The Joys of Reading

At some point on Shabbat, the following three books were together on the dining room table (at the home of relatives):
a. Understanding Tzniut, by Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin
b. Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday, edited by Rivkah Slonim
c. Carnal Israel, by Prof. Daniel Boyarin

An interesting juxtaposition, to say the least.

I was reading the latter. I’m very much enjoying it, in fact.

During my ongoing semi-hiatus from blogging, I have rediscovered the simple joy of reading. Sometimes it’s the pop-trash variety, and sometimes it’s serious reading. In the latter category, thus far this summer I’ve been working on said Boyarin book as well as his “Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash”, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (pop, but not trash), and “Roots”. I’m also still slogging through “The Poetics of Biblical Narrative”, which is simply dazzling once you can decipher his very tight writing style and invented terminology. Finally, I’ve been learning through the works of Rav Yehuda Leib Graubart with a family member of his (this is technically a translation job, but a thoroughly enjoyable one). Fun stuff. Maybe I’ll podcast some of the sessions.

Regarding Roots, by Alex Haley, my readers know that I’m always fascinated by comparisons between Jewish and African-American history. There were a few interesting aspects here as well. One is whether the issue of oral culture and history. We are much more familiar with the idea of a ‘living book’ from Babylonian Jewish culture. In fact the shift from oral to written culture characterizes the shift from the era of the Geonim to that of the Rishonim in a manner similar to the way that the shift from the written to the printed word characterizes the shift from the era of the Rishonim to that of the Acharonim, but I digress. A less understood issue is the orality of Israelite culture in biblical times. We tend to project written culture onto all of Jewish history, and Chaza”l bifurcated the Torah to distinguish oral from written elements of Torah culture. I wonder, though, whether there were Israelite griots running around in the pre-Ezra days. What really threw me was the account of how griots memorized centuries worth of genealogies. Haley’s entire (fictional) project is essentially an attempt to construct a narrative from a genealogy. Food for thought.

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