Jews Write Books.
December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment
I’ve so completely missed Hanukkah that I can’t even blog it adieu. This is the first year I’ve missed the holiday entirely (pause for a thought—elegantly restrained, but tinged with regret—about getting older), but I think my reading list made up for this oversight by stockpiling itself with books by Jews. It did this surreptitiously, quietly & while I was sleeping, drooling the drool of the culturally ambivalent.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein (2009).
I read this yesterday, & as I’m the world’s slowest reader, this attests to it being a quick, light read. I first heard about the book on the “Starting From Scratch” episode of This American Life. Goldstein read his chapter about Adam & Eve, which was contemporary & beautifully human. “In the beginning, when Adam was first created, he spent whole days rubbing his face in the grass.” Etc.
One of the pleasures of this book was the plurality of voices. Each character has a distinct tone that could be mapped to an archetypal (Jewish) relative, teacher, friend. & this seems to be the heart of Goldstein’s project: he sees both the Bible & the world’s contemporary cast of characters as rich, funny territory, rife with stories of trial & failure, of fear, of confusion & triumph. If you find yourself hearing your grandmother’s voice every time Rebekah speaks, it’s because Goldstein’s decided they’re equally revealing of human qualities & equally deserving of empathy (& a little exasperation). As someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time reading the Bible, I can get on board with this.
One downside to tackling the Bible as the foundational text for a book of short stories is that it’s the foundational text for the Abrahamic religions. Which is to say, Goldstein isn’t exactly toiling in obscurity. It’s easy to think of stories he left out that would have been perfect (the binding of Isaac gets only a peripheral mention; Moses’ involvement is limited to the Golden Calf episode), or particular details of stories that might have begged for a different treatment. Still, Goldstein’s writing in the tradition of midrash (if you’re Goyische & you know it, click the link!), & as any good ‘drash does, these stories deflect our attention from center stage in order to fill in textual gaps & fill out a bigger picture. (Jews were never strict constructionists.) Goldstein’s challenge is to make the background activity as compelling as what’s going on up front, & it’s hard to get that right every time. Some of the stories make us want to look where Goldstein’s pointing (“Adam & Eve,” “Jacob & Esau,” all three parts of “King David”); others leave us asking for that old-time religion.
But here’s the real moment of poignancy. In the first paragraph of his prologue chapter, Goldstein tells the story of a Jewish family whose religious & cultural identity had been sanded down to a few bare essentials, a family that resembles so many American Jewish families: “They did not speak Hebrew, but they did toss around a few Yiddish words, half of which were made up, such as the grandmother’s word for the TV remote, something she called ‘der pushkeh.'” My grandparents, too, have a (presumably made-up) Yiddish word for the remote: it’s called the “schmitchik.” I didn’t know other families did this.
(I just spent some time wondering whether it’s correct to say “Jewish American” or “American Jewish” families. I skipped Hanukkah without even realizing it. What am I doing even considering this level of semantics?)
The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza by Eugene Ostashevsky (2008).
Lucky for you, I have much less to say about this book, mostly because it contains so much & my brain, so little. I picked this up at AWP Chicago last year, after having watched the same YouTube video over & over of Ostashevsky reading in Berkeley. I’d read parts of it since, but yesterday I sat down & read it from cover to cover, & it’s an adventure (which is a thing I kind of hate when people say about books). To be more specific, it covers a range of genres, from what you’d think of typically as poetry to what you’d think of typically as song lyrics to what you’d think of typically as drama. Which is to say, it’s sort of a genre-confounding book, & you shouldn’t let issues of classification keep you from it. It’s a book that asks for your leniency, & if you give it, it’ll reward you with laughs, quizzical head-cockings, a number of Google-able characters who—if you research them—will make you smarter, & real empathy-upwellings. Go read it.
But keep an open mind, & watch this first.