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A dream come true

 
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Dr. Solomon Grayzel had a dream.

"American Jewry is slowly waking up to the fact that it can survive only by drawing strength from its spiritual heritage," Grayzel said at a May 17, 1950, meeting of the Jewish Book Council. "In our efforts to create a wider interest in Jewish books, we know full well that we will not bring about a cultural revolution overnight, but we also know that we dare not neglect this work."

Grayzel was editor of the Jewish Publication Society and was retiring as president of the council. He was also a historian and author in his own right, including the nearly 900-page "History of the Jews."

"The past 10 years of our activity," he continued, "have indicated that our message is being heard and that our interpretation is fairly effective." And he added: "But we need more human and material resources; and sooner or later the community will give them to us. It must if the Jews of America are to live up to their challenge and make articulate the eternal spirit of our people."

Grayzel, who died in 1980, would be pleased with what is available on bookshelves today.

Books of Jewish interest long ago even reached the "coffee table book" category — those large, beautifully printed tomes with exquisite photographs and works of art. Most are expensively priced precisely because they are so expensively produced. One of the most recent entries into the field, however, costs only $40 and is a treasure to behold. It is called "The Book of Exodus," and is published by Welcome Books of New York City. The book — the artist Sam Fink’s vision of the second book of the Torah — relies on the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation for its English text. Its Hebrew text is found embedded on beautiful rendered paintings by Fink. This is a work of art that does not need to remain on a coffee table, however. Printed on ‘’"x16" pages, each painting — complete with hand-lettered Hebrew text — can be removed from the book and framed. [Editor’s note: Jewish Book Month begins Nov. 4.]

The Jewish Publication Society is responsible in part for the phenomenal growth in Jewish publications. The JBC and the National Jewish Welfare Board that sponsors it are also responsible in part.

So, too, is the ArtScroll series. These are works that often are beautifully printed and lovingly produced. The only drawback is that the series is geared for an Orthodox audience and, in content, follows a more rigidly Orthodox line than many people, especially the non-Orthodox, will feel comfortable with.

JPS and ArtScroll are the major players, but there are many smaller publishers who either specialize in or who make "Jewish books" a major part of their lists of offerings. A number of them even have ties to our own Bergen-Passaic-Hudson community.

One of the most interesting from a sectarian perspective is Yashar Books, located in Brooklyn and the brainchild of Gil Student, who grew up locally and who graduated from the Solomon Schechter Day School and the Frisch high school. Yashar publishes what it calls "Orthodox Jewish books for the contemporary reader," but the books have a far greater appeal than that.

Yashar tends to be daring in its offerings. Take, for example, "Between the Lines of the Bible," by Yitzchak Etshalom. It is a commentary on the Book of Genesis, but it dares to go where other "Orthodox" commentaries fear to tread — into the world of modern biblical scholarship. It is, in fact, an outgrowth of a small, but growing trend within Orthodox erudition to bring history, archeology, linguistics, and literary criticism to bear on the Torah text.

Yashar also publishes a number of books by Rabbi Natan (Nosson) Slifkin, a brilliant scholar whose works were banned by several prominent haredi rabbis in ‘005. That is because Slifkin dares to suggest that modern science provides a more accurate picture of the universe and all that is in it than the Sages of blessed memory.

Not every author Yashar publishes is Orthodox. One on its list is Rabbi David Feldman, rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. His book "Where There’s Life" offers readers "a comprehensive exploration of abortion, euthanasia and the right to die, martyrdom, the mandate to heal, the mind-body connection, embryonic stem cell research, organ transplants — including the controversial questions of heart transplantation," according to Yashar.

Two Teaneck-based publishers are Ben Yehuda Press and Holmes & Meier Publishers.

Ben Yehuda was formed by Eve and Larry Yudelson and delivers books of Jewish interest exclusively. Since ‘005, it has amassed an eclectic list. One of the most unusual is "From the Coffee House of Jewish Dreamers: Poems of Wonder and Wandering," which presents poems on the weekly Torah portions, written by Isidore Century. The volume also contains poems Century wrote over the last four decades that recall his life, from being the child of immigrants during the Depression to his continuing game of hide-and-seek with God.

