NEW BOOKS | URJ PRESSFinding Words
Merle Feld’s poetry explores the beauty and challenges of family, the complexities of friendships, and life’s holy moments.Noah's Swim-a-Thon
Noah loves camp, but hates swimming—until he learns he can raise money for tzedakah
in the camp’s swim-a-thon. Written and illustrated by Ann Koffsky. Ages 6-11.
Contact the URJ Press
at 212-650-4120, www.URJBooksandMusic.com
Great House: A Novel
by Nicole Krauss
(W.W. Norton, 289 pp., $24.95)
Nicole Krauss' novel, a National Book Award finalist, reminds me of Mahler's symphonies—complex, filled with borrowings, emotionally intense—and ultimately rewarding the reader's close attention. Less driven by plot than personality, this novel presents four unrelated individuals who attempt to explain their lives in the aftermath of a great loss.
The connective tissue that holds their testimonies together is the temporary ownership of a massive antique desk. Nadia, a novelist in New York, acquired the desk from a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, who subsequently "disappeared" under General Pinochet. Twenty-five years later, she surrenders the desk to an Israeli woman claiming to be Varsky's daughter, but immediately regrets this act and goes to Jerusalem to find it again.
Varsky had been given the desk by Lotte Berg, a German-Jewish writer in London. Her story is narrated by her husband, Arthur Bender, an Oxford professor who cared for her through years of Alzheimer's (shades of Iris Murdoch and John Bayley). Arthur, a devoted husband, always respected Lotte's need for privacy and solitude, but after her death he explodes with jealousy over the secrets she kept from him.
George Weisz, an antiques dealer, is also searching for the desk, which once belonged to his father, a Jewish historian in prewar Budapest. It is the last missing piece in the recreation of his father's study that he has assembled in his present home in Jerusalem; meanwhile, his children in London live in a virtual storehouse of heavy, dark furniture collected by their absent father.
Finally and most moving is the testimony of another Israeli father—Aaron, who sold Weisz his house in Beit Hakerem. Aaron regrets a conflicted relationship with his younger son, which does not show any signs of repair after his wife's funeral.
These confessional monologues describe that moment of fissure when identities disintegrate in response to loss. Surprisingly, Krauss introduces another response to absence: the first-century rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, who founded the school at Yavneh—known as the "Great House"—after Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. The compiling of the oral tradition, begun at Yavneh, which ultimately became the Talmud, is the paradigmatic Jewish response to catastrophic loss: the creation of a portable homeland in words.
In telling the story of Yavneh to Arthur Bender, Weisz unknowingly frames questions that mirror the other characters' experiences with identity crisis in the wake of loss—"What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation? How can you make a sacrifice to God if you don't know where to find him?"—but their responses have not yet moved beyond the shock of loss to the moment when reinvention of self begins.
Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud
by Burton L. Visotzky
(Jewish Lights, 240 pp., $24.99)
While Krauss' novel contemplates the meaning of the "Great House," Burt Visotsky, professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, elucidates the "Great Stories"—the legends of the rabbinic sages recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. With great charm and wit, Visotzky provides the tools for deciphering these stories—their predictable patterns, their contexts and references, the personalities of the rabbis, and the moral questions they raise.
Visotzky is a master teacher who understands that these tales do not impart their maxims easily, filled as they are with condensed language and allusions. Instead of trying to popularize them, as Buber did in his Tales of the Hasidim, or as Bialik and Ravnitzky did to some extent in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, The Book of Legends, Visotzky teaches the tales, going straight for the difficult parts that ultimately reveal them. For example, when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai describes his student Rabbi Eliezer as "a lime-plastered cistern"—a rather bizarre compliment—Visotzky explains the importance of cisterns to catch rainwater in southern Palestine and the value of a good memory in a culture dependent on oral transmission of learning. Rabbi Eliezer, we are told, "didn't lose a drop."
Among the "stock characters" that recur in the tales, Visotzky focuses mainly on tales of Yochanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples—Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Yehoshua ben Hananiah, José the Priest, Shimeon ben Netanel, and Elazar ben Arakh—first century rabbis to whom the oral tradition was passed in a line extending back to Moses at Sinai, according to a well-known parable. Other colorful prototypes are the "three rich men of Jerusalem," who are "trotted out almost any time the rabbis need to tell a tale about rabbis interacting with the well-to-do" and are memorable for their names: Ben Kalba Savua ("satisfied son of a female dog"), Nicodemus ben Gurion ("son of a lion"), and Ben Tzitzit HaKeset ("son of
a fringed pillow").
