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The Jewish Bookshelf: How Do We Bring the Israeli Public Closer to Jewish Texts?

In recent years, Jewish texts have been prominently on display during Book Week. On the one hand, there is a feeling that the Jewish bookshelf remains in the domain of the religious community and that in every generation more and more young people are becoming removed from it. To mark this year’s Book Week, Professor Moshe Halbertal, Dr. Gili Zivan and Dr. Micah Goodman discuss the question of how close today’s community of readers are to the Jewish People’s cultural assets and whether commercial projects such as the “People of the Book” series in Yediot Ahronot are able to attract a new generation of readers

In recent years, Jewish texts have been prominently on display during Book Week. On the one hand, there is a feeling that the Jewish bookshelf remains in the domain of the religious community and that in every generation more and more young people are becoming removed from it. To mark this year’s Book Week, Professor Moshe Halbertal, Dr. Gili Zivan and Dr. Micah Goodman discuss the question of how close today’s community of readers are to the Jewish People’s cultural assets and whether commercial projects such as the “People of the Book” series in Yediot Aharonot are able to attract a new generation of readers.

Book Week took place at the beginning of June this year, as it does every year all over Israel. Among the thousands of titles and hundreds of booths, classic Jewish texts had a particularly prominent place, partly as a result of the “People of the Book” project published by Yediot Ahronot. These texts include Guide to the Perplexed and the Shulhan Aruch, which until recently were relegated to the most remote booths and those of religious publishers.
As part of the project, which was completed during this past year, 27 books were published that represent the cultural Hebrew canon, from the Bible to Shai Agnon. The project was accompanied by a large-scale publicity campaign that aroused both praise and criticism. There were those who viewed the series as a PR/marketing effort. Others were puzzled by the decision to publish the texts in their original form with only short introductions: what is the chance that modern readers would open the Kuzari or the writings of the Rambam, even if they appeared in a modern-looking hardback version?
As Book Week approaches, we chose to discuss the place of Jewish texts in Israeli culture with three researchers at the Hartman Institute, and to examine with them the ways in which the secular community can be encouraged to directly experience the Jewish People’s historical assets.  

