I was asked to write a few words in honor of Jewish Book Month, which takes the Jewish world by storm every November. It's a wonderful celebration of the written word and a reaffirmation that the People of the Book know how to push limits, challenge, surprise, teach, and delight us anew each year.
It's daunting to have to pick one title to celebrate when there are so many important classics—whether Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath or Maimonedes' Guide For the Perplexed—that all merit much time and attention. And yet, if I had to think of one recent book that's really moved me, I'd have to mention David Grossman's Lion's Honey: The Myth of Samson.
Grossman is one of Israel's most highly regarded living authors, known both for his fiction and essays. Here, he strikes out into unfamiliar territory—an analysis of the Samson story from the Biblical Book of Judges—but with quite a payoff. His reading of the strange, four-chapter epic is incisive and quite brilliant, digging deep into the text for literary and psychological insights. He weaves together seemingly incongruous strands and the story's strangest, smallest details, somehow constructing a startlingly cohesive whole. In the end, Grossman paints the story of a Samson who is alienated from his parents and incapable of intimacy, desperate to connect and yet determined to seek out women who shatter his trust and repeatedly betray him.
This is a story about love and longing, about deep childhood needs that will never be sated, and about the ways in which we choose our own undoings. It's a deeply personal reading of Samson, and yet a wholly Jewish one, as well. Samson's heroics are communal heroics, and his failures are failures of and for an entire people.
Grossman notes that "the hero of our story is a man who does not know, and perhaps will never really understand, that God, even before his birth, has nationalized his desires, his love, his entire emotional life." Try as he might, he can't escape into easy individuality; he's part of something much larger, and his and his people's destiny are inextricably intertwined.
Grossman's not the only one out there having fun with the Bible these days, but his novelist's eye enables him to find the humanity of these characters buried in just a few brief verses—and to do so in a way that is utterly gripping. This is one of those books that one may pick up to better understand the story, but puts down better understanding himself.
A few more recent titles worth mentioning include Dalia Sofer's searing, beautiful The Septembers of Shiraz, about a Jewish family caught in the crossfire of Iran's 1979 revolution; Etgar Keret's wild, funny, provocative tales in The Bus Driver That Wanted to Be God And Other Stories; The Coming of Lilith, Judith Plaskow's important collection of essays on Jewish feminism; and Nicole Krauss' twisted, yet moving A History of Love—just to name a few.
Danya Ruttenberg blogs at Jerusalem Syndrome. She is in her fifth, and final year of training to become a rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She took the academic year 2006-2007 away from her studies to write Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press, 2008) on the trials, tribulations and political implications of becoming religious. Danya is also currently in the process of editing an anthology on Judaism and sexuality, due from NYU Press in 2009. She is the editor of Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press), and has been published in a wide variety of books and periodicals.