The Union for Reform Judaism recommends two Significant Jewish Books each quarter for individuals and book groups. Study and discussion guides are available on the Union's website.
by Esther Schor
(Nextbook/Schocken, 350 pp., $21.95)
Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 (twenty-five years after her death), identifies this icon as the “Mother of Exiles.” It took time for Lady Liberty to grow into this role. The statue, a gift from France to America, was originally meant to celebrate only the tradition of “Enlightenment.” Lazarus’ poem—written in 1882 as Russian Jews began to arrive en masse to the U.S.—established the connection between the statue and what she hoped would be their reception. In doing so, she helped establish a new identity for the Statue of Liberty, and a new vision for America:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Esther Schor’s biography explores the complicated identity of this Gilded Age poet, the first to identify herself as an American Hebrew [Jewish] writer. A fifth-generation American, born in a wealthy Sephardic family, Lazarus published her first book at seventeen and ambitiously courted leading writers of her time. In her relationships with these luminaries she tolerated a certain level of genteel antisemitism (Emerson and Henry Adams), but she bristled against its nastier forms (Longfellow and Hawthorne). Though not at all interested in religion, she always referred to herself as a proud Jew.
A moment of truth came with the outbreak of the Russian pogroms in 1881–82. Lazarus answered an antisemitic article by Madame Z. Ragosin in the Century ,an influential literary magazine, with a powerful article of her own. She followed this with a series of essays in the American Hebrew , a Jewish weekly, entitled “Epistle to the Hebrews,” which argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine for refugees fleeing outbreaks of antisemitism in Europe. Lazarus was a lone advocate for a Jewish national home (over a decade before Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement) and, as such, withstood blistering attacks from both American Reform and traditionalist Jewish leaders. At the same time, she continued to remind a reluctant American Jewish community of its responsibility for the Russian immigrants; she herself founded a vocational school for them and taught English on Ward’s Island.
At the time of her death (at thirty-eight), her sisters regarded her Jewish interests as a phase and left out the Jewish poems from published collections of her writings. Schor’s portrait serves to restore the centrality of Jewishness in Emma Lazarus’ life and work, showing how she consistently put her literary reputation on the line to defend the Jewish people.
Kabbalah: A Love Story
by Lawrence Kushner
(Morgan Road Books, 196pp., $17.95)
When is a predictable love story more than a predictable love story? When a teacher of mysticism like Rabbi Lawrence Kushner uses it as a parable. Kushner spins fables within fables to explain the history and worldview of the Kabbalists—and has them all taking place concurrently, colliding with and illuminating each other.
The novel begins with Kalman Stern, a professor of mysticism, finding an ancient handwritten letter in a copy of the Zohar that he acquired in Safed. Is it a love letter, or a spiritual insight on the creation of the cosmos? Was it written by Moses de Leon, the likely author of the Zohar in thirteenth-century Spain? And to whom was this letter addressed?
Stern embarks on a scholarly investigation of this intriguing document at the same time that he is starting to date again after a painful divorce. Isabel Benveniste, his lady friend, is an astronomy professor and a lapsed Catholic with an old Spanish-Jewish name. She shares his fascination with the Big Bang and the space-time continuum. Despite all the interests they have in common, the relationship of these two lonely academics languishes, until the mysterious letter gives them some important hints on how to love again.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.