Photo: The Association of Publishers in Israel.
From the book “Haim shel Bracha” by Bracha Pelai z”l
Dr. Gili Zivan has been involved for many years in exposing the general public to Jewish texts. Despite the revolution that has taken place in the attitude of the secular elite to the Jewish canon, most of the public remains cut off from its cultural roots. “I walk around with two different impressions: The first is connected to my work at the Herzog Center and at the Hartman Institute and at other organizations working for Jewish renewal, where I meet a community that is discovering the Jewish texts, falling in love with them and making them their own,” says Zivan. “The second impression relates to my day-to-day experiences in Israel. When I ride the train or speak with people while shopping, I feel as if I am speaking a completely different language. In my working world, I feel that the audience which thirsts for Jewish texts is growing, though gradually, while my feeling is that among the wider public the Jewish language is not part of their world. I find myself censoring Jewish associations and giving up on various layers of the language. In these moments, I remember that Jewish renewal is still an elitist movement which has not yet been popularized.”
“The place where I most see Jewish renewal is in music. I was recently at a concert by Kobi Oz and one couldn’t but notice the quotes, the use of the sources and the mixture of higher and lower language. Oz communicates with weighty and important texts and this is so wonderful that I wonder whether it is possible to enjoy him without experiencing all these levels. This is also true of Berry Sakharof, who revived Ibn Gvirol in rock songs. A bond is being created between the Jewish sources and the contemporary audience through music. To some extent, this phenomenon also exists in Israeli cinema, and in general my feeling is that the attraction to Judaism is stronger among those involved in the arts. It is possible that these individuals, who are not willing to live in the “here and now”, are looking for deeper and more ancient meaning and thus arrive at their Jewish roots.”
Are publications such as “People of the Book”, which are accompanied by PR campaigns and commercial promotion, capable of bringing a new generation closer to the texts?
“I find it difficult to believe that this project alone will bring these books to the public, although I would not be opposed if it did. If the exposure of these books brings them a few additional readers – dayenu, that is enough for me. However, one needs to remember that such a project is not sufficient on its own. A real connection to the texts will be accomplished through cultural agents. The exposure should involve the following vehicles: modern literature, liturgical poems, Midrash, poetry and the plastic arts. Cultural endeavor has immense importance – it does not expose the texts in a direct manner but is able to bring them to new audiences. And that is the key, since who buys the “People of the Book” series? For the general public, the texts are difficult to read and understand, while for experts it is simply a collection of texts with little added value. What remains is the consumer who buys these books because they look good on the shelf. Nonetheless, this is also worth the effort; I don’t underestimate the value of any potential sector or their motivation.”
“In general, an individual is open to the material that touches him. This is the great dilemma of culture: how does one reach an audience that has no knowledge or connection to a subject? Therefore, I don’t care who creates the initial contact – a line in a song of Etti Ankri or Kobi Oz or a commercial of Yair Lapid. Any means of breaking through the fear of the book, the elitism – is welcome.”
“Another problem is that people think they are not smart enough to understand the Jewish texts. Therefore, the revolution is not in the republishing of the texts but in making them more accessible to the man on the street. It may be that the version of the Babylonian Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the most important Jewish literature project. He published the Talmud – one volume after another – fully voweled and punctuated, with explanations in clear Hebrew. This transformation of the most difficult text, i.e., the Gemara with Aramaic text and Rashi script, thus made it accessible to the public – that in my opinion is the real revolution.”
Professor Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University, who is a member of the editorial board of the “People of the Book” project, also feels that the challenge in exposing the Israeli public to the Jewish canon involves more than just the books themselves. He feels that Israeli culture as a whole has lost its Jewish dimension.
“It isn’t just a question of books but almost a question of language. Hebrew has become more and more cut off from its ancient roots. Expressions used by the Sages, from the Bible and from Jewish culture throughout the ages are almost completely absent from modern literature. Today, there is no Israeli writer, apart from Haim Sabato, who makes use of the more ancient layers of the language like Agnon did. It is true that modern Hebrew is undergoing a process of enrichment; however, at the same time it is becoming more diluted and much is being forgotten. One can say that Hebrew words no longer echo their ancient Hebrew meanings.”
“Just as the disappearance of Yiddish is a loss, the disappearance of a certain type of Hebrew is as well. However, this not a one-way process, and there is interest in the sources among a limited secular audience. From this point of view, we are at a crossroads, since Israeliness is already sufficiently sure of itself and does not feel the need to reject Jewish culture that has developed throughout the ages. It doesn’t need to jump from the Bible to modern times. That is why we are facing a serious cultural danger and at the same time a great opportunity.”
How can we seize this opportunity?
“This type of opening up to the Jewish world cannot be a “return” in the simple meaning of the word. It must involve a new exegesis, with its own energy, in which the present leaves its mark on the past. It must be a creative process in which we do not return to the past, but rather create a new map of the past. The Jewish bookshelf must become source material for cultural creativity in Israeli poetry, literature, law and experience. The opening up to the texts does not have to be like the repetition of prayer but rather like making contact with living material as a source for creative endeavor.”