Just when it seems that we've never had this much fun in Hebrew school, Visotzky steers us towards the more serious purpose of these tales: to provide a place for discussing issues that troubled the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple and two failed revolts against the Roman overlords. How would Jews carry on with daily life without their Temple, their Holy City, their homeland? Was God hard-hearted or rendered mute by these events? Was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai a hero or a traitor for having himself smuggled out of besieged Jerusalem and requesting a refuge for his students from the Roman general?
Answering the last question, the rabbis who told these stories "not only back their hero [ben Zakkai], but also back moderation," Visotzky writes. Contrary to the separatists who "would not eat meat or drink wine" after the Temple's destruction, Rabbi Yehoshua, one of ben Zakkai's disciples, explicitly rejected asceticism or perpetual mourning as responses to this catastrophe. "It is not permissible to mourn excessively," he taught. "Yet neither is it permissible to not mourn at all. Rather, this is what our sages suggest: ‘You should paint your house with lime, but leave a small patch unpainted, as a
remembrance of Jerusalem….'"
The rabbinic sages sought the golden mean that enables life to continue. "This was the battle they
fought: hope against despair," Vistozky writes. "This was why they told their sage tales, to buttress
faith in the future."
Christians & Jews—Faith to Faith:
Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future
by James Rudin
(Jewish Lights, 252 pp., $24.99)
I remember a Christian colleague, who occupied an office next to mine, once asking me, "Why didn't the Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah?" I started to explain what life was like in Palestine in the first century of the Common Era—the harshness of the Roman occupation, the apocalyptic mood, and the variety of sects, with some clearly envisioning End of Days scenarios. As I watched her eyes glaze over, I realized she had no interest in history, or even a historical explanation of the "parting of the ways"; she was concerned about the future of my immortal soul. I wish that I had a copy of this book to give her; maybe she would understand why I found this conversation so demeaning.
Rabbi James Rudin, who was interreligious affairs director at the American Jewish Committee for many years and currently serves as its senior interreligious advisor, does not mince words in describing the flashpoint issues in interfaith relations from a Jewish perspective. This book could easily have been subtitled, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Jewish-Christian Relations but Were Afraid to Ask."
Rudin devotes short, cogent sections to these topics, among others: the emergence of Christianity and its separation from Judaism; the origins of the deicide charge; and the vilification of Jews and Judaism by the emerging Church that claimed to be "the new Israel." He explains why the "Old Testament" is a pejorative term (reflecting the Christian view that the "old" has been superseded by the "new and improved") and comments on the different ways that Jews and Christians read the Bible (for example, the "Suffering
Servant of Israel" in Isaiah 52–53, which Christians read as a prediction of Jesus, and Jews read as either a reference to the Jewish people in Babylonian exile or the prophet's reference to himself). This view of Judaism as being rejected and replaced laid the groundwork for the persecutions that followed in every land where the Christian church—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant—became
the established religion.
In a post-Holocaust world, the goal of interfaith relations is "mutual respect and knowledge," writes Rudin, as he records significant benchmarks of progress in recent history, such as Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's repudiation of antisemitic teachings in 1965, and similar statements by Protestant groups in the
1970s and '80s.
But progress can never be assumed, he warns, citing the Presbyterian church's resolution in 2004 to begin "a process of selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business with Israel," a move also considered by the Methodist and Episcopal churches. With characteristic clarity, Rudin explains why Israel is so important to Jews, why in today's world anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and why "internationalizing" Jerusalem is not an option. He also discusses recent attempts to develop Muslim-Jewish relations, which in his view are still in an embryonic stage of false starts and riddled with great mistrust.
Rudin's courageous book sums up "the state of interreligious relations," up to the present moment.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Books marked with this icon signify that they have been recommended for discussion groups—including Reform Movement-wide discussion on the “News & Views of Reform Jews” blog—as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jewish adult literacy initiative. Visit rj.org/books to see readers’ personal perspectives and to add your own.