A community of readers

Book groups transform the perusal of Jewish literature from a solo experience into a shared journey.

April 7, 2009 11:33
A community of readers

books 88. (photo credit: )

Readers - people who take books seriously and make them an integral part of their lives - have long known that reading is a pleasurable and enriching, but also solitary, avocation. In contrast to the cinema, for example, which offers its audience a shared sense of community, reading is an individual experience, not one undertaken with one's hand buried in a barrel of buttered popcorn in the companionship of other butter-spattered observers. Unless, that is, one joins a reading group. A reading group can transform the act of reading from a solo experience into a shared endeavor. Anyone who has played a classical musical instrument knows the various joys of the meditative, self-reflective act of performing solo and the communal, conversational act of performing in a quartet or orchestra; so it is with reading. A reading group can enable readers to tease layers of meaning from a book that would not have become apparent absent a larger discussion. Jews were early adopters of this notion; the hevruta method of Talmud study exemplifies the benefits of reading in community as an accompaniment to reading in isolation. And, as with any club or fraternity, reading groups provide a social forum in which people with similar interests can come together. That shared interest may be classical Greek civilization, science fiction, military history, mysteries or East Asian literature. Or, as is the case for many Jewish readers, it may be the colorful tapestry of the Jewish experience as reflected in Jewish literature. Scores of Jewish readers across the United States have formed local Jewish-themed book clubs or joined reading groups sponsored by national Jewish organizations to connect with other Jews and delve deeper into Jewish identity. As a result, Jewish book clubs are a widespread phenomenon nationally. One can find Jewish reading groups where salmon spawn (Idaho) and buffalo roam (Wyoming), as well as in major urban areas where Jews broil salmon and spurn buffalo. My wife, in partnership with the rebbetzin of the Chabad house in Wayne, New Jersey, founded a local Jewish book club that now numbers approximately 10 members from Wayne and nearby towns. I was curious to know what motivated my wife to cofound a Jewish book club (and being that I live with her, I asked). "When I was on a flight back from Israel last year," she explained, "I saw The Jane Austen Book Club, a movie about a group of people whose lives are affected by reading Jane Austen's books. I wanted to have the same experience the characters in the movie had, and share that with a group of friends." And why specifically Jewish books? "I wanted to get closer with the Jewish community here and I wanted to become more acquainted with the riches of Jewish literature." THE DESIRE for connections, both with the Jewish community and with one's cultural heritage, can be powerful indeed. The Wayne group kicked off its reading with The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, the diary of a 17th-century German Jewish woman who mothered 14 children and took over the family business when she was widowed. The book is a personal evocation of one remarkable woman's life achievements and tribulations, a historical document that sheds light on how the Jews of German lands once lived, and a perfect choice for the launch of this women-only reading group. The choice of reading in Wayne falls to a different member each session. Rebbetzin Chani Gurkov chose Ruchama King's Seven Blessings, a poignant tale of matchmaking, self-inflicted loneliness and personal growth among new immigrants seeking (and avoiding) soul mates in Jerusalem, and invited the novelist to join the discussion. King graciously agreed, and her attendance stimulated a lively discussion as well as a rare opportunity for readers to compare their interpretation of the book with the author's intent. As the conversation meandered from symbolism to character development, I said to the novelist that she used dance and physical movement in the book in conjunction with various turning points in the story. She wasn't convinced at first, but after I cited specific pages with the fervor of a prosecutor presenting decisive evidence, she warmed up to the idea. In a lukewarm sort of way. The members have also taken up some of the modern literary classics, including A Guest for the Night by S.Y. Agnon, one of the most challenging and allusive writers in modern Hebrew literature, and the Tevye the Dairyman stories of Sholom Aleichem, one of the fathers of modern Yiddish literature. The women in the Wayne group see it both as a forum to discuss literature and as a social outlet. And in this respect, reading groups have not changed much since enterprising women in New England arranged the first reading groups in the United States in the early 19th century, no doubt too to satisfy their intellectual curiosity but also to create a space where they could connect. While some reading groups are drawn to the riches of modern Jewish literature, others are drawn to the classical texts of Judaism. Reid Heller, a lawyer and film producer, has a passion for conveying the classical Jewish religious and philosophical texts to other Jews. His interest in Jewish texts was sparked during his undergraduate years in the 1970s. Heller explains: "I studied with a professor named Kullman. I had been studying Classics, and Kullman taught me Hebrew. I went from Kullman to the biblical texts and philosophy. Kullman encouraged me to study the original texts." In the early 1980s, Heller attended some Great Books seminars with friends. (The Great Books seminars are an outgrowth of the Great Books Foundation, established in the 1940s by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler to promote the reading of the classic philosophical and literary texts of the Western tradition which Hutchins and Adler had been teaching with evangelical zeal at the University of Chicago.) "I was so impressed with the power of that seminar to harness the enthusiasms of people that engaged [in] reading and to turn the exploration of a single text into a focus of intellectual exploration," Heller explains, "that it had to be done for Jews." HELLER WAS moved to "deepen Jewish self-awareness" and in 1989 founded a seminar in Dallas on Jewish texts. He believes that the classic Jewish religious and philosophical texts contain "a profound message of moderation and intellectual honesty," and that much of the meaning and philosophical depth of the texts have been obscured by an outlook that has "privileged historical development over the author's intention." The Dallas seminar still meets today, nearly 20 years later, a group of approximately 20 people exploring the riches of traditional Jewish texts to connect with the philosophical wellsprings of their identity. A number of national Jewish organizations promote Jewish book discussions across the country. Hadassah has facilitated Jewish reading groups in the US since 2001, initiated and led by the reading group members with the assistance of a reading list provided by the organization. According to Jason Thompson, project manager of Jewish education for Hadassah, the organization received requests for 419 book club guides for the 2008-2009 book season. Thompson estimates that the typical Hadassah book group has 10 to 20 members. Groups meet in many states including New York, Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona. Hadassah's book picks are weighted toward contemporary titles, both fiction and nonfiction, and are chosen by several Hadassah professionals. Another group active on the reading front is Nextbook, a Jewish cultural organization founded in 2003 which runs book discussion programs at libraries across the country in partnership with the American Library Association. Based around themes such as "Demons, Golems and Dybbuks: Monsters of the Jewish Imagination," Nextbook's reading choices incline toward 19th- and 20th-century Jewish literature. Reading groups clearly vary widely in their choice of books, from the highbrow to lowbrow to the brow in the middle. Choosing what to read in the sea of Jewish literature is an issue sure to spark passionate debate among readers. The National Yiddish Book Center entered the fray in 2001 in a project whose goal was to introduce American Jews to the greatest works of Jewish literature written over the last 200 years. The center engaged a panel of highly regarded literary scholars to compile a list that would sketch out the contours of a modern Jewish literary canon. After much debate, in 2001 the panel put its seal upon its final choices and the center published its annotated list under the title "The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature." The list ultimately made its way to the Wayne group, distributed at its first session, and served as the source for several of the group's reading choices, including Agnon and Sholom Aleichem, two writers whose works are essential to the modern Jewish literary canon. During that evening in which the Wayne group discussed Seven Blessings, the author read aloud segments from her novel and engaged the group's comments and questions. My wife and I brought along our copy of the book and at the end of the discussion asked the novelist to autograph it. I handed the book to King; she returned it a moment later. Inscribed in the frontispiece: "I so much enjoyed your insightful comments." Insights for both reader and writer. What more could one wish for from a book club?

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