Jewish Book Week Debates

 tom aitkenJewish authors prove stimulating and amusing company

By Tom Aitken in London

London hosts many events and gatherings aimed at people with a shared special interest. Some, like the Cup Final, the London Marathon, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, and the Chelsea Flower Show, pull in audiences numbering in their thousands, and reach out via television to nationwide, even worldwide spectators.

Others attract comparatively diminutive audiences, but make up for that by their degree of concentrated commitment and shared enjoyment.

One such event is Jewish Book Week, when Jewish authors discuss their books  in front of, and with largely but not entirely Jewish audiences.

This year the event offered 87 presentations, by Jewish authors with new books to promote, at King’s Place, a fairly recently opened art centre with two halls and other smaller meeting rooms, across the road from the railway conglomeration known as Kings Cross/St Pancras.

Let’s Talk about Love and Death

Andrew Solomon and Chief Rabbi Julia Neuberger
Andrew Solomon and Rabbi Julia Neuberger

My first choice for the week was Let’s Talk about Love and Death, by Andrew Solomon, an American writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts. The event was chaired by Rabbi Julia Neuberger.

Andrew himself has suffered from depression, and the experience encouraged him to write a book looking at the experience from every possible point of view.

He wondered whether it would do any good.  More than three thousand letters received in the wake of publication convinced him he had done the right thing.

The letters had a main theme in common. Their writers had never felt so alone and the book addressed the problem. One of Andrew’s ways of solving the problem was something he would never have expected to do: he moved back into his father’s house. His father responded to the extent of accompanying Andrew on a tour promoting his book that he really felt he couldn’t face.

Never leave a sufferer alone

Some advice for people in Andrew’s father’s situation: never leave a depressed person alone – even if you have to sit outside the door.

Andrew’s comment that depression is the flaw in love provoked a shout from a man in the audience: ‘Hear, hear!’

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. You may still be sad when you recover, but about important things – not about putting on your slippers.

When Rabbi Julia chipped in with the comment that ‘there’s nothing better than giving birth, because you’re not pregnant any more’, the women in the audience responded with laughter and cheers.

Bible translations – a murderous history 

Next I heard Harry Freedman, author and entrepreneur, in conversation with the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, both murderous history bible translationsmembers of a group promoting good relations between Jews and Anglicans. Freedman’s new book is The Murderous History of Bible Translations.

Jews, he stated firmly, see translations more as commentaries than as Holy writ. Translations can only be more or less inaccurate imitations of an original. For instance, It’s not a virgin that conceives , it’s a young woman.

Likewise, Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) is read by Christians as relating to the Crucifixion of Jesus. For Jews it is an exploration of a common human experience.

The remarkable Avivah Zornberg

The next speaker I heard, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, is a remarkable person even by the standards of Jewish Book Week. Born in London, she grew up in Glasgow, where her father was head of the Rabbinical Court. She studied with him from childhood; he was her most important teacher of Torah (that is, Jewish scripture and in particular the Pentateuch).

Avivah Zornberg
Avivah Zornberg

After completing a PhD in English Literature at Cambridge University she taught English literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before switching to Torah.

Her approach to the first three books of the Bible is psycho-analytical. What is going on in the heads of the leading human characters is the substance of three of her own books: The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis; The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus; and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. (Bewilderments was the one under discussion at this event.)

 She remarked in passing that while working on the first of these books she had come swiftly to the conclusion that both Moses and God had read Freud!

Jewish resentment

Although God plays a constant role in her accounts, the story told in these books is that of the Jews as seen by themselves. They resent being stuck in the wilderness and their journey alternates between puzzled resentment and momentary raptures. They feel that God brought them out of Egypt because he hates them.

A whole generation was lost in the desert – what a defeat! what hatred and mourning they feel. This is the people’s book and they are at the heart of the action.

Academic knockabout

The next session I attended was a splendid exhibition of academic knockabout.

Tessa Rajak and Edith Hall discussed the latter’s new book The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World. When Rajak and Hall disagreed they both spoke, loudly, at once.  The audience roared with laughter.

There was some argument about whether or not a rank ordering of of Greeks, Jews and Romans (Tessa Rajak is a Roman historian) was possible or desirable.

To complicate matters, Edith Hall mentioned that her ethical stances derived from her Protestant upbringing.

The last comment to provoke the continuously amused audience to roar of laughter, was an alleged remark by a person on one side or another intervening in an argument about the deities they worshipped  was ‘You have one God, we have another? Bring it on.’

When Edith Hall signed a copy of her book for me afterwards, I made a comment about not having heard such an academic ding dong for some years. She gave me a look one-part puzzled, one-part pitying. ‘A ding-dong? That was never a ding -dong.’

I made an excuse and left.

The problem of violence

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The last session I attended had the recently retired Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, chaired by Times journalist Danny Finklestein, discussing Sacks’ very timely book Not in God’s Name, in which he denounces the crimes done in the name of religion. A few of his pithier remarks will have to suffice.

‘No soul was ever saved by hate. No truth was ever proved by violence. No redemption was ever brought by holy war. No religion won the admiration of the world by its capacity to inflict suffering on it’s enemies.’

And, ‘Violence is not only destructive, it is self-destructive.’

  Whose God supports Arsenal?

And now, as a coda:

Rabbi Sacks and Archbishop George Carey are both supporters of the Arsenal Football Team. Soon after they became leaders of their respective churches, they met when Arsenal was playing at home to Manchester United. United won. Someone remarked that since, presumably, both men had been praying for the opposite result, the event must prove that God did not exist.

‘He exists,’ said Carey. ‘But he supports Manchester United.’