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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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Criticizing charedim — what about our kids?

Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.

More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.

The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.

 

 

Saying that suffering is caused by sin blames the victim

The movie “Noah” is generating global controversy even before its release. Bill Maher set the blogosphere alight when he ranted that the movie was “about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God.

“What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”

The question of why God allows the innocent to suffer is the most challenging in all religion. But while the Bible offers examples, like the flood, where sin is expressly identified as the cause of suffering, it is both foolhardy and blasphemous for humans ever to claim to know why people suffer, or to hold them accountable for their own agony. The man-is-sinful-God-is-just response is arrogant and sanctimonious, and provides small comfort for a parent who, say, God forbid, loses a 7-year-old child who obviously was without sin. After victims suffer some uncontrollable tragedy, rabbis and priests would inflict the final indignity against them by saying that either their suffering really is something good — but they are too blind to see it — or that they must be cleansed of wrongdoing. Rubbing people’s noses in their pain and misery is hardly a just response to tragedy.

 

 

Islamic Iran is 35. Hurray!

What amazed me at my visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month was how a man in a black turban and long flowing robe stole the show and became the rock star of the conference.

I sat about 30 feet from President Hassan Rouhani of Iran as he lied through his teeth about being a moderate, even as his government, according to the UN, hanged 40 people from cranes in public spaces in Iran in the month of January alone. And that is to say nothing of his spinning centrifuges, designed to bring about wholesale destruction of the Jewish state.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Rwanda and Israel have both decided to give up on the UN

I was walking, half way around the world, trying to make sense of the shrieking and suffering that surrounded me, when suddenly I was transported back to the United States to a more mundane task by the ring of a phone.

I was in the Rwandan capitol of Kigali for the 20th anniversary commemorations of the genocide, where President Paul Kagame had asked me to speak at Amahoro National Stadium before 20,000 Rwandans.

Guests who joined the commemorations included UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, most of Africa’s presidents, Tony Blair, and my friend, the American UN ambassador, Samantha Power.

 

 

Count the days, study the ways

Come Tuesday night, we begin to count our days — 49 days, to be exact, seven complete weeks — as we vicariously journey from Egypt to Sinai, from the slavery of Egypt to our birth as God’s holy nation.

Each night, we add another day, and remind ourselves, as well, of the days that have passed. “Today is the 15th day of the Omer, which is two weeks and one day of the Omer.”

One day added to another and then another, each day taking one step closer to the moment when God reveals to us our sacred mission as His kingdom of priests. We are His emissaries to the world. It is our task to teach the world by example how God wants all His children to behave toward each other and toward all of creation.

 

 

Dear Rabbi

 
 
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