December 16, 2018

Taking on the Bible

Remember that great scene in “Inherit the Wind,” when Clarence Darrow asks William Jennings Bryan if a book that details rape, incest, slaughter, nudity and sodomy should be banned? The fundamentalist Bryan answers, “Of course!” and Darrow, with a flourish, whips out a copy of the Bible and declares, “Then you must ban this book!”

Well, Jonathan Kirsch is the Clarence Darrow of literary Bible critics. His newest book, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible” (Ballantine, $27), zeroes in on the juicy parts: Lot’s daughters copulate with their father. A traveler offers his daughter up to a mob to be gang-raped and killed. A man rapes his half sister, then throws her out into the street.

It’s all there, in the holiest of holies. And in the oppressive flood of mass-consumption Bible criticism books out this year, Kirsch’s book surfaces for taking on the Bible in all its wild excess. And making sense of it.

“A haze of piety surrounds the Bible,” Kirsch says, during an interview in his Century City law office. “But it had human authorship. I was always curious about what this book really was and where it came from.”

Kirsch, 47, a former Newsweek correspondent who now practices law, was inspired by writers such as Harold Bloom, whose “The Book of J” sought to tease apart biblical authorship.

“There’s tremendous diversity in the Bible,” says Kirsch, who also serves as pro bono counsel for The Jewish Journal. Different authors, writing through different periods, influenced by common folk tales, divine insight, historical and political agendas, turned out a deep, complex document with one bottom line: “It’s always instructional,” says Kirsch.

Even the good parts.

“We have a tendency to reduce the Bible to Sunday-school stories,” he says. “But the Bible writers were willing to include all of it. Because they felt it was important.”

So Kirsch set about finding the touch points in what might be called the biblical saga. Each section of this lucid, well-crafted book begins with a retelling of a biblical tale that, in some cases is boldly violent and sexual. And riveting, it should be added. Kirsch is a talented storyteller and manages to translate the stories into familiar English without sacrificing their richness. Then, he dissects them, drawing on a wide range of biblical criticism as well as on his own original insights.

Take Judges 19. Kirsch retells the story of a traveling Levite who, in order to save himself from a violent mob, offers them his concubine. After the woman is gang-raped and killed, the Levite dismembers her body and sends the pieces to the four corners of Israel to incite vengeance against the tribe that committed the deed.

In a chapter entitled “God and Gyno-Sadism,” Kirsch explores the various meanings behind such a horrific story. It might be a parody of male arrogance written by a woman, or perhaps a defense of the monarchy written at a time of near-anarchy. Kirsch lays out a convincing case for both.

In his book “God: A Biography,” Jack Miles writes that the Bible is truly for “adults only.” Of course, that’s hyperbole. Part of any great work’s worth is its ability to appeal and speak to many ages, over many generations.

But, for many generations, the very parts that render the Bible NC-17 have been excised from public consumption. Kirsch’s book is a salvo in a crusade to learn from all that the Bible has to offer. “We’ve suppressed [these stories],” he says. “For centuries, we’ve avoided them and pretended they’re not there.”

But, aside from better understanding these stories, what can we learn from them? Clearly, Kirsch’s agenda, his point, is not to titillate. (Note: If most of these stories titillate you, seek professional help). It is to build an argument for openness and tolerance.

“There’s tremendous moral diversity in the Bible,” he says, “and diversity of moral value is in itself a moral instinct. The Bible is more compassionate and understands a greater range of human behavior than we often do.”

Indeed, as chapter after chapter demonstrates, it is not the meek and well-behaved who get the most column inches of Holy Writ. “If you push the envelope of morality, you may play a role in sacred history,” Kirsch says.

Those aren’t lessons that would sit well with the fundamentalists among us today, just as they stuck in Bryan’s craw 75 years ago.

“The Bible is a map of the human heart,” Kirsch writes, “and no secret chamber or hidden passage is left out.”

Fortunately for us, Kirsch isn’t afraid of blood.

Painting by Botticelli (15th c.), showing Judith returning to Bethulia with the severed head of Holofernes. Illustration from My Jewish World, 1975

I.B. Singer: A Life

UCLA Professor Janet Hadda uncovers the contradictory journey of the great novelist

Janet Hadda’s captivating biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer begins with the story of Hadda herself as a miserable young graduate student.

On a “bleak snowy day” in 1968, wandering the Cornell University library, Hadda comes across a copy of “The Family Moskat,” by a writer unfamiliar to her. She opens it. “One paragraph in, and I was already hooked,” she writes. “By the time I finished, I had decided to get my hands on that culture, that world, that language.”

Hadda’s attraction to the Yiddish world that Singer resurrected through his writing would evolve into a career. The daughter of non-Yiddish-speaking German refugees, she studied at Columbia University and YIVO, eventually becoming professor of Yiddish at UCLA. She also trained as an analyst at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.

