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On the Bookshelf

Madoff, interfaith dialogue, British Jews, and more

Josh Lambert
August 10, 2009

Interfaith dialogue requires some delicacy, and it can be especially tricky for Jews to remind Christians just how much of their belief systems and liturgies derive from Jewish sources. (Sholem Asch and Marc Chagall did so in literature and painting, with infamously mixed results.) Still, serious scholars, both Jewish and Christian, continue to detail the depth of Jewish influence on the development of Christianity. In The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew Chapters 1-14 (Academic Studies, June), for example, Herbert Basser, a professor of religion at Queen’s University, emphasizes the Jewishness of the New Testament and of Jesus Christ himself. Meanwhile, Father Daniel Harrington, a Jesuit scholar at Boston College, notes in Jesus and Prayer: What the New Testament Teaches Us (Word Among Us, July) that if Christians care about how Jesus prayed—and shouldn’t they?—they would do well to study the Tanakh.

A similar desire to recover Christianity’s neglected Jewishness animates Willis Barnstone’s The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary (Norton, October), which combines and expands upon this poet, critic, and prolific translator’s separate editions of the major New Testament books and of the Gnostic Gospels. In Barnstone’s version of the Bible, characters and places go by their probable un-Englished names: think Yeshua walking on the sea of Galil, or the gospels of Markos and Yohanan.

Televangelist Benny Hinn’s entry into Middle Eastern politics in Blood in the Sand: A Journey Through the Middle East Conflict (Strang, August) offers a much less sympathetic example of Christian interest in Jewish affairs. Born in Jaffa to Palestinian parents, with a massive international following, Hinn might seem well-poised to reflect upon the ongoing political quagmire, and his support of Israel might cheer some Zionists. Yet if Hinn has demonstrated anything with his sensational prayer meetings, faith healing, and wild prophecies, it is his rather tenuous grip on reality—and Israel seems already very well-stocked with fundamentalist crackpots. That Ehud Olmert contributed a supportive foreword to Hinn’s book simply beggars belief.

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Speaking of beggaring belief: the Madoff book wave crests this week. While the first round of quickie publications had already reached bookstores by March, three separate reputable publishers have now thrown together their own books on the financial swindler. The first, Penguin’s Portfolio imprint, proposes that Erin Arvedlund, a business reporter who raised questions about Madoff in print as early as 2001, can tell the story best, in a book called Too Good to Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff. The second, Harper, turned the task over to Andrew Kirtzman, a veteran reporter and biographer of Rudy Giuliani who “tracked down more than a hundred people from Madoff’s past,” including “the first girl he ever kissed,” for Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff. The third, Wiley, called in Jerry Oppenheimer, a king of the unauthorized celebrity tell-all (former subjects include Jerry Seinfeld, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Martha Stewart), who serves up the inevitably titled Madoff with the Money. What does the confluence of these three books, each promulgating much the same information in the hopes of climbing the bestseller list, reveal? Just that editors have not learned one of the central lessons of the Madoff scandal: if a project promises profit (as these biographies do), but without any means for creating genuine value (as they surely won’t, given how quickly they were put together and how much journalists have already done), walk away.

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Influential as Madoff’s scheme may turn out to be, in the short term pondering it will likely not enlighten anyone about what it’s like to be Jewish in the years since the turn of the millennium. For that, Geoffrey Alderman’s The Communal Gadfly: Jews, British Jews and the Jewish State (Academic Studies, July) and Dana Evan Kaplan’s Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal (Columbia, July) offer useful starting points, especially for those interested in the British and American Jewish communities, respectively. In The Communal Gadfly, Alderman, professor at the University of Buckingham and author of Modern British Jewry, collects more than a hundred of his weekly columns from the venerable Jewish Chronicle since 2002, ranging widely in topic and tone. Though it represents only one man’s perspective, Alderman’s grab-bag of a book will be appreciated by historians half a century from now who want to establish what issues British Jews deemed worthy of discussion and debate in these years. Covering the developments in the United States in more coherent fashion, Kaplan considers many of the varied ways that Jews in the United States express their spiritual tendencies and locate meaning in their traditions, from Hebrew tattooing to Chrismukkah and yoga on Yom Kippur. Himself a congregational rabbi in Albany, the ninth-largest city in Georgia, and author of a handful of books on Reform Judaism, Kaplan has observed firsthand how complicated individual Jews’ relationships to divinity and ritual can be.

Further insights into the current state of American Jewry can be found in sociologists Harriet Hartman and Moshe Hartman’s Gender and American Jews: Patterns in Work, Education, and Family in Contemporary Life (Brandeis, August). One might expect that because American Jews tend to attain extraordinarily high levels of education and limit their family sizes, relative to the general American population, Jewish men and women would reach similar levels of career success. Yet, basing their claims on data from the National Jewish Population Surveys released in 1990 and 2001, the Hartmans note that American Jews “have not achieved gender equality,” and, more specifically, that “Jewish wives and mothers are the ones who scale back their careers for the good of the family.” While some characteristics of the American Jewish community have changed radically, then, as both Kaplan and the Hartmans attest, others have changed not nearly enough.

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.

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