Essays reflect modern age in classic texts

That books form the core of Jewish culture is not a new idea. Adam Kirsch reminds us, in the preface to his recently published “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature,” that books are the “binding force” that has sustained a civilization and culture. 

“The People and the Books” is a collection of 18 original essays, all written by Kirsch, director of the master’s program in Jewish studies at Columbia University, contributing editor at Tablet magazine and son of Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal. Each essay explores a different work and writer of Jewish literature, beginning with reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy and ending with an exploration of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” one of the most beloved Jewish texts, written shortly before the turn of the 20th century, just 20 years before the start of World War I and the events that precipitated the great tragedies that followed.

In the wake of one historical rupture and upheaval after another, we find that books, and the Jewish need to study and remember them, persist. But what makes a Jewish writer? And what makes a text definitively Jewish? 

Such questions, which have been raised incessantly since the 1980s, persisted recently at the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium in Miami. The conference has been held for more than 20 years, and in my 13 years of attendance, I cannot recall one year when the question of defining Jewish books did not materialize in one form or another. 

It’s liturgy, suggested one scholar this year — Jewish texts are liturgical texts. Thoroughly exasperated, I inserted myself into the discussion to remind those listening that it is history, memory and continuity that characterize Jewish texts, according to writer Cynthia Ozick.

And if this new collection is any indication of Kirsch’s stance on what is or is not a Jewish text, it appears that he agrees. For Kirsch, these three components materialize in what he calls the four central elements that dominate the mindset of Jewish writers of all kinds: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.

Kirsch shows us that despite the terrors, tragedies and upheavals of the 20th century — which produced a massive collection of writing on the topics — questions regarding assimilation, nationhood and providence are not merely products of that time period (in particular the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel). In fact, such questions in the context of Jewish scholarship precede the 20th century by hundreds of years. They have, one might even suggest, formed the basis of what it means to construct a Jewish text. 

While most collections of Jewish writing published in our era reserve a special place for writings on the Holocaust and the State of Israel, Kirsch purposely omits these, including texts written no more recently than 1914, more than 20 years prior to the beginning of the Holocaust. But there is a kind of brilliance in this omission, this glaring absence of what for many contemporary Jews has become the center of Jewish history and memory. 

Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, the Holocaust is a darkness that has been with us since the beginning of time, and so in reading the Book of Deuteronomy, on which Kirsch’s first chapter focuses, and which seems obsessed with “remembrance” and exhibits a “deep-seated fear of forgetting,” we might see our efforts toward Holocaust remembrance reflected here. It’s a reminder that Jewish continuity “is not an invention of our era.”

Kirsch’s chapter on the Book of Esther also calls to mind contemporary concerns. He suggests it is the book’s “scandalous absence of God” that gives it such a contemporary feel. It has, particularly for secular Jews, an “uncanny familiarity, like an old nightmare that has never been entirely forgotten.” 

Even the figure of Mordecai demonstrates a phenomenon of contemporary culture, one that Kirsch understands as the “paradox of Jewish power in a condition of Diaspora.” Powerless Jews become victims to be abused and murdered; but when an “individual Jew becomes powerful enough to defend his people, the fact of Jewish solidarity” becomes greater confirmation of Jews’ dangerous difference. One wonders whether the Book of Esther, along with Kirsch’s insightful commentary, have become suddenly prescient given our current political climate.

And perhaps this is exactly why we should return to the Jewish past, which can “help us to escape present-mindedness.” The Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), Maimonides, the Zohar, Baruch Spinoza, the stories of Nachman of Bratslav,  the poems of Yehuda Halevi, and even the works and life of Sholem Aleichem — all of these and more are addressed in Kirsch’s collection as works that are the core of Jewish culture. 

And, of course, we cannot help but read each of these texts diachronically — that is, with an awareness of everything that has transpired since the writing of each text. We read back through the lens of 20th-century tragedies and victories. 

For example, when Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye shows us how desperate and tenuous the world has become for Jews near the turn of the century, we understand — though the author and his Tevye did not — that the “fate that looms over most of Tevye’s family and friends, over all the Jews of Boiberik and Yehupetz and beyond, is the Holocaust.” We know that in September 1941, German forces in Kiev murdered all of the city’s Jews in what is now known as the massacre of Babi Yar. We know now that Tevye’s family, as Kirsch reminds us, would have been counted among the dead.

Our 20th-century world of Jewish life may be unique in some ways, as Kirsch suggests, but reading the Jewish texts that are at the core of our culture reveal to us that while we imagine we have learned to ask new questions, perhaps we are simply “offering a new formulation of … ancient questions.” Kirsch — in speculating that despite our perpetual return to the same kinds of questions, we continue to arrive at different answers — posits a lovely possibility: Perhaps “Judaism has not yet reached its conclusion.”