, “The Smallest Tanach”, and especially the stories and motives that lie behind these fascinating facts.
A great example of a perfect addition to our book is “The Smallest Sefer Torah”, which was commissioned by the Schottenstein family. This, too, wasn’t done as a gimmick; it was done because Mr. Schottenstein is a businessman who travels all around the world and he wanted a portable Torah that he could bring with him. And so it is—everywhere he goes, he brings this tiny Torah with him!
RP: So here’s the million dollar question: Where do you get your material?
NH: It’s actually all readily available through all sorts of media. We look in encyclopedias, we read the news, there are some things we get from the internet and from other sources, and, as we mentioned above, some of it as sent to us by readers or by people who would like to get their idea out to the general public.
For example, we were contacted by a sofer stam who had created the world’s largest mezuzah. He wasn’t doing it just for thrills; he did it to raise awareness, among secular Jews, about the mitzvah of mezuzah. Similarly, we showcased the world’s largest Sefer Torah, which was written by a sofer and is housed in Masada. It’s actually a big attraction; people come from all over to see it and it’s raised a lot of Jewish awareness in Masada.
After we search different media for all sorts of records and feats, we gather photographs and pictures and put everything together.
(We invite anyone who has interesting stories, about anything – food, cars, plants, clothing, history, etc. – to share them with us, at email@example.com.)
RP: It’s obviously very labor intensive. Who comprises your team?
NH: Believe it or not, it’s just my partner and me, plus a graphic artist! We do all the work, in-house, starting from scratch. When we began the project, we didn’t know a single thing about publishing a book, but we learned quickly and found that it’s much more cost-effective to do it ourselves. So that’s how we get it done!
RP: Wow! That, in itself, sounds like a feat worthy of mention in your book! How long does it take you to produce each volume?
NH: We work slowly, we take our time. I’d say it takes us about two years for each book.
RP: What has been the reaction to the book?
NH: We’ve gotten lots of positive feedback, baruch Hashem. Actually, the Israeli secular media was particularly fascinated by the book, especially the chapter devoted to Jewish facts and feats. All sorts of newspapers and television channels wanted to interview us about that angle—they were very interested in Jewish world records. We’d like to eventually produce a book entirely devoted to Jewish facts.
RP: Is book-writing and fact-searching your main occupation?
NH: No, we are both avreichim who live in Meah Shearim. We learn in Kollel. That’s why people can’t believe we actually got the book off the ground. As I said, we started out knowing nothing—we’re avreichim, not book publishers!
RP: Do you have a rabbinical board that approves the content?
NH: Absolutely! Nothing goes in without approval from our Rav. It’s a very interesting process to observe. There were things in there that I thought for sure he would nix, which he said were fine, whereas other material he said was too controversial or not for publication.
RP: Is the book selling well?
NH: Yes, baruch Hashem, even without extensive advertising.
RP: Do you have a favorite section?
NH: I am personally fascinated about the brain and memory and I find all those stories very interesting. Another goal of ours is to debunk widely accepted myths. For example, we feature the Bermuda Triangle in one of the books. There is a lot of old wives’ tales about the Bermuda Triangle, and the general public swallows them hook, line, and sinker. Actually, the facts are very, very different from what most people believe, which is what we show in our book.
RP: Can you give us a little peek at your upcoming new volume?
NH: In our new book we have an entire section devoted to practical jokes and pranks. One of the items in there is a really astonishing thing known as The Great Moon Hoax. In 1835, before telephones and televisions, a newspaper called The New York Sun, ran a six-week series about scientists who attested to seeing fantastic living creatures on the moon. The entire America and Europe was in an uproar about this discovery—except it was a hoax!
We also have an interesting piece on passenger pigeons, which used to dominate the skies to such an extent that there were an estimated 10 billion passenger pigeons in the world. They created such a mess and noise that the government decided to destroy them. By 1914, there was just one passenger pigeon left in the entire world. Now they’re all gone.
RP: So is the purpose of your book to make readers say, “Wow!”?
NH: No. We’re not going for the “wow” factor. We’re going deeper. We want readers to open their eyes a little bit, to see that the world isn’t what they thought. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that there are people who see the greatness of Hashem like they see their pipe. They believe that whatever they can see, that’s the extent of what exists! A person is bound by his knowledge. If he knows only a little, then his world is very, very small. We want to expand that!
If this interview has whetted your appetite, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed! The book is amazing—and that’s a fact!
Happy reading, and best wishes for a Kesivah V’Chasimah Tova,