“Tradition” is an odd word: In addition to what Chaim Topol’s Tevye meant when he belted it out—that is, more or less what Yiddish speakers refer to as mesore—it also used to mean, in the English of a few centuries past, “betrayal.” So, contemporary Jews are being faithful to etymology when their invocations of tradition transform historical behavior as much as they preserve it. Take, for one example, today’s kosher food business, described with aplomb by Sue Fishkoff in Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority (Schocken, October). While mashgiachs enforce centuries-old regulations for the selection and preparation of food, they do so in ways their grandfathers never would have imagined, employing technologically inventive methods in locations spanning the globe—plus, as Fishkoff fascinatingly points out, the vast majority of contemporary consumers who purchase kosher food regularly do not identify as observant Jews.
On the other side of that same coin, practices that seem brazenly new often reinforce established community conventions. Michelle Cove’s guidebook Seeking Happily Ever After (Penguin, October) encourages single women to reject old-fashioned notions of marriage as the sole determinant of personal worth and happiness. But Cove, who edits the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s online zine 614, is not so radical that a Jewish grandmother couldn’t shep nakhes over her personal choices. When she turned 30, Cove decided that she’d had enough “intense, moody, creative love interests” and signed up for the online dating service that has produced more shidduchs than Gimpl Beinish: “I found my husband on JDate,” she notes, proudly, “and we now have a six-year-old J-daughter.”
Not that Jewish grandmothers should be anyone’s symbol of staid traditionalism. As the essays gathered in A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers, October)—edited by Hasia Diner, Shira Kohn, and Rachel Kranson—make clear, Jewish women in the 1950s and 1960s found their niches, pace Betty Friedan’s lament about feminine conformity, as Cold War ideologues, entrepreneurs, and edgy comediennes.
How’s this for a nontraditional educational path? Yeshiva, then Harvard, then jail. That’s the route Avi Steinberg followed and that he recounts in his new memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Doubleday, October). While the premise smacks a little of post-Plimpton opportunistically experiential journalism—and, on that note, Steinberg has also written entertainingly about his gig as a security guard at the Republican National Convention—Steinberg offers a meaningful, unusual perspective on the U.S. prison system and on convicts’ lives, while his Jewishness spurs some of the inmates to let him know how much they respect Hasids.
Hasidism is both intensely traditional and radically innovative, and perhaps nowhere is that paradox more evident than in what Maya Balakirsky Katz calls The Visual Culture of Chabad (Cambridge, October). With 60 illustrations, Katz’s study documents and analyzes visual phenomena including the portraiture of Lubbavitcher rebbes, ranging from pocket-size to billboard, and the spectacle of public lightings of oversize Hanukkkah candles.
Chabad is hardly alone in its transformation of ancient religious symbols into modern practices. Jews across the ideological and religious spectrum do so regularly, as scholars and community leaders suggest in essays about bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and other commemorations in Leonard Greenspoon’s Rites of Passage: How Today’s Jews Celebrate, Commemorate, and Commiserate (Purdue, October). Based on a 2008 symposium held at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, the collection dramatizes the growing popularity of one relatively recent innovation in Jewish community ritual: the academic conference.
Making new traditions is a long-established tradition in itself. Aaron W. Hughes explains, in The Invention of Jewish Identity: Bible, Philosophy, and the Art of Translation (Indiana, November), why Jewish intellectuals in every generation retranslate the Torah. Examining Arabic vernacular translations, he notes that “translation of the Bible was associated with the discovery or invention of an ancient aesthetic tradition,” he writes, “one that just happened to coincide with contemporary literary production.” In other words, just about anything a Jew thinks can be supported by a choice quotation from the Bible, if the original language is translated cleverly enough.
David Biale identifies examples of this process in Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton, November), demonstrating that while some secularists, like Max Nordau, rejected the Torah as a “wasteland” of “superstitious beliefs,” others, like Heine, Freud, and Ahad Ha’am, “reappropriated the Bible as a cultural, historical, or nationalist text.” While admitting he cannot effectively cover all the varied expressions of Jewish secularism in art, music, and the culture of everyday life, Biale usefully addresses a range of “programmatic and philosophical” expressions of Jewish secularism, in a project both inspired and supported by Felix Posen, the preeminent philanthropic advocate of cultural and secular Judaism.
Anything can serve as the beginnings of a tradition, even the taboo-breaking, sui generis visual style developed by the comix artist R. Crumb—who is, of course, not Jewish himself, but a great lover of Jews, including his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Witness the drawings by their daughter, from early childhood compositions to recent, technically accomplished examples, edited by her parents into Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist (Norton, November), which the Crumbs intend not simply as a mass-produced family scrapbook but as a document of “the development, the evolution, of a given human being.” Yet family resemblance still looms large here: Sophie notes she has “let go of all that pressure of living up and being compared to ‘the legend’ ”—that is, her dad—but she sounds a lot like him when, a couple of lines later, she talks about putting “all the abnormality, perversion and zaniness onto paper,” while aiming, nonetheless, “to be a partially normal mother to my kids.”
The interplay of abnormality, perversion, and zaniness, on the one hand, and aspiring-to-normal parenthood, on the other, also animates Matthew Lippman’s second collection of poetry, Monkey Bars (Typecast, October). “When my first kid was born,” Lippman has said, “I couldn’t write a poem. For two years. Then I started writing again, about her.” His subsequent poems take on topics like Wal-Mart and prescription drugs and include jokey lines like “I went down to the Jew Shop to buy me a Jew” alongside more serious business. Lippman’s publisher “wants stock brokers and chefs and telephone repair people and professors to read this book”, and those admirable ambitions notwithstanding, the poet himself seems not deeply concerned about what T. S. Eliot called “tradition”: Asked about his propensity to reference Buddhism, Lippman seems refreshingly unself-conscious about setting himself up for comparisons to one rather celebrated precursor in his field: “I am a Jew,” Lippman says, “who likes jazz music who finds a light in Buddhism.”
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.