Sunday, March 27, 2005

The People of the Book

There’s a scene in Joshua Braff’s book, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, that made me cry one moment and laugh the next. The main character, Jacob, has just had his bar mitzvah and has been sent to his room to write thank you notes for his gifts. But Jacob suffers from a learning disorder, so while he can read Hebrew easily and fluently, he spells and write badly. On this one card, he spells generous as “generis.”

His father does not sympathize or understand his son’s disability. He interprets it as laziness, a sloth that can be bullied away.

“So … when the Mendelsons read your card and see that my son spells like a retard, what should I tell them? Isn’t my boy super?” the father retorts.

It’s painful to read about a narcissistic father who bullies his son. But I chuckled a few pages later when I started to read Jacob’s imagined thank you notes:

“Dear Morris and Dora Bitterman,
Sorry this card is late. … (My father) is not sitting here right now as I write this and I am so very happy about it. I might be a retard, but when he’s standing over me, watching every stroke of my pen, I become a much more substantial retard. I love that I can write anything I want right now and he’s not here to see it. For example: Ass. F—ck. Fist. Shit.”

In this book, Judaism is a character, a righteous way of living that young Jacob struggles with. It’s the place where he can show off his greatest skill – his amazing ability with Hebrew – but the leaders and rituals ring hollow for him. The Judaism Braff writes about is distorted, almost ugly. It’s a mechanism for the father to dominate his family.

So is this a Jewish book? Of interest mostly to Jews? Braff, a New Jersey native who now lives in Oakland, has been making the rounds of Jewish book fairs. (He will speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, March 28.) His book appeals to Jews, but it also transcends the religion that is its central theme.

I have been thinking about what makes a book Jewish ever since I learned that the Koret Jewish Book Awards would be held this year in San Francisco. For the past nine years, the awards have been hosted in New York, but on April 11 they come to the Bay Area, home of the Koret Foundation. The organizers feel that the awards are sufficiently established, sufficiently prestigious – they pay $10,000 -- that they no longer need the New York imprimatur.

To draw in the Bay Area, the new Jewish Community Center on California Street will host two days of pre-award ceremonies. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, will come and speak as …. Daniel Handler, adult novelist. He will speak with Shalom Auslander, a 2004 finalist for the Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes award, about the literary trade. They will appear at 8 pm on April 9.

Tony Eprile, the 2005 fiction award winner for his novel, The Persistence of Memory, will speak at 4 p.m. on April 10.

Eprile is from South Africa and his book beat out one of the most acclaimed novels of the year, Philip Roth’s Plot Against America.

The question of what makes a book Jewish rose to the forefront when writer – and recent convert to Orthodoxy – Wendy Shalit wrote an essay in the New York Times Book Review. She complained that most Jewish writers misconstrued Orthodoxy, treating it as something to be laughed at and poked fun of. She said most contemporary authors create stereotypical characters that don’t hint at the complexity of most modern Orthodox Jews. She clarified her thoughts in the Jewish World Review a few weeks later:

"Let's turn the tables. Suppose there is a new genre in American Jewish literature, in which Reform Jews are vilified regularly. There is the temple's secretary who kills one of her Hadassah sisters in order to get the latest Judith Lieber bag, and a gay Reform rabbi who seduces younger male congregants. There are idealistic college coeds who want to escape Reform life, but are daunted by the prospect of learning Hebrew, so they are trapped and pose for Playboy instead. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is such a genre. And suppose further that these novels are a bit short on character development, that they are primarily driven by page after page of weirdo Reform characters, and mouth agape, one must turn the pages in order to satisfy one's curiosity: what will this bad Reform bunch do next? The authors, who are not Reform themselves, are celebrated in the non-Jewish world and their Reform-bashing literature is translated into multiple languages.

How would we feel about such novels? My guess is that they would not be so popular, and the fact that we have toasted such literature about Orthodox Jews for so long might — just might — tell us something about our prejudices. '

Now Braff didn’t write about an Orthodox family, just a father who forced his sons into the religion. The picture he drew wasn’t pretty, but I, as a reader, saw he wasn’t making a comment on the entire Jewish race, but just one character. I think readers are smart enough to figure out when a book is just something to enjoy, not something that is making a statement.

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