Page 149 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Jewish texts, and we could consider instead those books of history,
biography, literature and scholarship, mainly of this century, that
would fit more conventionally with the notion of reading a book.
These works often can serve to illuminate the texts of the Jewish
past and yet are considerably more accessible than the texts them­
selves. Think, for example, in this context of reading Gershom Sc-
holem’s writings about Jewish mysticism in contrast to the difficult
kabbalistic texts themselves.
But we should not let ourselves off the hook too easily. In the
past few years I have been involved in teaching and speaking to
groups of adults around the country specifically about the great
texts of the Jewish tradition. I am convinced that in fact there is a
tremendous hunger amongJews to connect to their own tradition­
al sources. It is a search for authenticity, for “the real thing.” Not
texts (though those help), but the texts themselves. So
we should not be so quick to dismiss problems of group study. Per­
haps the real answer to a lifetime reading plan is to create the social
context in which that kind of study can happen.
We have often heard about the
baalei teshuvah
, those people who
have “returned” to Judaism. But these seekers are to be found not
only in Yeshivot for Americans located in Jerusalem. Among the
laity in synagogues, among Jews whose affiliation is not with syna­
gogues, but in community centers and Jewish Y’s, there is also this
kind of seeking. What we need to think about are ways to provide
authentic Jewish learning for such people and at the same time not
to intimidate or frustrate them. One of the most difficult experi­
ences for an adult learner to face, in any endeavor, is the sense of
incompetence that comes with learning something new. True
there is something exciting about that which is novel, but that feel­
ing can easily be offset by the frustrations, perhaps even the shame
involved in being ignorant.
I use “shame” quite deliberately. For many of these Jewish
learners, there are old negative stereotypes to overcome—bad
childhood experiences in Hebrew School perhaps. But there is also
the shame of showing in public that one does not knowwhat others
may assume one knows. Sometimes that ignorance is of basic facts;
Lifetime ofReading