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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

 

Synagogue or sin-agog?

Four words leaped out at me in studying this Shabbat’s Torah reading: Lo tasig g’vul rei-achah — Do not move your neighbor’s boundary marker.

Nearly 20 years ago, I used a mailing list I had to invite people to join a start-up congregation. On that list, however, were members of other synagogues. I was guilty, albeit unintentionally, of hasagat g’vul, moving my neighbor’s boundary marker. When this was called to my attention, I sent a personal letter of apology to all of that congregation’s members.

Hasagat g’vul is not a throwaway phrase. It is a very serious proscription.

It is theft, pure and simple, but of a subtle kind. Imagine two poorly arable fields existing side by side. On one side, the owner invests in improving irrigation and nourishing the soil. The crops on that side are plentiful and lush. On the other side, the owner refuses to make such an investment. Instead, he plants his crops near the edge of his neighbor’s field in such a way that the roots travel under the boundary marker into the richer soil on the other side. In essence, he is stealing his neighbor’s livelihood.

 

 

Pictures and words

“America reinforces its values and thus its security by being transparent about even the worst abuses of those values, not by hiding the evidence deep in a file drawer.”

This sentence is from a New York Times editorial of 30 August, 2014. The editorial was written in response to a decision by Federal District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein forcing the Obama administration to justify why it will not release approximately 2,000 photos that allegedly document abuse by the American military and investigators in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

 

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Pursuing ISIS: A halachic perspective

The United States and its allies are engaged in an aerial war, for now at least, against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the paramilitary terrorist group better known as ISIS.

If the world ran according to halachah, would attacking ISIS halfway across the world be permissible? On the surface, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes, but where human life is concerned, there is no such thing as an easy answer in Jewish law.

Obviously, a terrorist may be considered a “rodef,” a “pursuer” who seeks to kill another person. On this, the law is clear. Based on Exodus 22:1, a talmudic sage, Rabbi Shila, pronounced the general principle, “If he comes to kill you, arise and kill him.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’rachot 58a.)

 

 

The non-Jews who love us

Joanne Palmer’s beautiful and uplifting cover story on Cory Booker, in this newspaper last week, cap-
	tures Cory’s warmth, openness, and humanity. It also captures something else that I was startled to read: Cory’s retelling of the price I paid at Oxford University for the inclusion of thousands of non-Jews as members of the L’Chaim Society and for Cory’s presidency.

Joanne quotes Cory as saying, “‘After the [Lubavitcher] rebbe’s death there was a power vacuum, and then Chabad in England turned on Shmuley…. He had non-Jewish members. They told him to get rid of the non-Jews or you must leave Chabad England.’ Rabbi Boteach did not comply with the demands, ‘so they turned on him.’”

 

 

The luckiest people are the pols

We are in the final leg of Election 2014. The airwaves are filled with political commercials, and our mailboxes — virtual and real — are filled with campaign literature.

Barbra Streisand got it wrong. The “luckiest people in the world” are our politicians and government officials, because they are not subject to Jewish law. If they were, they would have trouble getting through a single day.

Consider, for example, how many items on the “For the sin of” litany we ran through on Yom Kippur are ones politicians and government officials violate with abandon.

Several come quickly to mind: “For the sin we committed against You by utterance of the lips…; in speech…; by deliberate lying…; by slander…; by ridicule.” We can also throw in “by hasty condemnation,” something of which members of any congressional committee are guilty on a routine basis, as are governmental heads throughout the West who were quick to condemn Israel for bombing Hamas, and are now themselves bombing ISIS. Then there is “by deliberate deceit…; [and] by wronging our neighbor” by misrepresenting his or her record.

 

 
 
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