2014: Howard Freedman reflects on the event
I am grateful to have been invited to participate in the Exploring the World of Judaism event at Shir Hadash in celebration of Jewish Book Month, as I had a terrific time.
In my talk I sought to offer a historical framework that showed some of the ways that Jewish reading has changed over the past five centuries:
- through the development of printing and reading technologies;
- through the increased participation of women as readers (with a significant impact on the marketplace of Jewish books);
- through the changes in Jewish thought (and, in particular, the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment);
- and through the emergence of Jewish vernacular languages as literary ones–and then come out at the other end and reflect on our reading as Jews today.
I feel that we are less a people of the book than we are a nation of readers, and I believe that the history of our books reflects how we have changed as Jews over time.
What really excited me at Shir Hadash was the experience after the conclusion of my remarks in which participants who had “adopted” a book shared their books and their responses with a larger group. I thought it was a brilliant model for the exchange of ideas.
One book that stimulated a lot of discussion, and which was embraced by its presenter, was Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land.
This has been one of the best received books on Israel in recent times, and I think that it’s significant. I believe that one of the reasons for its resonance is that there is a growing sense of the importance of being able to address the complexities of Israeli history–including Israel’s moral quandaries and failures–without being fearful of abetting campaigns against
We are living in a very difficult time with an unprecedented amount of criticism of Israel both here and, more pronouncedly, in many foreign nations. But for “defenders” of Israel such as myself, it is important to remain intellectually honest, and not allow fear to sacrifice commitment to the truth. While My Promised Land presents a more complex “warts and all” vision than many are comfortable with, but they come from somebody who loves and is deeply committed to Israel.
Another topic was the Russian Jewish experience, as two of the books presented in the group were by authors from the former Soviet Union. The literary critic Irving Howe once lamented that American Jewish writing would inevitably decline, once it was no longer the literature of immigrants. But now, lo and behold, we are now experiencing the first significant wave of American Jewish immigrant literature in a century. In fact, 2014 was characterized by Tablet Magazine as The Year Russian Jewish American Lit Went Boom! And what’s more is that these books are really good.
Interestingly, there are many differences between the literature of these Jews and those who came to this country from some of the same places as part of the big wave of Ashkenazic Jewish immigration that began at the end of the 19th century. Those earlier immigrants generally came from a Yiddish-speaking and deeply Jewish environment (even if they often rebelled against religious thought). The Russian Jews writing today feel very Jewish, but did not experience that religious and cultural immersion. And they’re Russian speakers, rather than Yiddish speakers, and often with a strong attachment to Russian language and culture that can be a source of ambivalence.
It was very interesting for me to hear a woman who herself was originally from the Soviet Union report on Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life. The book deals with the identity crisis of a Minsk-born Jew who has separated from the rest of his immigrant family in “the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn” by moving to Manhattan, where he is pursuing a career in a magazine clearly based on The New Yorker. After his grandmother dies, he is approached by his grandfather with a request to apply for Holocaust restitution funds, only on a fraudulent basis–as his recently deceased grandmother would have qualified, but his grandfather does not (as he had fled to Soviet Asia in order to escape the Nazis).
The novel brings out many issues, including the torn identity of Russian Jews in America, the lingering experience of the Holocaust, and the many difficulties of the Soviet Jewish experience. It was particularly moving for me to hear the discussion led by someone who herself had experienced the same issues. Many thanks to all who participated in an enjoyable morning celebrating Jewish books!
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What the Books We Read Say About Us
Join our speaker Howard Freedman, the director of the Jewish Community Library, at 9:40 am on November 23rd, for
What the Books We Read Say About Us, an event in the Exploring the World of Judaism series at Congregation Shir Hadash.
Jewish Book Month got its start in the 1920s, before Philip Roth was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. How have Jewish books and their role in our lives changed since then?
Join Howard Freedman for a look at the newest trends in Jewish literature and explore how books have historically reflected our changing relationships to our own heritage and to our surrounding cultures. Meet other readers, share about your favorite books and hear what others are reading.
The books that will be discussed include:
- 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany by Steve Pressman
- A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales by Ruth Calderon [Read the review]
- A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman [Read the review]
- All I Love and Know by Judith Frank [Read the review]
- Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast (graphic novel) [Read the review]
- Enchantress: Rav Hisda’s Daughter by Maggie Anton [Read the review]
- Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
- Henna House by Nomi Eve
- Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossie Klein Halevi
- Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
- Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman [Read the review]
- My Mother’s Secret: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Story by J.L. Witterick [Read the review]
- My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit [Read the review]
- No Book But the World by Leah Hager Cohen [Read the review]
- Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
- Suddenly Love by Aharon Appelfeld [Read the review]
- The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
- The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
Members of Shir Hadash will be providing reviews and thoughts about these books, which will be linked to this page as they become available.
Recent Jewish Books
Our 2013 Jewish Book Month event focussed on “Recent Jewish Books”. Those books, and links to our members’ comments about them, can be found on this page.
100 Great Jewish Books
In 2012, Shir Hadash held a special event in honor of Jewish Book Month where members discussed some of the “100 Great Jewish Books” chosen by Rabbi Laurence Hoffman of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Those books, and links to our members’ comments, can be found on this page.