The God We Don’t See–My Best Books of This Past Year

Haim Watzman

At the end of July I was privileged to attend the Sami Rohr Prize Literary Institute, where I spent three stimulating days with the other prize finalists and judges. We were each asked to offer a short presentation about our favorite book of all time. I panicked–I like too many books, and too many genres, to name just one. I offer here my presentation, as transcribed by the Institute staff (and spruced up just a bit by me).

Sefer Yermiyahu, the Collected Poems of Avraham Halfi, and Paradise Lost

I had a hard time coming up with a single most important book, so, to make the assignment easier, I limited myself to my most important reading experiences of the last year—and managed to get myself down to three books. All three share, I think, an effort to deal with the question of what do we do about God when we don’t see God in the world. That is, the empirical evidence that we see before us precludes God’s presence in the universe, even though we intuit that we need or should have, or have to have a God. The first book was Sefer Yermiyahu, the Book of Jeremiah, which I completed this year with my Friday morning study group. The second is the poetry of Avraham Halfi, who was a poet and actor, and whose Collected Poems I have been reading slowly for a couple years and am now close to completing. The third is Paradise Lost, by John Milton.

Read moreThe God We Don’t See–My Best Books of This Past Year

Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Haim Watzman

If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.

(Goldstein and his book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

Read moreBlack and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”