Larry Hoffman Picks 100 Great Jewish Books
As the featured speaker at the Temple Micah Book Fair in November, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman talked about his new book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation.
Hoffman, a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is a familiar presence at Temple Micah. But his lectures and workshops usually deal with making Jewish ritual more meaningful to 21st century Americans or his nationwide effort to revitalize the synagogue and re-energize American Judaism.
So how did he come to write one of those ubiquitous "100 best" books? First, it isn't the typical volume of that genre. The books chosen trace the history of Jewish thought--the 3,000-year "Jewish conversation," as he calls it.
Second, the book wasn't his idea, he explained in an interview. In fact, when the editor of this series, Jan-Erik Guerth, first approached him to undertake the project, Hoffman politely declined. But Guerth was persistent. "In order to make it possible within my writing schedule, he gave me no deadline whatever. I would either do it or it wouldn't get done. So, how could I turn him down?" Hoffman asked. The more he thought about the project, the more excited he got. "It became an obsession," he observed.
He read hundreds of books, consulted with colleagues, students, people he met casually. He applied to the book his newest idea: "Judaism is a rolling internal conversation through time, in which Jews are the passionate conversationalists. To be a Jew is to be part of the conversation."
Books have been the medium that has kept the Jewish conversation going for 3,000 years, from the Bible to the Talmud, to the great works of philosophy and mysticism of the Middle Ages, the scholars and writers of the European Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, to America, Israel and the rich Jewish literary milieu of today.
Many of us join the conversation in the middle, he realized, an awkward and confusing place to be without the background and context to understand what is being talked about. "The purpose of this book is to make the conversation available to Jews as well as non-Jews in the 21st century," Hoffman explained. "I wanted to write an insider's guide to the Jewish conversation, to give a sense of the Jewish voice through time."
To make the project manageable, he set himself ground rules. His book had to be comprehensive, covering the length and breadth of Jewish history, including as many points of view as possible through fiction and non-fiction, philosophy and poetry, art and humor, and even food. To accomplish this, he wanted to choose books that dealt with the particular Jewish story but also with Judaism's universal themes. The Jewish classics had to be represented, but other books as well, as long as they were influential and illustrative of Jewish identity through the centuries.
Hoffman further limited the selection to one book per author, a difficult task that risked offending friends and associates. "I trust that teachers, colleagues, and friends whose books are not here will sympathize with the enormous difficulty I had in making my selections," he writes in the introduction. Each book was limited to three pages per entry, enough to explain what the book is, why it is important, and how it fits into the overall conversation that is Judaism.
One Hundred Great Jewish Books is arranged chronologically by theme. For example, in the section on the Bible, Hoffman includes just five of the 24 books, plus The Jewish Study Bible, published in 2004. The section on the period of the Rabbis includes As a Driven Leaf, a 1939 novel by Milton Steinberg about the life of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who was excommunicated for apostasy in the 2nd century CE.
Hoffman said he wanted to present the full range of Jewish society, including its less attractive sides. Thus, he includes the autobiography of Solomon Maimon, an 18th century "rogue," in Hoffman's words, who abandoned his family, spent 25 years "as self-centered heretic, intellectual seeker and dissolute epicurean," but also wrote a philosophical commentary on Kant that even Kant himself regarded as superb.
Today, Jews recall the life of Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side of New York during the first decades of the 20th century with rosy sentimentality. Hoffman decided to show the grittier side of Jewish society at that time with Jews Without Money (1930), Michael Gold's memoir of his childhood with its poverty, gangs and prostitutes.
To capture the voice of women, he included My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman by Puah Rakovsky (1954) who broke free from the shackles that bound Jewish women in the early decades of the 1900s; the feminist prayer book Book of Blessings by Marcia Falk (1996), and On Being a Jewish Feminist (1983), a book of essays edited by Susannah Heschel describing how the fight for gender equality continues.
Maus (1986 and 1991) by Art Spiegelman represents the graphic novel. The poetry of Yehuda Amichai is an example of contemporary Israeli poetry. Hoffman shows the variety and richness of American and Israeli fiction with a selection of novels from recent decades, such as Elie Wiesel's The Night Trilogy: Night; Dawn; Day; Paddy Chayefsky's The Tenth Man (a play, not a novel); Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus; The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick and Bee Season by Myla Goldberg; Amos Oz's autobiographical memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, and David Grossman's To the End of the Land echo the current conversation in Israel. And not to forget food, he includes The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden.
Technology is making huge changes in the way people communicate and how (and if) they read. What will happen to the Jewish conversation as a result? Hoffman predicts, "The nature of the conversation is changing, but the conversation itself will accelerate and expand."
Temple Micah has many of the books on Hoffman's list, and the library has plans to acquire all 100 books.