Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei knew his congregants at Westwood's Sinai Temple loved reading when about 20 of them braved the evening rush hour last November for an event at the University of Judaism (UJ) celebrating the 1939 talmudic novel, "As a Driven Leaf."
"This was sandwiched in between two major adult learning weekends," said Schuldenfrei, still amazed two months later.
The novel by the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg is currently being read at two dozen local synagogues in the new "One People/One Book" program, an attempt to broaden Jewish communal learning by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. It joins other Jewish book group gatherings at the Skirball Cultural Center and Orange County's Bureau of Jewish Education.
The "One People/One Book" plan is for synagogue members to meet and discuss "As a Driven Leaf" in small groups at least four times between last November's opening at the UJ and a closing event on May 24 at Milken Community High School.
"Every synagogue is sort of coordinating this in a different way," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, the board's executive vice president. "In some synagogues, it's just lay people studying."
Steinberg's well-received book is a fictionalized portrait of Elisha ben Abuyah, a dissident talmudic scholar in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The "One People/One Book" study guide mixes the book's ideas with Torah texts.
"This book lends itself to so many profound themes," Diamond said. "Modernity vs. tradition, forgiveness and repentance."
The board's president, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Pico-Robertson's Orthodox B'nai David Judea Congregation, worked last year to develop "One People/One Book" with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of the Reform congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood. The new learning program came after the board held annual interdenominational "Meeting in Torah" study nights for six years, but interest in that waned.
"For the first couple of years, it was very novel," Kanefsky said. "Over the course of years, it became one part of the landscape."
The new "One People/One Book" program replaces the one night of annual "Meeting in Torah," with its opening and closing gatherings and smaller synagogue discussion groups.
"This way, we have two of those everyone-coming-together events and the four study groups in between," Kanefsky said.
At Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, people are absorbing the book in clusters.
"We are reading the book in different settings around the congregation," Senior Rabbi Laura Geller said. "Two different classes are including it in their reading, so it's happening all around the congregation."
Geller said she feels that her 50 to 60 congregants who are reading Steinberg's book together are gaining "a deeper understanding of rabbinic Judaism. It's putting flesh and blood on names. I also think that they are finding themselves in the book."
Schuldenfrei said Sinai Temple will start discussing "As a Driven Leaf" in March, with the Conservative synagogue currently busy marking it its centennial anniversary.
Beyond "One People/One Book," the Jewish community has other ongoing book groups.
The Skirball Cultural Center's book group has an "Echoes of the Past" theme set around five novels and nonfiction books to be discussed at monthly meetings through June. The first meeting, on Feb. 14, will examine Australian writer Anna Funder's "Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall" (Granta Books, 2003).
Skirball book lovers in March will read Brian Morton's "A Window Across the River" (Harcourt, 2003), followed in April by Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker" (Vintage, 2005). In May, the book group will read James McBride's "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" (Riverhead Trade, 2001) and in June Andrea Levy's "Small Island" (Picador, 2005).
In Orange County, the Bureau of Jewish Education is in the midst of 30 weeks of Tuesday morning book club meetings around the women-driven theme, "Foundations: Making Our Wilderness Bloom."
The bureau's Web site lists six books anchoring the theme: Haviva Ner-David's "Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination" (JFL Books, 2000); "A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey" (State University of New York Press, 1999), by Merle Feld, and Kim Chernin's "In My Mother's House: A Daughter's Story" (Harper Perennial, 1994).
Also listed are the Rebecca Goldstein novel, "Mind-Body Problem" (Penguin, 1993); Anzia Yerzierska's, "Bread Givers: A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New World" (G. Braziller, 1975), and Gina Nihai's "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" (Washington Square Press, 2000).
In addition, the Santa Monica Public Library is exploring Jewish books with its program, "Between Two Worlds: Stories of Estrangement and Homecoming," meeting the third Tuesday of each month. It will start on Feb. 21 with Eva Hoffman's "Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language" (Penguin, 1990), followed March 21 by a discussion of Saul Bellow's "Mr. Sammler's Planet" (Penguin reissued edition, 2004). Scheduled for April 18 is the Andrea Aciman memoir, "Out of Egypt" (Riverhead Trade, 1996).