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Rahel
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What makes a book Jewish?

Dear friends,

So it has been a full week since my husband (or ben zug, as Chana taught me to say) and I moved to Baltimore. We are mostly unpacked in our new apartment -- so much more space than New York's Upper West Side!!!! -- and are now facing the huge task of unpacking our books. And organizing them. How do we decide what goes where? It feels like Jewish books should be shelved together in the living room, but what makes a book Jewish? I've always liked to keep course books grouped together, so I can remember how books were collected, but then does Chaim Potok go in fiction, in my "teen favorites" shelf, or with the other books from the "American Jewish Fiction" class my husband taught last year?  Should Rashi's Daughters go with fiction or Judaica? Should the volumes of Bialik from my thesis go with poetry or Judaica? Should there be a separate section for Hebrew books? What about Allegra Goodman's Intuition (which I highly recommend!)? Her other books are clearly Jewish in theme, but this one less so. So does it go with Jewish fiction because of its author, or in general contemporary fiction?

What do you think? How do readers organize their home libraries?

Best

Rahel

 

Rahel
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thewanderingjew
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

hi,

i once had a professor who always said when in doubt use the "kiss" principle. (keep it simple stupid-no offense intended, it was his expression, not mine).

i tend to consider my "jewish" books only as non fiction. otherwse, all others, if they are written by jewish authors and have jewish subject matter, i shelve along with all my other books. i am not the most organized when it comes to this, however.

when we moved, my husband and my son thought they were being helpful and they just piled the books on the shelves, in any old order. i have so many books that the monumental task of reorganizing them has not been high on my list of things to do.

as an aside, i belong to a group called "conversations" which is sponsored by the cje which holds discussions with jewish female authors. i do shelve their books along with all my others.

btw, i have read goodman's books and i enjoyed them but it was awhile ago and their details escape me but i did like the family markowitz the best.

twj

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Timbuktu1
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

When I first heard that expression "jewish books" a little shudder ran down my back.  It reminded me of Hitler and his "jewish math" "jewish art" etc.  When it comes to literature, whether it's Isaac Singer or Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller I'd say a great author is a great author.  I do have a bookcase full of jewish books however.  They're Torahs and Talmuds and books about them.  

 

As a pretty secular Jew I have a tendency to separate "yiddishkeit" from "Judaism".  When my son went to a Jewish school he kept using the word "yiddishkeit" in a way I was not familiar.  I asked him the meaning of "yiddishkeit" and he surprised me by saying "Judaism".  I laugh at myself now, not realizing that they're one and the same thing.   

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Rahel
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

I think you guys may be right about the fiction / nonfiction distinction. Jewish fiction will be interspersed with all general fiction; Jewish nonfiction will probably have its own area. Which makes sense, because nonfiction is shelved by topic anyway. TWJ is right -- simplicity is best. But Timbuktu, for the sake of the many professors of Jewish literature in my life, I hope that the idea of "Jewish fiction" doesn't cause the kind of chills you experienced for all readers.I do think that there is a way that distinction can have value. When we look at "Jewish literature" we are often looking at how readers exist in conversation with each other, and how shared experience comes across in fiction. We're not grouping the books as Jewish to dismiss them or ghettoize them, but because Judaism offers one of many ways of looking at these books.

To make a plug for a really worthwhile discussion of this topic, I'd recommend taking a look at Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer a book which, full disclosure, I worked on several years ago. It has essays be several generations of American Jewish writers, including our own Jonathan Rosen and Jonathan Wilson, and it is fascinating to read these writers in conversation and their many and varied perspectives.

Talk to you soon!
Rahel

 

Rahel
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Timbuktu1
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?


Rahel wrote:

I think you guys may be right about the fiction / nonfiction distinction. Jewish fiction will be interspersed with all general fiction; Jewish nonfiction will probably have its own area. Which makes sense, because nonfiction is shelved by topic anyway. TWJ is right -- simplicity is best. But Timbuktu, for the sake of the many professors of Jewish literature in my life, I hope that the idea of "Jewish fiction" doesn't cause the kind of chills you experienced for all readers.I do think that there is a way that distinction can have value. When we look at "Jewish literature" we are often looking at how readers exist in conversation with each other, and how shared experience comes across in fiction. We're not grouping the books as Jewish to dismiss them or ghettoize them, but because Judaism offers one of many ways of looking at these books.

To make a plug for a really worthwhile discussion of this topic, I'd recommend taking a look at Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer a book which, full disclosure, I worked on several years ago. It has essays be several generations of American Jewish writers, including our own Jonathan Rosen and Jonathan Wilson, and it is fascinating to read these writers in conversation and their many and varied perspectives.

Talk to you soon!
Rahel

 



I see what you're saying Rahel.  I guess it's different when a Jew talks about "Jewish books" than when a gentile does.  

 

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Rahel
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

So as it happens, our author Jonathan Rosen has just written a wonderful essay for Nextbook, Follow the Goat, which addresses some of the questions about "Jewish writing" in his discussion of the work of the great Hebrew writer, S. Y. Agnon. Check out the essay, which takes its title from one of my favorite Agnon stories, and feel free to ask Jonathan questions about it here on our site.

