Grapevine: Open books

Jerusalem International Book Fair lectures; Naomi Alderman provokes both mirth and shock.

KURT AND EDITH Rothschild with David Koschitzky (photo credit: Philip Touito)
KURT AND EDITH Rothschild with David Koschitzky
(photo credit: Philip Touito)
Those who fret about the waning interest of the People of the Book in books, its advocates and its teachers would have had those fears allayed had they attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair lecture that was a joint celebration of the 50th anniversary of Koren Publishers and a tribute to Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was born in the same year as the State of Israel and who will mark his 65th birthday on March 8.
Sacks, who has been chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth for the past 21 years, will step down at the end of August.
Koren and its Maggid subsidiary, which was inaugurated in 2006, went to great lengths to publicize the event, which also served as the launch of a new book, Radical Responsibility, a collection of essays by a galaxy of great thinkers who admire the intellectual legacy that Sacks has bequeathed in his lifetime not only to the Jewish people, but to the world.
Many of the lectures, discussions and workshops during the book fair were well attended, but none could rival this event, which drew a crowd in excess of 1,500 people.
The book, published by Maggid in cooperation with the London School of Jewish Studies and Yeshiva University, includes essays by Rabbi Benny Lau and Moshe Halbertal, who preceded Sacks at the podium but could compete neither with his power of oratory nor with his humor in his address, which ranged from stand-up comedy to the universal message of the Torah.
In introducing Sacks, Maggid Books’ editorin- chief Gila Fine said that she would try to refrain from using superlatives, but wondered aloud how one could introduce a man like Sacks without superlatives. To which Sacks quipped: “Read the Jewish press.”
Lau, who was the first speaker, started in Hebrew and watched the faces of the audience fall, using a hand gesture to acknowledge the downturn in enthusiasm. But it was merely a ploy designed to applaud Maggid as an important bridge for Jewish thought. More than politics, economics, globalization and terror, said Lau, the greatest problem of the Jewish people is language.
Important writings in Hebrew are lost to English-speakers who can’t read them, and similarly important writings in English are lost to many Hebrew-speakers.
But Maggid is translating important works from Hebrew to English and vice versa.
Until he was able to read Sacks in Hebrew, Lau confessed, he had barely been aware of him. Halbertal presented an interesting Talmudic dissertation on dealing with the poor and differentiating between those who had once been once affluent and had been reduced to poverty and those who had been born into poverty. Sacks, whose ideas have in some circles been regarded as radical, said that most people believe in the idea of power, whereas Jews believe in the power of the idea. Quoting from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s iconic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Sacks admitted that there were times when propagating his ideas that he, too, felt lonely – but looking out at the vast audience, he knew that he was not alone.
■ AT THE opposite end of the spectrum, earlier in the week, another British author, Naomi Alderman, who grew up in an Orthodox environment but seven years ago moved away from religion, provoked both mirth and shock when she said at a panel discussion that “religious Judaism is misogynist, homophobic and racist.”
Alderman spring-boarded to literary fame with her first book, Disobedience, about a North London rabbi’s daughter becoming a lesbian, which was well received in literary circles but not in Britain’s Orthodox Jewish community, where the rumor was put out that the book was autobiographical. Alderman said it was not, though she saw nothing wrong with lesbianism.
Her most recent book, The Liar’s Gospel, which is no less controversial, presents a perspective on Jesus that will make most Christians very unhappy and will not be received with great joy by Jews either. Alderman enjoys stirring the pot, but does so without malice.
■ AMONG THE many well-known personalities who were in the audience to listen to Rabbi Sacks was World Mizrahi President Kurt Rothschild, who made aliya with his wife, Edith, a year ago. Rothschild, who was long regarded as the elder statesman of the Canadian Jewish community, is a generous philanthropist who sits on the boards of Bar-Ilan University, Yeshiva University and Shaare Zedek Medical Center. He has been president of the Canadian Zionist Federation and has been active in the field of Jewish education in Canada, the United States and Israel. He has also been closely involved with the establishment of religious settlements in the Negev.
