RJ Fall 2001

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

"I am recommending that we read four books a year that build on our foundation of common Jewish knowledge."
--UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Our Significant Jewish Books column, inspired by UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's Reform Movement Literacy Initiative, challenges all Reform Jews to read at least four books of Jewish substance a year. In each issue we recommend two or more titles representing the best of Jewish literature, both fiction and nonfiction, selected in cooperation with the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth.

It is our hope that you will read at least one of these selections on your own or with others in a synagogue study or book group. Connect with thousands of other Significant Jewish Books readers by accessing the Adult Jewish Growth website, where you'll find a discussion guide, a list of the previously selected Significant Jewish Books, and more.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon's tribute to the "golden age of comic books"--and their many Jewish creators in the late 1930s and '40s--is a sprawling, energetic novel that brings to life an era of American popular culture, interwoven with themes of Jewish legend and lore.

In 1939, two teen-aged cousins--Josef Kavalier, a recent refugee from Prague, and Brooklyn-born Sammy Klayman, aka Clay--plan to get rich quick by pooling their talents to create a new series of comic books. The genre is just starting to become popular in America, following the success of Superman, the comic book superhero created by artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerome Siegel. Kavalier and Clay envision a hero called "the Escapist," an escape artist who fights crime. "He doesn't just fight it," Sammy Klayman asserts. "He frees the world of it. He frees people, see? He comes in the darkest hour. He watches from the shadows."

Kavalier, a former art student, immediately responds to the idea, thinking of his parents and younger brother trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. His vision of the Escapist is based on the legend of the Golem of Prague--a mystical being with superhuman strength created by Rabbi Judah Loew in the eighteenth century to defend the Jews from attack. On the first cover of their sample comic book, Kavalier draws the Escapist punching Hitler in the face. "Nothing that Joe had painted had ever satisfied him more."

When at last they present their work, their Jewish publisher, Jack Ashkenazy, demands a different cover. "We're not in a war with Germany," Ashkenazy declares. "We could get sued." The boys refuse to change the cover. "We can't do it," said Clay. "That cover is dynamite and you know it." Ashkenazy responds: "Who wants dynamite? Dynamite blows up. A guy could lose a finger." In the end, Kavalier and Clay get their way. The Escapist becomes a booming success, complete with radio spin-offs. Unfortunately, the inexperienced artists are cheated out of a large part of their royalties.

While writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Chabon interviewed many of the kings of the comic book genre and also drew on his own family memories: his grandfather was a typographer at a comic book plant, and comic books figured prominently in his father's youth and his own. On his mother's side, Chabon is a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, the Chief Rabbi of Vilna. It is interesting to note that as his last act before leaving Europe for America, Joe Kavalier rescues the corpse of the Golem of Prague and brings it to the relative safety of Vilna. Throughout this fast-paced, colorful novel, Chabon maintains perfect pitch on the Jewish sensibilities that inspired this distinctly American art form.

Thirst: The Desert Trilogy
by Shulamith Hareven

Translated by Hillel Halkin with the author

The subtle, haunting novellas of Shulamith Hareven's "desert trilogy" recreate the existential dramas lurking beneath the biblical narratives. Set in three distinct time periods--the wilderness wanderings in Exodus, the conquest of the land under Joshua, and the transformation of the nomadic tribes into villagers--these stories capture the essence of ancient Israel's development across the generations in the process of "becoming Israel."

The main character in each tale is a dissident or outsider--observing, reacting to, or rebelling against what he or she sees in the Israelite camp. The Miracle Hater is the story of Eshkhar, a man who lives alone on the fringes of the Sinai encampment, separating himself from the community not out of hatred, but love: "He did so because he wanted nothing to do with God." As a boy, Eshkhar is disillusioned by the justice meted out by the elders; as a man, he is overwhelmed by the misery he sees in the camp and furious at Moses' high-handed leadership. A handful of miracles, in his view, failed to compensate for the daily suffering of the desert wanderers. Yet on the day that the Israelites enter the Ancestral Land, he cannot resist rejoining the camp, led by his young son.

Prophet tells the story of Hivai, not an Israelite prophet but a Gibeonite seer who sojourns with the "enemy," the Israelite intruders in Canaan. Initially coming to their camp as a spy, he is perplexed by their way of life--their code of laws, their notions of justice, the love they lavish on their children--but most of all by their worship of an invisible God. Although he is an outsider among the Israelites, he cannot return to Canaanite society, which practiced child sacrifice. Living by himself in the desert cliffs, Hivai is caught between two cultures. "I am old, Hivai thought. An old man. And the gods of this country are all dead." We see how he has changed when he adopts an orphaned child in his declining years--and names him for a brother sacrificed to the Canaanite gods.

After Childhood has a female protagonist: a capable, self-confident young woman named Moran who leaves her mountain village to marry Salu, a poor shepherd in a desert town. The story of the young couple reflects Israel's own difficult transition from a tribe of desert dwellers--who come and go as they please--to settled farmers. Salu, an orphan with no experience of love or family life, offers their firstborn son as a gift to appease his former lover, a Hittite woman. Although Moran gets her baby back, she never forgives Salu or trusts him again. In the shadow of innocence lost, both begin to grasp the meaning of fidelity and commitment.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

 


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