J-BOM means “Jewish Book of the Month.” And Messianic Jews all over are reading together, a communal experience of Jewish literature and history which strengthens our bond, increases our understanding, and gives us shared experience in the great big world of the Jewish experience.
And summer is for fun reading, for fiction. This summer’s J-BOM selections do not disappoint. I confess to having a bit of summer fever. I could not wait to get started and so, though June has not yet arrived, I’ve already started reading the June selection: As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. Steinberg’s novel is historical fiction, based loosely on the story of a Jewish sage who became a heretic, Elisha ben Abuya. Elisha ben Abuya was learned in Greek and was the teacher of R. Meir, an important sage in the chain of tradition leading up to the Mishnah. Yet, seeing that God did not prevent innocent suffering, Elisha left the faith (historically it is uncertain if he became an atheist, a Sadducee, an Epicurean, or what).
I am not sure how Steinberg will tell the story, but I know it concerns not only Jewish history, but an idea relevant to all living the Jewish life in a modern world: how do we live in a world of secular learning and endless possibilities of identity with fidelity to an ancient covenant and people? What does it mean to be a Jew in the modern world? How do religion and and the world meet?
I can tell you also that the book is a page-turner. Unlike some J-BOM selections which have been rather hard work to read, As a Driven Leaf is written in that plot-driven fiction style most of us find easy to love.
If you think J-BOM is a bit too hard and you cannot read a book every month, the one book I urge you to read this summer is Chaim Potok’s The Promise, which is the July selection.
If you’ve never read Potok, you are in for a treat. While not quite as plot-driven as Steinberg’s novel, still Potok’s novels are not a chore to read. Sometimes I feel that so-called literary fiction is the kind that asks the reader to do all the work to find the author’s ideas. But Potok’s work, while rising to the level of serious fiction, is nonetheless a delight to the eyes and the mind. He draws you in rather simply challenging you to enter.
Potok’s novels are also, essentially, about being a Jew in the modern world. The conflict between the ancient tradition and faith with the world of learning is the theme.
But there is another value to Potok’s novels as well. He helps the reader understand certain aspects of the Jewish experience in history, complete with a full-color portrait of the Jewish world in certain times and places. We find that when we understand parts of what brought us to where we are today, we understand better not only why we are here, but who we are. Thus, what I remember vividly about The Promise (and I hope I am not confusing my memory of different Potok novels), is the experience of being in the Catskills in the summer in the 1950’s. This window into a piece of Jewish experience in history is an education worth having and is fun through and through.
Finally, our August selection is a more difficult novel, though short, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart. It is ultimately about one Jew’s experience of the Holocaust, but this Jew is not ordinary. His family, in a history Schwarz-Bart traces back a thousand years, has a tradition that one male of the family is always among the lamed-vavniks, the 36 Jews always in the world destined to take on the suffering of the Jewish people and to motivate God not yet to destroy the world.
What happens when a lamed-vavnik enters the Holocaust? What will such a person think about his experience? Is his suffering messianic? Is it apocalyptic and filled with meaning of some kind of future hope? Meanwhile the reader is also treated to an experience of the life of the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish communities that existed before the war in Eastern Europe and part of Russia (the shtetls).
The summer for J-BOM readers promises to be one drawing tighter the bonds of ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel. The themes, history, and shared cultural experiences will give us much to talk about in our synagogues. They will hopefully inspire a passion for further understanding of Jewish history. A lot of our current issues become clearer when we enter into this history and find connections.