Can the attempt to redefine and distribute the Jewish literary canon, as was done with the “People of the Book” series, contribute to this process?
“This is a wonderful initiative, but it is not necessarily a canon. The content of a canon is not determined in the discussion of a commercial publication but rather requires a deeper and more meaningful process that can be evaluated only in the long run, in the same way that the question of the place of the Jewish texts in Israeli culture goes beyond the representation given to them in the booths of Book Week. While I was part of the “People of the Book” project, I didn’t relate to it as a canonization. Does the project make any difference? The answer will not be provided in the bookstores but rather in the education system. The critical question is whether the education system will be wise enough to provide the public with access to this world.”
“The education system has not provided a rich diet of Jewish education but rather one that is truly anorexic. In order to bring the new generation of students closer to the texts, the study of Judaism cannot be a tool for returning people to religion or an area in which the religious world views the secular world with a paternalistic or patronizing attitude. The teachers of Jewish subjects need not be religious but rather should be from within the community and should be able to speak its language and provide it with inspiration. This should be a process of change, not one of coercion. Only at a later stage will come the discussion of the books and the texts themselves.”
Dr. Micah Goodman, a lecturer in Jewish philosophy, believes that there is a new generation of Israelis who are interested in and capable of getting closer to the Jewish world in a surprising way that is unlike the Jewish experience of their parents. “This a generation of Israelis for whom the religious-secular dichotomy is irrelevant,” says Gordon. “They aren’t religious but neither are they secular and many of them are hungry for Judaism. This is a generation whose rebellious energy and inertia, which drove the founding generation, has ended. It is not defined by the rejection of Judaism; on the contrary, it seeks to use Judaism in order to strengthen its secular identity. To a large extent, one sees in this generation the realization of the vision of Ehad Ha’Am and Bialik. Thus, it does not view the Jewish bookshelf – the Gemara, the Bible and the medieval works – in the same way as religious people do, that is, as sources of authority. It views them as sources of inspiration.”
“If you believe that God wrote a particular book, all that remains to do is to humble oneself and surrender to Him. That is the common religious attitude. The new generation does not believe that God wrote the Jewish texts but rather views them as our national works of wisdom. It is interested in their content but not from a humbled position. For the first Zionists, tradition was something that puts the Jew in his place. Since the present generation takes from Judaism what strengthens it and rejects what it finds not to be appropriate, it does not feel that tradition humbles the individual and therefore there is no conflict between it and Zionism’s creation of a new man.”
In the process that you describe, what is the place of the Jewish texts that are now being reprinted?
“Every project to make Judaism more accessible – Rav Steinsaltz, the “People of the  Book” series and others – creates a new audience of readers for old books. And whenever there are new readers, there are also new readings.”
Cynics claim that people buy the "People of the Book" series only because it looks good on the shelf.
“That’s how it always is. If it is prestigious for the masses, then there is an elite that takes it seriously. For every twenty people that have the Besht on the bookshelf because it looks good, there are a few others who will actually open it. Furthermore, this cynical claim is indeed good news since if it is prestigious to be knowledgeable in Judaism, then something has indeed changed.”
“Bialik once said that the Jewish People is the only one in which to be knowledgeable is to close the Gemara. We now have a healthier situation. We are gradually getting to a situation in which a knowledgeable Jew indeed opens the Gemara, just like someone knowledgeable in Britain would open Shakespeare. He doesn’t agree with everything Shakespeare says but nonetheless he is proud of Shakespeare’s works and adopts them as his own. Cultural patriotism, which identifies Jewish literature as our own, is also taking root here in Israel.”
“It is both funny and encouraging to me that someone wants to make a profit from selling traditional Jewish works. The first to identify the tendency of the masses were not the philosophers but rather the marketing people. Their focused approach, which is able to identify trends, as well as financial and PR potential, is the good news. Twenty years ago, no one would have believed that one could make money or improve one’s image by marketing the Jewish bookshelf.”
Even if the majority do not read the books on this bookshelf?
“Absolutely. Indeed, who is the individual that buys a book and places it on the shelf in order to make an impression? Someone who wants others to believe that he has read them. Moreover, he is someone who himself would like to believe that he will one day read the book, even if he doesn’t actually do so. Today, more than ever, there is a fantasy of Jewish wisdom among the secular community as well. As a society, this is a quantum leap.”
Dr. Gili Zivan is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Co-Director of the Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies in Ein Tsurim.
Professor Moshe Halbertal is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the New York University School of Law.
Dr. Micah Goodman is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also teaches Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University and heads the pre-army mechina in Kfar Adumim.  

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