Rahel

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DaveRosenthal
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

Rahel, welcome to Baltimore. Hope you enjoy living here. For the Baltimore Sun's book blog (www.baltimoresun.com/readstreet) I was emailing author Joshua Henkin, who has an interesting take on a related topic: American Jewish Fiction and Other Hyphens. He asks, "What does it mean to be an American Jewish fiction writer?" Here's his answer: http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2008/09/american-jewish.html

This may make your book-shelving more complicated. But it's interesting reading.

 

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Rahel
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

Hi, Dave.

Thanks so much for your note -- it's great to discover the Sun's book blog. I have so much to learn about Baltimore, and would very much welcome suggestions!

I thought Joshua Henkin's blog post was great, and as soon as I find Matrimony in my many yet-to-be-unpacked boxes I will put it on the very top of my reading pile. I'm certainly familiar with the problem of authors not wanting to be defined as a Jewish writer. In my years at Pantheon and Schocken, I often had authors say that they didn't want to be limited to the "Jewish" audience. And I would think, in best Yiddish-style fashion, "You should be so lucky to have Jews buy your books." After all, Jews buy books in numbers far greater than other groups, and have programs like the Jewish Book Council to promote those books. I can't see that it is anything but helpful to an author to have one's work "tagged" in as many topics as possible -- let Jews read it, let "contemporary fiction" readers read it -- any way that readers can identify with a book and be inspired to read it is only for the best. Although I do see how frustrating it may be when you have created characters and a story to then be questioned about it from a sociological standpoint -- "are you encouraging intermarriage?" -- rather than actually about your work. It's that old impulse to view everything through the lens of "is it good for the Jews?" but I agree -- that lens isn't a way to view art. Nonetheless, if you get thousands of JCC members around the country buying your book, that may be a small price!

thanks

Rahel

Rahel
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Rahel
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Comfort books


Rahel wrote:

I thought Joshua Henkin's blog post was great, and as soon as I find Matrimony in my many yet-to-be-unpacked boxes I will put it on the very top of my reading pile.


Just found Matrimony at the very bottom of a box of books. I'm hoping to get to it this weekend; at the moment I've been treating myself to Alexander McCall Smith's newest, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday which friends at Pantheon sent me (I realize it isn't coming out until next week). I was counting on it to get me through unpacking; now, sadly, it is being called upon to get me through something much more serious, my father-in-law's death yesterday, after a long illness. I always turn to comfort books in such times -- Isabel Dalhousie is a great comfort, and I imagine that some Madeleine L'Engle will find its way into my suitcase when we travel for the funeral. I always turn to her in tough times. Among Jewish books, Chaim Potok is probably my greatest comfort. The thing is that I usually turn to books I read as a kid when I'm upset, and there are -- as I've said previously -- sadly few decent middle-grade and young adult children's books of Jewish interest. 

Anyway, any recommendations for comfort books?

Rahel

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mariekat581
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Re: Comfort books

As far as there being not many decent middle reader books of Jewish interest, I disagree! I'm a librarian in a smallish synagogue in the Boston area and we have *lots* of great books for Jewish teens and middle readers. A great source for book lists is the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, given every year to the best Jewish children's books, which you can find at the Association of Jewish Libraries, that *other* great resource for Jewish books, www.jewishlibraries.org. Both the winners and the honor books are worth checking out!
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Rahel
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Re: Comfort books


mariekat581 wrote:
As far as there being not many decent middle reader books of Jewish interest, I disagree! I'm a librarian in a smallish synagogue in the Boston area and we have *lots* of great books for Jewish teens and middle readers. A great source for book lists is the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, given every year to the best Jewish children's books, which you can find at the Association of Jewish Libraries, that *other* great resource for Jewish books, www.jewishlibraries.org. Both the winners and the honor books are worth checking out!

Wow, Marie -- thank you so much! this is a fantastic resource! I am embarrassed that I never even knew about the ajl website. Thanks for introducing me to it.

Best, 

Rahel

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sylviaws
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?

Intuition is not a Jewish book - so I'd put it under fiction. By the way, I loved that book. I am a scientist - and that book got it so right!  Generally I categorize non-fiction books as Jewish and novels go under fiction. Sylvia
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Rahel
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Re: What makes a book Jewish?


sylviaws wrote:
Intuition is not a Jewish book - so I'd put it under fiction. By the way, I loved that book. I am a scientist - and that book got it so right!  Generally I categorize non-fiction books as Jewish and novels go under fiction. Sylvia

Hi, Sylvia.

Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. 

I agree with you about Intuition -- both about liking it so much and about where to shelve it. In the end, I did shelve all my fiction together. Fiction on several bookcases, poetry in its own area, and nonfiction split between general and Jewish. Although we still need to buy a couple more bookcases. And I am shocked to see how many cookbooks I have -- although maybe I can find some new Rosh Hashanah recipes in them.

Best,
Rahel

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