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On the Bookshelf

Compulsions, subversions, and a TV tell-all

Josh Lambert
September 29, 2009

Best part of the 25-hour prayer-and-food-deprivation marathon we refer to as Yom Kippur? The end, when the shofar announces it’s time to stop mumbling apologies to God and shift our attention to fressing whitefish salad and bialys. Imagine, though, what a perpetual Yom Kippur would feel like, denying your appetites and begging God for mercy every day. Abby Sher, a comedian and young adult novelist, lived like that. She recounts her battles with obsessive-compulsive religious devotion, with eating disorders, and with the compulsion to cut herself in Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things) (Scribner, October). Sher is not the first Jewish memoirist of scrupulosity disorder—Jennifer Traig’s Devil in the Details (2004) covered similar ground—which raises the question of whether collective fasting and breast-beating might not be the healthiest forms of communal ritual.

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Simchat Torah, taking place a week from Sunday, celebrates the giving of the Torah, the ancient text that, among other things, includes many tales of bizarre and self-destructive rituals no less shocking than Sher’s memoir. The first book of the Torah alone contains instances of fratricide, attempted human sacrifice, incest, rape, and a whole lot of animal husbandry—all of which the alternative comix master R. Crumb renders in gorgeous detail in The Book of Genesis Illustrated (Norton, October). Though raised Catholic, Crumb has always had a bit of a thing for Jews—his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, is one—and he bases his version of Bereishit on Robert Alter’s widely lauded English translation. Crumb’s draws and letters marvelously, as always, though his interpretative decisions brim with contradiction. If he quails at the Torah as “a piece of patriarchal propaganda,” as he told the New Yorker, why draw Yahweh so conventionally, as an old man with a flowing beard, a slightly more august version of Mr. Natural?

England’s Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, approaches Genesis more reverently than Crumb in Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Koren, September), a collection of responses to parashat hashavua. Meanwhile, NYU professor Mark Smith offers a scholarly take on the Torah’s creation myth in The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Fortress, November), scrupulously attending to the ancient pagan traditions and priestly theology that influenced the Torah’s authors. Readers curious to discover how ancient Jews themselves represented narratives from the Tanakh can do so in a new, affordable paperback edition of Steven Fine’s 2005 study, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge, October). Among many other ancient artworks, Fine discusses the frescoes of scenes from the Tanakh narratives—none from Genesis, but plenty from Exodus and Esther—which have been preserved at the third-century synagogue of Dura Europos, in present-day Syria.

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If the Torah seems like unusual fodder for adult-only alternative comix, how much stranger is it to discover that the scripture that condemns homosexuality as “abomination” has become a sourcebook for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activism and thought? Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (NYU, October), edited by Joshua Lesser, David Shneer, and Gregg Drinkwater—rabbi, scholar, and activist respectively—seizes on the Torah as just that. Scouring parashat hashavua for pearls of insight into the perplexities of queer Jewish identity, a wide range of writers suggest just how broadly relevant and provocative the ancient texts can be.

Perhaps neither Torah Queeries nor Crumb’s project should be surprising: as Judy Klitsner, a teacher at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, suggests in Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (JPS, October), the Torah often rewrites its own tales, modeling a sort of interpretive chutzpah. So potentially subversive is Genesis, in fact, that Crumb and his publishers felt it necessary to include on the cover of his edition a warning label: “adult supervision recommended for minors.” Such gestures, intended to guard youth from deleterious influences and impulses, have a long history in Jewish education. Take Tiferet Bahurim, a 17th-century tract advising Jewish grooms on sexual behavior. In Juvenile Sexuality, Kabbalah, and Catholic Reformation in Italy (Brill, October), Israeli historian Roni Weinstein introduces and contextualizes this fascinating early modern text.

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Speaking of juvenile sexuality: Dustin Diamond’s tell-all memoir, Behind the Bell (Transit, September) promises to reveal the bacchanalian excesses of the teenagers on the cast of the long-running sit-com Saved by the Bell; Diamond played Samuel “Screech” Powers, an unforgettably goofy geek. Diamond’s not exactly a reliable source, though: in desperate attempts to attract media attention, he has appeared not only on awful reality shows, but also in a disturbing sex tape, and his former Saved by the Bell colleagues banned him from a reunion. Not much dignified conduct should be expected from the child star who will, nebekh, forever be known for epitomizing the intensely Jewfro’d dweeb whom every teenager wants desperately not to resemble. In a stand-up routine, the comedian Michael Showalter, a founding member of MTV’s The State, has described how he was once mistaken for Diamond on the street in Brooklyn. A stranger erroneously “thought I was one of the most iconic losers ever, of all time,” Showalter remarked. “Do you know how badly that hurts?” Surely not quite as much as being Screech.

This summer, reporting on Diamond’s sex life enlivened the blog of Heeb, the Jewish hipster magazine infamous for blending punk aesthetics with Jewish nonprofit foundation funding. (The magazine and the actor have share a willingness to do almost anything to generate buzz. The latest Heeb project, Sex, Drugs, and Gefilte Fish (Grand Central, October), features dozens of essays adapted from the magazine’s live Storytelling events, selected and edited by Shana Liebman. In it, those readers who haven’t heard enough anecdotes lately about nude Hebrew school teachers will discover much to savor.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.