November 11, 2004
Read to Me
You never forget your first, and mine was Milton Steinberg.
Not his novel, "As a Driven Leaf." I'd read that later in
life, after my wife, a rabbi, looked at me unbelievingly one day and said, "You've never read 'As a Driven Leaf?'"
For her, and for so many others, it was a seminal Jewish text, a book that made the world and values of rabbinic Judaism palpable.
But after he wrote that, Steinberg wrote a book titled, "Basic Judaism." I found it one day at a used bookstore and began reading it and rereading it. It was basic, but it was also beautiful.
Many other books -- hundreds more -- would deepen my understanding of Judaism and Jewish life, from Job to Adin Steinsaltz's "The Thirteen Petalled Rose" to Bialik's poems and Isaac Babel's short stories to the most haunting Holocaust book I know, Serge Klarsfeld's "French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial." At 1,881 pages, it is no more and no less than a catalog of thousands of children living in France as of 1942, most of whom were murdered shortly thereafter.
I can close my eyes at any given moment and conjure their faces and stories.
The texts I struggled to decipher in Hebrew, from the Song of Songs to Amos Kenan's "The Road to Ein Harod," opened up another world of Jewish life. I remember the moment I opened a prayer book and could actually understand each word. I felt like the grown-ups featured in literacy commercials.
Life is with people, says the Yiddish proverb -- and the title of a seminal book on shtetl life -- but Jewish life is also with books. The rabbi's study, the Jewish home with its de rigueur volumes of Israeli hagiography, Philip Roth novels and a set of Joseph Telushkin. The People of the Book, just 2 percent of the U.S. population, comprise upward of one-third of all book buyers nationwide.
That accounts for the shelves of books publishers send to our offices to be reviewed. And they account for the tremendous guilt I feel as the titles pile up, and I realize we won't have room in the paper to review but a handful of the annual deluge.
So this issue marking Jewish Book Month comes as a kind of relief. In these pages we make room for books, beginning with novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin's take on Roth's "The Plot Against America." His review is not for the ideologically squeamish; then again, I am one-third of the way through Roth's book, and it isn't for the faint of heart either.
In this issue, we also begin a new book-related feature, My Jewish Library. In place of the weekly Torah portion (don't fret, more on that later) we've asked dozens of area scholars, teachers, writers, thinkers and rabbis to pick the one book that they believe is crucial to every Jewish library. They will explain what the book is about, how it influenced them and why you must read it.
Our first contributor is author, publisher and screenwriter Robert Avrech whose pick -- a book I hadn't even heard of -- is a reminder that Jewish learning never stops or fails to surprise.
You'll be able to join a discussion of the book at www.jewishjournal.com -- you'll even be able to click and buy a copy of it there. (Our thanks to Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, for suggesting this new column.) If you want to read about the week's Torah portion, we have archived columns that are easily accessible at www.jewishjournal.com.
And if you want to see where this love of books begins, I suggest a quick morning drive this Sunday, Nov. 14, out to the second annual Jewish Children's Bookfest at the Triangle at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley (www.jewishchildrensbookfest.org).
There is something fitting and right that the largest Jewish book festival now held in the greater Los Angeles area is geared specifically to children. The love of books is born early in life. Experts know this, and so do parents. The time we spend reading aloud to our children when they're very young is richly rewarded with hours of silence as they grow older and read to themselves, off in some quiet corner. Ah, books.
There is more to it than that. A taste for reading is a taste for Jewish life itself, for new and competing and challenging ideas, for a wild ride of intellect and emotion that begins with the ABCs and aleph-bet and ends, well, never.
"There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those spent with a favorite book," wrote that great Jewish nonchildren's book writer Marcel Proust. That, too, is Basic Judaism.