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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today

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Michael David, A Jew in Germany, 1993. Photograph by John Parnell, courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta. (Image courtesy of The Jewish Museum, NY/Art Resource, NY.)

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?

The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization Volume Ten 1973-2006Felix Posen
Felix Posen. (Courtesy of the Posen Foundation)

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.”

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If Volume 10, 1975-2005, does not contain any major Jewish works from the Orthodox or even Conservative religious writings, of which there is an enormous amount and which population represents a quarter to a third of world Jewry, then Volume 10 (and maybe the whole series) does not truly cover Jews but only the secular world and perspective of liberal Jews – which is the narrow portion of Jews that Oz, father and daughter, represent and seek to privilege because of their ideological biases.

In Jews and Words, the Ozes do cite Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld as paragons of Jewish humor.

Digital books and comments like this one on the web are, in my opinion, the vital edge of Jewish and all other communication. I love books and I will always love books. But I know that Orthodox teenagers are texting each other on Shabbos, and that’s a picture of the future forming before our very eyes.

SiegelAcevedo says:

It will be interesting to see if and how a work like this addresses Jews-by-choice. While the immediate context of conversion is of course religious, adopting/adapting-to a peoplehood does go far beyond rule and letter of law. The tension between text and experience, the coming to grips with the ethical applications and existential implications of the traditional literature outside of a literal reading– the centrality of books and words, and the sense of it all as a contemporaneous ongoing dialog, is part and parcel of this convert’s life— as this article maintains it’s been for all Jews, religious and secular, through the millennia. Which of course means in any case that I look forward to adding all this new/old material to my already sagging bookshelf!

Volume 10 certainly does contain a range of works from all denominations of Judaism. In addition to the section on liturgy, there are selections from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Adin Steinsaltz, Esther Jungreis, J. David Bleich, Nisson Wolpin, Shlomo Carlebach, David Feldman, David Golinkin, Norman Lamm, Immanuel Jakobovits, and Ovadia Yosef . . . and this just brings us to 1989 (I can add more info, as executive editor of the series).

Thank you Joyce Rappaport for your response. The article implied that it was primarily focused on “fiction” and literature – and not having the book itself, that was the only information about it that I had.

9Athena says:

There are Jews, other Jews and Jews in the mists of time. Persian Jews, Armenian Jews, Yemenite Jews (Himyarite Jews), Siberian Jews in the Oblasts, Ethiopian Jews, Greek Jews-Jews of every time and clime. Hebrew was forbidden to write or speak in ordinary living. The language was recreated (or reinvented) with the advent of modern Israel. In enforcing the strictures of ordinary communication Hebrew meanings and comprehension were blurred and lost. Yet the Jews knew they were Jews , even when they voluntarily converted or chose other beliefs. Each disparate segment came up with unique customs and traditions. But they were Jews. The unifying principle? They knew they were Jews.
American Jews? Another blip on the scope of Jewish history. Israel? We had it before and lost it. The tribes themselves decided to break away from Judea. Why? Another opportunity and again another loss. And again. But here we are; fragmented in Israel and without- as we pursue or are pushed to our ongoing history. Still we are Jews forged in a greater bond than man attempts to devise or explain or rationalize. Write your books, read your books, and the truth is greater than the dicta and petty pronouncements of self- appointed agents of the Almighty. Let’s discuss this again in the year 3500 CE.

Being a lefty looney like A. Oz means being loved by the world of the elites and the feminists the abortionists, the journos and the rest of the Obama-worshipping destroyers.

Kevin_in_Chicago says:


The recognition of Judaism being a civilization and a culture needs differentiation between culture and civilization. A culture is the fruit of a civilization, but a civilization is not the same as a culture. Included in Jewish civilization should begin with the first scholar to bring civilization into the definition of Judaism, Dr. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Most American Jews view Yiddish as a defining aspect of their Jewish culture, but cetainly Ladino was conveyed by the Sephardic culture. And both are part of the Jewish civilization.

When Jews had to leave Judea, they were not Hebrew-speaking. Most spoke Aramaic, many spoke Greek, and some spoke Latin and other languages. Many Jews became Arabophones and took Arab names. Some adopted Islam so their intellectual acceptance could become complete. Each Jewish culture assimilated to some degree into another civilization but succeeded more often to create their own cultures. This phenomenon has continued through Jewish history as the Jewish people contended with a history that was more the exception than the rule of peoples.

The question remains as to what will happen in places like the U.S. where, as a nation of immigrants, groups tend to be absorbed. In the 1950s, Jewish professionals including rabbis decided to define and identify Jews as a religion because the U.S. did privilege religion but ethnicity was a concept in contention with American identification. Since then, ethnicity has gained more “respectability” as a conceptual identity, and there are many Jews who do not involve themselves in religion, but are Jewish. There is a statement prevalent that there are more Jewish atheists than there are atheists in other groups. First, the statement has not been tested for veracity, but all of us know Jews who are “very Jewish” and very unreligious. So can atheism be a Jewish culture? I cannot answer that question. However, we certainly know that these Jews are a part of the Jewish civilization.

Nevertheless, Hebrew is not just another language. When the Zionist movement wanted to “pick up” where the Jews left off when they were forced to leave their homeland, shouldn’t they have picked Aramaic? After all, so much of the religious discussions and decisions was in Aramaic.

The Zionists knew that Aramaic was not their “Ur-language.” Hebrew was the language that we spoke before we were Jews, before we were influenced by Persians, Greeks and Romans. It is a Jewish “jahiliyyah” — a term I take from Arabic to describe the pre-Islamic period, and means, a period of ignorance or innocence. In a sense, Hebrew being spoken today in Israel is a language unincumbered by the paradoxically non-Jewish influences that made Israelites into Jews.

A great article about an important topic. However, the anthology
described above – a project I strongly support – seems to privilege a
specifically American (and perhaps also partly Israeli) perspective on
secular Jewish culture. That’s understandable given the editors’
background, the presumed audience and the relative importance of
Jewish-American culture vis-à-vis other diasporas. But I would appreciate to see more European and Soviet/Russian – Jewish voices being included in the “canon”.

Interesting article. I just have one point to make and wish the editors had caught this. If I didn’t know otherwise, after reading “Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised” I would wonder if there are any girls among Jewish children.


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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today