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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Reading Jewish

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Perhaps because I’m a professor of Jewish studies, I often meet people who confess to me that they’ve “matured” out of Judaism or Jewish identity, which they think of as childish affectations. But it’s really their childhood Jewish education that was (appropriately) childish, not Judaism and Jewishness.

After all, no one would claim that Einstein’s theories are child’s play on the basis of having learned math in elementary school, or that great literature is simplistic once you have Dick and Jane under your belt. Relativity? Hah! Piece of cake. I did math in Grade 4! Hamlet? Easy-peasy. I learned to write in Grade 1! And, notwithstanding the Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten industry, no one would think that the skills acquired in childhood suffices for the complexity of the real workplace. An audit? No problem. I learned my numbers in pre-kindergarten. But many people expect that the Judaism they learned in their youth will suffice them forever.

In a perfect world, we’d all have the luxury of taking formal classes forever. But even in our time-crunched world, we can carve out spaces and time to challenge and renew ourselves, expanding our knowledge and sharpening our thinking. Especially at this time of year, just as the eased time of summer schedules begin, we can make a commitment to read Jewish: something serious, demanding or thought-provoking, something that speaks to the Judaism, the Jewishness, the Jewish experience of adults.

Once upon a time, it was easy to know what folks were reading. You could see which displays attracted clusters of customers in bookstores. In the subway, at the beach or in a café, you’d see waves of the same cover design, or your eyes would be drawn to something out of the ordinary. You could pick out kindred spirits by the book spines balanced in their hands, or expand your to-read list through the choices of others.

The digital world has changed the lay of the literary landscape. It has given us the twinned gifts of portability and privacy. We can order books from a plethora of online vendors and expect a nondescript brown package to arrive on our doorstep in days. We can embark on far-flung journeys with virtual stacks of books in tow, loaded onto a lightweight electronic reader or tablet. And, unless we tell them, no one has any clue what we’re reading, just as we, alas, have no clue what others are reading.

So, I’m telling. Here’s a sampling of what you could find on my bookshelves, both actual and virtual, recently read or waiting to be read.

First are two autobiographically based novels by the German Jewish writer, H. G. Adler. Hans Adler, trained as a musicologist before World War II, was deported at age 22 to Theresienstadt and was eventually sent to Auschwitz and several other camps. Soon after the war, he published a massive historical study of Theresienstadt, several novels based on his memories and experiences – more than 25 books in a range of genres. Although Adler died in relative obscurity, lately there has been renewed interest in his writing. New English language translations of his novels Panorama and The Journey have been published recently to critical acclaim. York University’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies plans to have the first-ever symposium dedicated to his work in the fall.

The peppery stories in Etgar Keret’s newly translated collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, like all of Keret’s writing, is quirky, playful, complex, smart and serious. An Israeli writer who explores the nuances of Israeli culture, Keret has revitalized interest in the short story.

American writer Nathan Englander’s new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, explores the complexities of identity and relationships in Israel and the United States in a series of masterly crafted stories.

A cluster of superb recent Canadian novels by Jewish writers pulled me into deeply imagined worlds. I’ll mention just two: David Bezmozgis’ richly conceived The Free World, which follows a multi-generation family of Russian Jews who make their way from the Soviet Union to Canada, and Nancy Richler’s elegant and moving The Impostor Bride, is a multi-generational story that radiates out of post-War Montreal and contends with memory, absence, and imagination.

What’s on your shelves?

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