Are Books All We Have Left?
A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today
But it doesn’t take long for the reader of Jews and Words to realize that, if the Ozes feel confident betting on literacy to sustain Jewish continuity, it is only because they have made a large covering bet, one that they don’t fully acknowledge: a bet on Hebrew—which is also to say, on the state of Israel. The words that the Jews have had in common have always been Hebrew words—in the Torah, the Talmud, the law codes and commentaries. Whether she wants to be or not, an atheist living in Tel Aviv is the heir to all these words: She can choose to read them, and even if she doesn’t, the language and literature that surround her draw on them. Jews can be Jews on the strength of words only if those words are Jewish words, and only Hebrew is an exclusively, unquestionably Jewish tongue. “We strongly believe,” the Ozes write, “that you cannot do ‘Judaism’ without gazing deeply into the eyes of Hebrew language and civilization.”
Thanks to Eliezer ben Yehuda and all the other early Zionists who resurrected Hebrew as a language of daily life, Israelis are born with an ineradicable link to the Jewish past. Oz and Oz-Salzberger are confident that this link, combined with Jewish habits of mind and education, is enough to sustain Jewish identity. What they are really arguing, then, is that it is possible to be an atheist Israeli and still be in a meaningful sense a Jew, a member of am Yisrael. This has natural implications for Israeli politics, which the Ozes are quick to voice: They resist the imposition of religion on the secular state, and they have no interest in the West Bank just because it used to be called Judea and Samaria. On both counts, they are heirs to a long Zionist tradition. Indeed, much of what is noblest and best about Zionism can be heard in the pages of Jews and Words.
But where does this leave American Jews? Our words are not, usually, Hebrew words; they are English, part of a global language with Anglo-Saxon and Christian origins. Can we, too, trust to language and intellect to make us genuine Jews, even if we neglect Hebrew and do not keep up Jewish observance and even disbelieve in God? Jews and Words itself is an ambiguous answer to this question. It is a brief for Hebrew written in English, a book by Israelis addressed to Americans. Does this mean that Oz and Oz-Salzberger recognize the validity of English as a Jewish language, or does it, on the contrary, mean that they are sending us a message in a bottle, asking us to come home? “As long as we still have our common words, we are a community,” they write hopefully near the end of the book. But do all Jews have words in common?
That is the question that seems to motivate the great new publishing project of which Jews and Words is a herald: the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, a monumental series published by Yale University Press with support from the Posen Foundation. The Ozes’ book is published in conjunction with the first installment of this 10-volume series, which when complete will offer an anthology or source book for all of Jewish history, starting with the biblical period and ending in the 21st century. And in keeping with the focus of the Posen Foundation, and its founder Felix Posen, the series defines Jewishness broadly, with an emphasis on secular cultural achievement. Here, if anywhere, is the “formative … library” the Ozes rely on to preserve Jewishness, designed specifically for the use of American Jews, and it immediately becomes a necessary item for any serious Jewish or general-interest library to own.
The Posen Library, under the general editorship of James Young, has launched with the publication of its chronologically last volume, Volume 10, which covers the years 1973-2005. Even a quick glance through the book, which has the dimensions of an encyclopedia, is enough to show how much labor—of editing, translation, acquiring permissions—went into making it, under the direction of the volume’s editors, Deborah Dash Moore and Nurith Gertz. Here are 250 pages of fiction (mostly in the form of brief excerpts from novels and stories), and 50 pages of poetry, and 100 pages of memoirs; here are bits of plays, YA novels, essays, new liturgical works, and recipes. If you can think of a Jewish writer, he or she is almost certainly here.
There is even room in the Posen for panels from graphic novels, in the section “Popular Culture,” and reproductions of paintings and sculptures, under the rubric “Visual Culture.” At the end of the book are lists of Jewish works in other media, which cannot be captured on the page, but which form part of the Posen’s imaginary canon: films, dances, classical and popular music. Within each section, items are sorted chronologically by year, even when this means splitting a contributor’s work: Thus we meet Philip Roth in 1986, with a section of The Counterlife, and again a hundred pages later in 1997, with a chunk of American Pastoral.
The first question any reader, or editor, would ask when confronted with a “library of Jewish culture and civilization” is what counts as a Jewish work. For earlier volumes of the series, that question won’t be so difficult: Presumably there will be a lot of scripture, Talmud, liturgy, and responsa in volumes still to come. For a book that covers the last three or four decades, a time when Jewish culture is more international and more fragmented than ever before, it is a more pointed challenge. One way the Posen Library answers it is through sheer size. There is room between these covers for just about everything that anyone might consider Jewish. That includes texts that deal directly and explicitly with Jewish issues—everything from Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, which has traumatized generations of young readers (including me) with its Hitler-fantasies, to historian Anita Shapira’s essay on Zionist models of Jewishness, to poet Marcia Falk’s pantheistic rewriting of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel—The divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything; the many are One.”
Satirist and media gadfly Henryk Broder attacks his countrymen’s attitudes toward Israel and Jews