By Harriet P. Gross
We pride ourselves on being “The People of the Book” — that book, of course, being our Torah. But “book” in English (and many other languages) is a word with broader meanings.
So we are the people who read, all sorts of books. And after we read them, we discuss them. We argue about them. We weigh their truths or lack of same. We assess their value. Parsing our main book, writing and studying and commenting on it in other books: this is who and what we are.
And we are the people of education. Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made sure to emphasize this during his recent local visit. The Romans and Greeks and Egyptians built monuments, many of which still stand, but the civilizations that created them are long lost in ancient times.
We lost our Temple, but our heritage and faith have moved us forward into the present. We built schools to keep these vital values alive, from generation to generation. And so, here we still are, despite many everythings.
Do I sound “preachy” today? I am. As I write this, I’m sitting up in an uncomfortable position in a rehab center bed, working hard to heal the leg I mangled in a recent fall. I’m typing on a TJP loaner laptop set upon a board kindly lent to me by the physical therapy department. People who know me know that I need to do this in order to remain myself throughout what promises to be a very long ordeal.
Forget an old-fashioned scroll: reading any standard book is difficult for me now. But today, we have alternatives, like this small computer and e-readers, Nooks and Kindles, iPads and other wonders of modern electronic communication.
So I’m submitting that we are no longer “just” the People of the Book, but the People of Words. The Word of God and many other kinds of words — those we read, discuss, parse, argue about, use to draw the conclusions that help us determine those actions that make up our very lives.
I started writing years ago — I couldn’t help myself. In columns like Light Lines, I’ve sought not to make you laugh — although sometimes things are light enough — but rather to open up a few ideas for thought and maybe for discussion. We are indeed The People of Words.
Guess who agrees with me? Israel’s famed novelist and journalist Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, a historian and university professor. Together they have written “Jews and Words,” a new book of essays published by Yale University Press.
Writer, editor and reviewer Mona Moraru has written some interesting words herself about this provocative collection. She quotes first from the new book itself: “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree about anything that begins with the words ‘we Jews.’”
Sound familiar? Read, discuss, argue, dig for kernels of meaning and truth. Polish them up and pass them on to our children, and let them keep the action going. That’s our job as Jews, as The People of Words.
Both Oz-Salzberger and her father — who is far from universally beloved in their homeland because of his early and unwavering support of a two-state solution to the continuing conflict — are secular Jews. Moraru describes the co-authors this way: “Without arguing against faith, they approach their subject from a point where religion is immaterial to their admiration of and identification with Jewish culture. Although they are proud of their heritage, they are critical of it, and they do not argue for its superiority.” What could be more Jewish than that?
To make readers at home with their academics, they draw examples of “Jews and Words” from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novels, Woody Allen’s films, and some old favorite Jewish jokes, like the one about the grandma who, when her “tatale” was washed out to sea on a wave and later “waved” back, reminded God he also was wearing a hat when he first departed.
So, what does all this mean? It’s that once again we’re invited to read something — in whatever form we choose — then step into the discussion, the argument. Jewish words are no holds barred. We may find ourselves washing out to sea like that apocryphal grandson and returning from the fray without our hats, but we’ll surely have some new ideas to put inside our heads instead of something to wear on them.
I love words. And I love the privilege of, every week, having a few with you. Thanks for reading, and may we all have a happy, healthy 2013.