There are also such titles as "Torah and Company," by Rabbi Judith Abrams; and a novel from Burton L. Visotsky, the Nathan and Janet Appleman chair of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, entitled "A Delightful Compendium of Consolation: A Fabulous Tale of Romance, Adventure and Faith in the Medieval Mediterranean." That one is due out within weeks.

Holmes & Meier specializes in Jewish studies, but publishes other books, as well. It has an impressive list. Among its Jewish offerings are two books dealing with the problems besetting the State of Israel. "From Herzl to Rabin: The Changing Image of Zionism," by Amnon Rubinstein, has a foreword by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak and a preface by the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.

"A Small Place In Galilee: Religion and Social Conflict in an Israeli Village," by Zvi Sobel, offers a penetrating analysis of one of the most difficult problems Israeli society must equitably resolve if it is to continue to survive and flourish.

Then there is "Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers," edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans, a Mexican novelist and critic. The book will open the reader’s eyes to Jewish worlds few realize exist south of the border, including Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela.

Indeed, Grayzel’s dream has been realized. American Jews have lived "up to their challenge [to] make articulate the eternal spirit of our people."

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Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

 

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Chanukah — for the ‘right’ reason

With sleigh bells ringing from far and near, Chanukah once again is beginning to look a lot like Christmas — and almost no one seems to think there is anything wrong with that.

Well, there is a lot wrong with that.

Jewish law tops the list. There is a whole class of laws and regulations usually referred to as “chukat ha’goyim,” or laws and customs of the nations (meaning every nation but our own). The Talmud refers to it as darchei ha’emori, the way of the Amorites. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67a and b for some interesting examples.) In brief, “chukat goyim” that are idolatrous in nature, or are based on pagan superstition rooted in belief, are forbidden.

 

 

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Why Martin Luther King was the greatest American of the 20th century

I was moved to tears by the movie “Selma.”

It captured the greatest American of the twentieth century at the height of his powers, using oratory and an army of religious leaders who answered his call to change America. As a communal activist, the idea that Martin Luther King’s entire career spanned just 14 years — from when he was 25 to his assassination before his 40th birthday — beggars the imagination.

Martin Luther King Day was this week. To Americans it should signify a rebirth of the principles enumerated on the Fourth of July. The latter commemorates the formation of our country upon the values of freedom, equality, and the infinite worth of the human person. When we remember Martin Luther King, however, we commemorate the man who brought America to conform to those founding principles, which were being violated. Just think of an America so great that it could cross the Atlantic to fight and defeat Hitler while at the same time denying a black child in the South the right to drink water from a fountain on a scorching summer day.

 

 

This time, the victim is to blame …

We do not blame the victim.

At least, we should not. The perpetrator alone is guilty.

That is as true in the recent attack on the offices of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as with any other crime.

In the Charlie Hebdo case, 12 people were murdered at the magazine’s office; a rookie female police officer was shot the next day while responding to a routine traffic accident one block from a Jewish school, and four people were killed as they shopped for Shabbat in a kosher market, including the 21-year-old son of the chief rabbi of Tunis.

 

 

2014 — Year of the Bully

2014 will be remembered as the year of the bully. The just-past 12 months have been characterized by the ferocious bullying of the international community by rogue governments, oppressive dictatorships, and evil regimes.

By now, the word “Putin” has become a synonym for “bully,” and indeed the year started with the Russian dictator invading Ukrainian Crimea and rattling the sabers of war. The episode devolved in eastern Ukraine until a Malaysian civilian jetliner would be downed over Donetsk in mid-July, with all 298 of its passengers and crew murdered. Putin, as usual, blamed the Ukrainians even while every shred of evidence pointed toward his pro-Russian separatist thugs.

In the middle of the year, we witnessed the arch-bully Hamas attempting to terrorize Israel into submission by firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly stood up to the bullying, launching an aggressive invasion designed to limit Hamas’ capacity to intimidate Israel and murder innocent civilians using rockets and infiltration-tunnels. But just as soon the war was over, pro-Palestinian forces around the world unleashed their army of campus bullies in the form of Students for Justice in Palestine, who bully Jewish students with their laughable Israel-apartheid walls and eviction notices and bully universities with their coercion campaigns for a boycott of Israel. Sadly, all too many universities capitulate.

 

 
 
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