Monthly Archives: November 2011

Autism and God

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra, a memoir about learning from his autistic son. He will be blogging all week for Members of the Scribe and the Jewish Book Council.

I was a guest on a radio talk show last week when the interviewer offered a question that caught me off guard. In the midst of a discussion about raising my son Ezra, who has autism, she asked: “With a person who is so comfortable with things that are very concrete and predictable, how do you explain a concept like God?”

following ezraAs it happens, God comes up in conversation quite a bit in our household. My wife is a rabbi who teaches Jewish texts at a Jewish community high school. We attend synagogue every Shabbat, and our family life revolves around the Jewish calendar.

Ezra, who indeed craves the predictable, has always been attracted to the more concrete aspects of Judaism: the calendar, the holiday cycles, the weekly rituals. At an early age, he memorized the ten plagues, and began acting them out—dramatically, and in order—at our seder. He has always been attracted to Bible stories pitting good against evil: Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Mordecai vs. Haman.

Understanding God was different. During prayer services at his Jewish summer camp, the kids in the special needs program sing a song called “Thank You, God,” taking turns expressing what they’re grateful for. But beyond that simple understanding, I simply didn’t know what he grasped.

In the radio interview, I recounted the time when Ezra, then 12, had been in a particularly surly mood, fixated on talking repetitively about his craving for potato chips. Partly to shake him out of it, I spontaneously began speaking in the voice of God (or the kind of booming voice Charlton Heston heard in The Ten Commandments). To my surprise, Ezra—who generally avoids extended conversations—went along, and engaged in a lengthy and revealing dialogue with God. (Miraculously, he also stopped talking about junk food.)

More recently, Ezra, now 15, has approached the subject of divinity with more resistance. On a Saturday stroll not long ago, he asked my wife and me about why we observe Shabbat. When we reminded him of the idea that God created the world in six days, he interrupted.

“I don’t think God did that,” he said. “I think it was more natural.”

I’d never heard him say anything like that.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did somebody tell you that?”

“No,” he insisted. “I just think the world was was more from nature, not from God.”

As the interviewer noted, children like Ezra can struggle with abstract concepts, but my son seems to be doing fine. The Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — literally translated means “struggles with God.”

Not only was Ezra sounding like a typical, questioning teenager, he was doing so in the best tradition of the Jewish people — struggling and wrestling with God.  As in so many cases, whenever I think I need to teach my son, he turns the tables and teaches me.

Posted on November 7, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Prologue: An Introduction

It’s time to brag.

For the past year, I’ve gotten to work with some of the biggest names of the literary world — and some of the coolest. Internet superstars like Slate editor David Plotz, intellectuals like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, viral video celebrities such as the guy who does Feed Me Bubbe.

Each of them has taken over the MyJewishLearning blog for a week to celebrate a new book. Some have shared behind-the-scenes stories. Others have told us their inspiration, or their challenges, or about the process of writing and publishing a book. We’ve gotten to peek inside these authors’ lives, careers, and passions.

Our new blog, Members of the Scribe, is dedicated to housing these authors. It will cover all the material you’ve come to expect from MJL’s Author Blog, together with new literature-related news, events, and excerpts. We’re excited to be hosting some of today’s most innovative writers and some fascinating, sometimes-controversial but always-thought-provoking discussions about Judaism, culture, beliefs…and, of course, about books.

Posted on November 4, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Are E-Books Kosher?

The post previously appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.

Earlier this week, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing, the meaning behind the names of a few of his characters, and a gay Jewish reading list.

There’s a scene in my novel Sweet Like Sugar where Benji, the main character, finds himself alone in an Orthodox rabbi’s house. The first thing he does is check out the bookshelves that line every wall: religious commentary in the study, nonfiction (in English and Hebrew and occasionally Yiddish) covering everything from ancient Jewish history to the Holocaust in the living room, coffee table books about Israeli art and archaeology in the dining room, kosher cookbooks in the kitchen, even a shelf of poetry in the bedroom. Benji notes the differences between the rabbi’s collection and that of his Conservative parents, which has less scripture but more fiction (Roth, MalamudSholem Aleichem), as well as a smattering of non-Jewish books: Civil War histories, Tom Clancy novels, biographies of Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Two Jewish households,” Benji muses to himself.

Benji can tell a lot about people by the books they keep. Everyone can. But for how much longer?

We all know about the rise of digital books, whether they’re on your Kindle or your Nook or your iPad. Print editions, meanwhile, are on the decline.

E-books have obvious virtues: they’re cheaper, friendlier to the environment, and take up less shelf space than traditional books. Paper-preferring holdouts fret about who loses in this digital revolution: bookstores with no products to sell, publishers with declining revenue despite healthy sales, authors whose royalties evaporate, readers who miss the physical pleasures of holding a real book – cracking the spine and dog-earing the pages.

But regardless of whether e-books are good or bad for literature, they offer a bleak future for people like Benji (or me), who see books — what people read, what they keep, what they display — as a window into their owners’ psyches. Writers and readers may adjust to digital formats, but we snoops will definitely suffer.

Some people peek into medicine chests when visiting a house for the first time, but I linger around the bookshelves to see what books reveal about their owners. One might have a disconcerting penchant for self-help books or Family Circus cartoon collections, while another has leather-bound volumes that, in their unopened state, seem obviously intended only to impress onlookers. Some hold on to college textbooks, while others check out mystery novels from libraries. One might pile paperbacks haphazardly on a nightstand while another alphabetizes books on well-ordered shelves. (Some people don’t have any books in their houses; they are the oddest of all.)

Continue reading

Posted on November 3, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Pro-Israel? Anti-Israel? No, Just Israel.

This was a post that previously appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.

Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The director said that the Israel supporters went too far.

I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel –  but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.

In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government.  (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)

I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.

As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.

These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.

Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?

Posted on November 3, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Sukkah Occupies Wall Street

This was a post that previous appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.

As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.

Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.
The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.

The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.

But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.

I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.

Posted on November 3, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy