Monday, November 24, 2014

Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas

Rabbi Arthur Green’s short book, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, will hold no surprises for the person well versed in Judaism.  

Green goes over very common, but essential notions.  These are Simhah, Joy, Tzelem Elohim, creation in God’s image, Halakah, walking the path of formal, rule orientated Judaism, Tikkum Olam, repairing the world, Shabbat, Tesuvah, returning to G-d, Torah, Talmud Torah, or education, L’Hayyim, accepting death and affirming life, and Ehad,  Hear O’Israel, the affirmation that God is One.

His exploration of these key ideas bears his indelible stamp.  Even if you are very familiar with religious Judaism, this book is still a bright and fresh look at some common notions.  If you are a beginner, this is a great place to start and also a compliment to any ongoing studies.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Great Russian Short Stories: Dover Thrift Edition

Again, the lure of the Dover Thrift Book catches me...  

This time, it is "Great Russian Short Stories."  Featured here are some of the heavy hitters in Russian literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Dostoevsky and others.  

Some are very familiar, like the frequently anthologized Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and the heartrendingly simple story of love out of reach in Chekhov “The Lady with the Toy Dog.”

There are also some surprises.  Dostoevsky’s feverish “White Nights” arrives in the collection like a punch to the jaw.  His stamp is so indelibly printed on this story that it stands nearly alone in the collection.  Perhaps the other story that comes near to its dark vision is Andreyev’s “Lazarus” a strange tale of Lazarus’ post-resurrection life that very much resembles death.

Again, for the price of a cup of coffee, you can have all these stories .  These are the greats of a previous era in Russian literature at your finger tips. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Six Easy Pieces

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, the noted, Nobel Prize winning physicist, becomes an interesting case for the reader.  They are ‘easy’ in there is not much elaborate mathematical detail about the topics Feynman discusses (atoms, quantum physics, astronomy, etc.) and the beginning essays are, in fact, quite easy. 

But as one reads, the 'easy' pieces get harder, and my late high school and early college science classes quickly failed me.  Interesting, this is what is said in the preface.   

These lectures were prepared for a freshman physics class and Feynman prepared them as introductory material.  But as the semester went on, we are told, more and more freshman dropped the course, and more faculty and graduate students attended.  They wanted to see Feynman explain complicated topics in a simple way, in itself a difficult task.

So, unless you have a decent background in physics, these lectures will leave you way behind at the mid-point.  This is not to say that the lectures fail (although they did not accomplish their original purpose) but it is to say that this is not a great introduction to physics for the novice.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Social History of Hebrew

William Schneidewind’s “A Social History of Hebrew” attempts a very difficult task, to take create a social history of a language that exists only in text form.  The author gives reasons why this is a difficult task, and they seem legitimate.  He also gives other reasons why this is possible. I am not qualified to judge if he is correct.

After reading much about the history of Hebrew, it strikes me that despite major discoveries in archeology, the discovery and examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and advances in the historical study of the bible, how little certainty exists in the field.  Things like dating, influences and the social context of Hebrew in various pre-modern eras are not know, and new discoveries do little but create more questions which may never be known.

Despite this, the non-specialist can read Schneidewind’s book and get a great deal out of it.  It is a semi-technical explanation of the history of Hebrew, and with a bit of background, a reader can gain much insight into the social context of the language from its formation until its rebirth as a living language in Israel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Speaking Torah, Volume I

I’m a tremendous enthusiast for the work of Rabbi Arthur Green, so it is really no surprise that I found his Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table a deeply informative and engaging book.

For years Rabbi Green has been a leader in the so-called Neo-Chasidic movement.   Deeply engaged in Chasidic texts, this group of rabbis and writers find the spiritual teachings of Chasidism informative, but downplay their firm commitment to halakah, religious law, and the social organization of their lives.  Green and others are trying to capture the original commitment of Chasidism, which was designed to innovate and stir Jews to reaching higher spiritual levels by radically reinterpreting Jewish teachings and life.

So for Green and his co-editors, the spiritual in the subtitle is a very operative term.  They take elements of Chasidic teaching where Torah portions are given "spiritual" rather than strictly phyiscal interpretations.  Really, it is fascinating to watch the interpretative work that Green lays out for us.  It is part allegory, part metaphor, a strong element of Hebrew wordplay (which is pointed out in the text) and a dose of religious creativity.

After every chapter there is a short explanatory paragraph laying out the salient points of the passage. After each major section, Green and his editors break out and discuss the text, sharing their sometimes conflicting opinions.  This adds yet another layer to the book: modern scholars of the Torah are taking nineteenth century Chasidic texts meant to be applied to real life and applying them to our time. 

This book is an excellent way to navigate the difficult realm of early Chasidic literature.  If you can’t read Hebrew and catch the wordplay, a book like this (in two volumes) is essential to understanding what is going on.

And what is going on?  Simply put, that God is everywhere, that his Torah is everything, and we are all connected.  If we understand the Torah correctly, if we obey not just its physical demands but also its spiritual meaning, this door opens up for us. Of course this sounds easy.  Getting to this understanding and living with it is the challenge. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Everyday Jews

Yehoshue Perle’s Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life carries with it the full weight of its subtitle.  Published in 1935, Perle would die in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.  So it becomes hard to judge this book without that the tight, constricting lens of the Holocaust as its unwritten end point. 

Like so many writers who perished in the Shoah, their work takes on a new glow, because we read each word with the full awareness that the end is near.

Despite this, and despite its depressing passages replete with poverty, ignorance, and struggle, Perle manages to write a novel that is not without humor.  The creeping darkness of the novel's world is lightened by Mendl, the twelve year old protagonist’s observations of life.

So, despite the expert eye of the Mendl, his keen observations of life around him, this novel becomes a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel, and this is fully confirmed by the end. 
No doubt Perle was setting his character up to deal with the competing and harsh demands of the Eastern European world between the wars.  And these demands, no doubt, would have murdered him.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Things They Carried.

Probably one of the more powerful collections of short fiction I have read in some time, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is by this time a well-known collection of stories dealing with the Vietnam War and it’s after effects.

But these are not just war stories.  O’Brien turns his attention to the nature of storytelling itself, its functions, what it can and can’t do, especially about such weighty topics as war, love, life and death.

Simply compelling and fascinating, The Things They Carried has much to teach writers about the inherent strengths and limitations of their craft.