He and his wife were honored this week by the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs when 20 members of the CIJA board of directors came to Jerusalem for three days of concentrated meetings with leaders of all Israeli political parties, key representatives of the defense establishment, academic experts and leaders of settlements and other communities. Among the prominent Israelis who met with the CIJA leadership were MKs Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Yair Shamir, Moshe “Bogi” Ya’alon, Yuval Steinitz, Yuli Edelstein and Avi Dichter and Isaac Herzog, and Natan Sharansky, Yaacov Amidror, Ron Dermer, Prof. Yedidia Stern and Rabbi David Stav of Tzohar.
The CIJA board, at its opening dinner, paid to tribute the Rothschilds for their many decades of community service and philanthropic leadership and also enjoyed a spirited debate between Jerusalem Post Editor- in-Chief Steve Linde and his Haaretz counterpart, Aluf Benn. Speakers throughout the evening were effusive in their praise of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government’s staunch and principled support for Israel.
■ THERE ARE always familiar faces at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. It’s an event that attracts almost the whole of the social and demographic mosaic of Israeli society as well as publishers, editors, agents and writers from abroad. Past and present editors and writers for The Jerusalem Post participated in panel discussions, one-onone interviews that were open to the public, readings from their own works and book signings. The best-known of the dozen or so such people was former editor-in-chief Ari Rath, who last month celebrated his 88th birthday. For the past several years, Rath has been commuting between his home in Jerusalem and his native Vienna.
He was at the fair to promote his autobiography, Ari Means Lion, which was originally published in German but will soon be available in Hebrew and English. Most of the copies of the book that were on display at the fair were sold.
■ FOR THE first time in its 50-year history, the book fair included seven Yiddish publishers – six from Israel and one from New York. The publishers were assembled by Tsila Godrov, the recently appointed executive director of the National Authority for Yiddish, which has been virtually dormant for the past six years but is unlikely to stay that way with Godrov at the helm. In addition to displaying Yiddish books and periodicals, the National Authority for Yiddish organized a wonderful concert of Yiddish songs, poems and Klezmer music which was attended by some 200 people.
Godrov addressed the audience in her rich Lithuanian Yiddish, but the organization’s chairwoman, Dr. Sara Ziv, preferred to speak in Hebrew, explaining that although she speaks Yiddish, she would not dare to try in the presence of Yiddish poets.
Ziv warned that if Yiddish is to be preserved, it must again become a living language and a creative culture. She had been afraid, she admitted, that the number of performers might exceed the number of people in the audience. She was delighted to have been proved wrong.
One of the Yiddish poets present was Holocaust survivor Rivka Bassman Ben- Hayim, who has been writing Yiddish poetry for more than 60 years, and another was Velvl Chernin, who was born in Moscow in 1958 and whose wonderful command of Yiddish seems to belie the stories of how the Communists wanted to exterminate alien cultures. In the 1980s, Chernin was on the staff of Sovietish Heiimland, the only token Yiddish magazine that was published at the time in the Soviet Union.
On display at the Yiddish stand at the fair were copies of the Israeli edition of Forverts, the Yiddish language daily that was launched in New York in 1897 but that, due to dwindling circulation, has been published as a weekly for the past 30 years. Hope for the future of Yiddish was evidenced in the performance by the three young children of Miriam and Eliezer Niborski, who speak Yiddish at home with their parents and who had no problem chatting in Yiddish with members of the audience after the show.
■ MANY OF the panel discussions and one- on- one interviews at the book fair were interesting. But Israeli interviewers, whether on radio, television or stage, are in the habit of talking endlessly instead of giving the floor to the interviewee. Some even had the gall to tell – rather than ask – the authors what their intentions had been when developing their plots. But there was at least one noteworthy exception, even though the topic of the conversation was disturbing to many people in the packed audience. Journalist Oran Huberman interviewed writer and historian Dr. Yuval Noah Harari about how humans are being increasingly replaced by robots. At the same time, new drugs are being developed to prolong the human life span not by a year or two but by decades. But what will be the point if these people can’t have jobs? How will they live? While quoting the experts on doomsday, both Huberman and Harari maintained a cheerful, enthusiastic and civilized exchange. Their mutual respect was a pleasure to behold, as was their respect for the audience.
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