She then turned her sights on Singer himself, her two fields of study being the perfect tools with which to dissect the author. Although she met him several times — and describes the meetings in finely wrought, revealing anecdotes — she realized that his character remained elusive. Setting off to uncover the facts of his life, she found herself surrounded by the kind of kantike menschen, or oddballs and difficult personalities, that populate his stories. Former lovers, recalcitrant nephews, litigious relatives all conspired to make researching her book an otherworldly, Singerian experience.

Fortunately, she stuck to it. The result, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life” (Oxford University Press, $27.50), is an unvarnished and bewitching account of the century’s most acclaimed Yiddish writer. In 215 pages that read with the speed and cutting insight of a Singer novella, Hadda, 51, brings her dual expertise as a Yiddishist and psychoanalyst to bear on a man who turns out to be someone altogether different than our image of him.

Since gaining international fame as the recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, Singer has held a cherished place in American-Jewish hearts alongside grizzly ‘ol Ben-Gurion and Bubbe Golda. Just as we have mythologized the latter two, we have de-personified Singer, reducing him to a caricature of the grandfatherly storyteller, with little more on his mind than a spare little tale about rebbes and fools.

Hadda uncovered at least another side to Singer, and it’s dark, calculating, lonely and wounded.

The son of a weak, withdrawn father and a brilliant, morose mother, Singer grew up in the shadow of his gifted brother, Israel J. Singer, who went on to write “The Brothers Ashkenazi.” The Singer household was a cold, unloving place — Bashevis Singer, Isaac’s mother, abandoned a daughter, Hinde Esther, for the first three years of the girl’s life.

Hadda traces Singer’s lifelong sense of loneliness and depression to his neglected childhood. “Yitschok understood that his compulsion to write stemmed from misery,” writes Hadda, drawing on the observations of Singer himself.

Leaving behind the world of the shtetl, Singer came to the United States in 1935. He struggled here, working at the Yiddish-language Forverts, again in the shadow of his brother. His wife, Alma, to whom he had a strained 51-year marriage, supported him by working as a department-store sales clerk. (Singer was in his 60s before he earned enough as a writer for his wife to stop working.)

But the greatest hardship Singer faced was in writing for an audience whose world had been destroyed. In a telephone interview with The Journal, author Hadda described the dilemma: “He couldn’t go back. He would never go back. But his readers didn’t want to hear about the United States. He had to draw from a source he had abandoned early on.”

To do so, Singer perfected a technique of writing that seamlessly blended fact and fiction. The “infusion of reality” into fiction, writes Hadda, “provided relief from his forsaken solitude.” With his family and his entire childhood world dead, Singer could recreate, both in a more pleasing and healthy light. Thus, the rabbi of “In My Father’s Court” has all the erudition but none of the frailty and aloofness of Singer’s real father.

After Singer became famous, he began to work his literary legerdemain on himself. Those close to him often reviled Singer as mean-spirited, manipulative, lecherous and coldhearted — he abandoned his only son for 20 years and carried on a series of lengthy affairs. But the author nurtured a public image as a simple, wise Yiddish zaydie.

“He saw that it worked, and that’s what post-Holocaust American Jews wanted,” Hadda says.

The Old World charm, which Singer seemed to be able to turn on and off at will, worked media magic. Hadda still finds it remarkable that, in reporting on Singer’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the major newspapers overlooked Singer’s erudite, slightly aggrandizing speech as well as the anger the selection provoked among many Yiddish readers, who thought that Singer didn’t measure up.

For his part, Singer went so far as to keep knowledgeable Yiddishists away from the Swedish Academy so that their opinions wouldn’t influence the judges.

For a time, Hadda, confesses, the realization that Singer was not like his image upset her, and she even had a personal falling out with him. In some sense, she told The Journal, the book was “absolutely” her opportunity to work through her own conflicted images of him, to discover who he really was.

Sometimes, when Hadda relies too heavily on psychoanalytic training, her deliberations threaten to reduce Singer’s genius to a collection of classic symptoms. But, in the end, Hadda-the-Yiddishist wins out. Her portrait of Singer is sad, clear-eyed and awesomely complex.

It’s also loving. As much as a kantike mensch as Singer himself could be, he also gave life to a world Hadda, and millions more of us, still cherish.

“As the years have gone by, I see how much of Yiddish culture there was and how much is fading away,” Hadda says. “If there’s one person who has managed to uphold that culture, it’s him. And he did it through translation, and he did it by recreating himself.”

Before she began her project, one of Singer’s friends told Hadda: “You know, you’ll never be able to figure him out. He’s a contradiction.”

In “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,” Hadda has gone a long way toward proving that friend mistaken. — R.E.