Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

Ever since Abraham stood in the middle of two rows of dismembered animals, waiting for God to speak, the archetypical Jew has been the one who stands between. Ruth between Moab and Israel, David between sin and repentance; Yohanan ben-Zakkai between the sacred past and the almost inconceivable project of creating a new Judaism without a Temple, Maimonides between the Torah and Aristotle, Moses Mendelssohn between the Torah and the Enlightenment, Gershom Scholem between Berlin and Jerusalem—walking a thin wire between two seeming opposites, and by walking, bringing them together, seems to encapsulate the essence of what it is to be a thinking, creative Jew.

Over the last three decades, the Jews who have stood most in the middle, the ones who have walked the most precarious wire, have been women committed both to Jewish heritage and to living full intellectual lives of a type that heritage long generally denied to females. By now a plethora of books about Jewish feminism, Orthodox feminism, and women in Judaism have been published, but Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books stands out among them as the one that really enables the reader to experience what it feels like to be a committed religious Jewish woman caught between Jewish tradition and the modern, Western world.

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Myths in Collision: Velikovsky and the Zionist Narrative

Speaking of myths (see my previous post, Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?), I received an e-mail today from a nice woman I’ve spoken to on the phone a few times, Shula Kogan. Kogan is the daughter of Immanuel Velikovsky, the psychiatrist and scholar famous for his theory that the historical account offered by the Bible is best understood if we assume that the planet Jupiter ejected what is now the planet Venus and Venus turned into a comet and swung by the earth a couple times, causing the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the descent of manna from heaven, and other supposed miracles.

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Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?

You’ve perhaps heard that some Palestinian archaeologists and narrative-builders claim that the Palestinian Arabs of today are direct descendants of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, you may remember, are the people from whom, according to the Bible’s narrative, the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land.

Should the Jews care?

A lot of supporters of Israel get very worked up about this (here’s one example). They believe—correctly—that Palestinian interest in the Canaanites is an attempt to construct a national narrative that gives today’s Palestinians first dibs on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

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Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Much has been written about the slow pace and the role of time in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Less has been said about the societal decay it portrays.

This Romanian film, written directed by Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an abortion. But it also depicts, intensely, the relationship between two women, and shows how an impersonal, heartless regime (Ceauescu’s Romania, in this case) can leave its citizens with nothing but impersonal, heartless relationships.

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Why Israel is Losing Its Green Spaces: The Pointed-Roof Hypothesis

A phone company commercial currently appearing incessantly on Israel’s channel 2 depicts a somewhat thickset, balding man in his fifties sitting in an armchair watching television. The television is situated in a family room and in the background of this open-plan ground floor you can see a large kitchen and living room. The man’s teenage son bounds down the stairs in shorts and a sleeveless sweatshirt, fake-tosses a basketball to his father, and heads out the door.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what does it have to do with the destruction of Israel’s countryside?

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Boring Subversion

It’s out! The new issue of Ma’ayan, Israel’s most notorious literary magazine, lives down to its reputation. Here’s Dada without the humor, subway graffiti without the color. The prose reads like what you’d get if you transplanted George W. Bush’s brain into the body of Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe (I’m thinking of Bush’s wooden English style and cluelessness chimeraed with Pappe’s hysterical grandstanding and Hebrew kindergarten invective). Most of the poetry was, I suspect, written on Jerusalem’s infamous 15 (recently demoted to 13) bus, which wends its way irrationally and endlessly through streets that no one particularly wants to visit.

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The Selfish Monk: Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring”

The ancients asked a question we ask too seldom today: How can I live a good life? Not a happy, successful, or important life, but a good one? The answer the Korean director Kim Ki-Duk gives in his 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring is: live alone, in a house that floats in the middle of a lake that lies in a beautiful, deserted valley. Do not love, do not raise a family, do not seek out other human beings.

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The Intellectual Defense Forces

If you want to bone up quickly on any subject ranging from molecular biology to gender studies to Maimonides, where do you go? If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Hebrew, you know where—you pop over to the nearest book store or library and dig through the booklets published by the Broadcast University.

Israel’s universities may be in decline and their humanities faculties heading for intensive care, but this is one bright corner, and the light comes, of all places, from the army.

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Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

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The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

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