- Best Contemporary Jewish Writing
Since its publication in 2001, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, edited by Michael Lerner, has increasingly appeared on library shelves and coffee tables throughout the land. The presence of this volume, whether carried on the hip, or displayed on one's shelf, seems to function as evidence in one's presentation of the self as a good or good-enough Jew. To be connected with it implies both religious identification and a dedication to personal religious development. Or you got it as a gift.
To begin with, Rabbi Lerner hopes that this volume will be a contribution toward "the fundamental project of healing and transformation, both personal transformation (tikkun atzmi) and healing of the world (tikkun olam)—understanding that this healing involves not only psychological or social change, but also a search for ways to bring holiness into our personal lives and social institutions." For those readers who adhere to a definitive division between secular politics and religious life, this is a bold goal. But, recognizing that politics continues to intrude on religious life no matter what one does, perhaps it's time to get on the bus. In this hierarchy of Jewish adherence, most of us suffer the ironic fate of feeling that we're better Jews than some, and needing improvement before being able to mix with some others. Less charitably, but more accurately, poet Jacqueline Osherow writes in this volume of some Jews who are more observant than she: ". . . something or other has to be revered, / And the truth is I envy those people's faith/ Even if I do think they're all meshugene. . . ."
Goals aside, the first thing one does is run through the list of 53 writers and perform a personal Jewish geography. After you get off the front page of The New York Times, knowing Jewish writers is an exercise in obscurity. Most readers will recognize some of the big names: Philip Roth, William Safire, Joseph Lieberman. Why not go all the way with this? How in-the-know are you, Jewishly? See how you do on this little test: If you recognize up to five of the 53, you probably can't spell "Forvarts." If you recognize up to 15 of the 53, you probably once read a copy of Tikkun at the dentist's office. Twenty-five out of 53? You donate to your local Jewish Federation. Over 25? You have a doctorate in some Jewish humanities field (and can't afford to donate). Over 35 of the 53? Save me a seat at the support group meeting for compulsive readers. The point is, [End Page 148] this collection has both well-known and less well-known writers. Will it expand your horizons? You bet.
Rabbi Lerner has organized the volume into broad themes, including: "The Many Identities of a Jew"; "Reclaiming the Spirit in Judaism"; "Rereading Sacred Texts of Our Tradition"; "Living in the Shadows of the Holocaust"; "Israel in Conflict"; and "The Pleasure of Jewish Culture". Each section can contain essays, criticism, fiction, or poetry. The array of entrances to and angles on these headings is no less than staggering. It is this variety that suggests the collection's real utility; rather than seeing this book as a "best of" collection, try to see it as an introduction to a number of writers. The intensity of Rebecca Goldstein's novels can be overwhelming or inviting. Benny Morris's look at historiography will open your eyes, if nothing else. Zalman M. Schacter-Shalomi presents an expository meld of religious learning and investigation into the nature and function of faith. Best Contemporary Jewish Writing really just scratches the surface of a large number of artists. If you're reading this review in Shofar, then you know that the Jewish world is small enough that chances are you've met some of these writers. You may have heard Aharon Appelfeld read. You may have enjoyed a Dvar Torah from Jacqueline Osherow. You might have had a class with any number of them. What you realize is that...