Author Archives: Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman

About Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he graduated from Columbia University, and has lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City. The Book of Jonah is his first novel. Read more about him here.

Every Word Counts

Joshua Max FeldmanI began my first post with a Sarah Silverman joke, so let me start this one with a more traditional example of Jewish humor: Once upon a time in the Shtetl, a rabbi was in his study, pouring over the Talmud, when all of a sudden he noticed something he’d never seen before: A new word. Now, this rabbi had read the Talmud dozens of times, he practically knew the entire thing by heart, so for him to discover a new word was like a chemist tripping over a new element in the back yard. He ran out to tell his wife, dragged her in to look at the new word, and only when she brushed away the fly that had landed on the page did he realize what had happened.

I tell this joke not only for the opportunity to write, “Once upon a time in the Shtetl,” but also because the tale is emblematic of a prominent feature of Jewish thinking: The borderline manic attention to individual words. Jewish scholarship examines texts on the most granular level, with the belief that each phrase, each word—even, in Hebrew, the letters making up the words—contain multiple layers of meaning that, like light refracting through a prism, can be revealed through careful study. We are very much the People of the Book in that for thousands of years we’ve been reading the same books—the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—over and over, wrestling with and arguing over and reinterpreting the finest nuances. You can draw a fairly clear line from the Mishneh Torah to contemporary debates over whether genetically modified food is kosher.

As a writer, I’m often asked about “my process.” As a Jewish writer who just completed a novel loosely based on a book of the Bible, I’m often asked about the role of my religion in my writing. I can answer both these questions by pointing to this tradition in Judaism of granting the highest esteem to each and every word. I’m an inheritor of this tradition, and it is fundamental to how I write. Simply put, when I write, I do my best to give every word the attention I believe it deserves. “God is in the details” is an old saying that both nicely sums up my aesthetic view and points back to the scholarly tradition that shaped it. For a writer, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of art can be found; for a Torah student, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of the divine can be found.

So how does this belief in the value of individual words play out in practice? Well, here are the first few sentences of my novel, The Book of Jonah:

Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he’d had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.

I probably rewrote that paragraph dozens of times in the course of the two or three years I worked on the book. At various points, Jonah was looking at a Blackberry and not an iPhone; the name of the subway station was omitted, then specified, then moved from Union Square to up to 59th Street; a dash grew and was cut and then grew again between “empty car” and “went on typing.” The older woman in an early draft didn’t have “a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose” but rather “a grandmotherly sweet button nose.”

I won’t get into the thinking behind these many changes, and I certainly won’t argue for the relative degrees of mystery and majesty the various drafts achieved. My point is that I write with the idea that even the slightest variations in a word or its punctuation can create ripples across the entire sentence, the entire paragraph—really, when you come right down to it, the entire book. The context, needless to say, is different, but like a yeshiva student, I try to respect the layers of every word.

Now, I should add that a lot of writers have this mindset, many of them non-Jews. But as I think about the connections between my religion and my work, this attitude toward words is one of the first things that comes to mind. I should also mention that there’s a real downside to writing this way: My writing process is a slow one, filled with constant reconsideration and reevaluation. Many times, I’ve felt like that rabbi in his study—believing I’ve stumbled onto something great, only to discover that I’ve been mistaken.

Like they say, God is in the details.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 31, 2014

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

Why the Book of Jonah?

book-of-jonahWhen you write a novel called The Book of Jonah, when you base that book on the biblical Book of Jonah, one thing is for sure: People are going to ask you why you wrote a novel based on the Biblical Book of Jonah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren’t there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.)

For the record, I think there are many stories in the Bible that could form the basis of a successful novel, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a nearly matchless compendium of human drama, portraying our mythic forebears with far more recognizable fallibility than we typically acknowledge.

But ever since I first encountered the Book of Jonah—probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I’ve been especially intrigued by it, and the more I’ve returned to it, the more intrigued I’ve become. There is quality to text that defies easy interpretation—and I believe it is just this quality that makes it particularly well suited to our own times.

While the Book of Jonah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact contains only five words of prophecy. The bulk of the story chronicles a sort of on-going feud between Jonah, a most reluctant Biblical protagonist, and God: When God orders Jonah to “preach against” the distant city of Nineveh, he promptly flees in the opposite direction; when Jonah finally does acquiesce to God’s instructions, he does nothing but complain about the outcome. The story follows Jonah from one end of the ancient world to the other, with a sojourn in the belly of a “great fish” (not, in the original Hebrew, a whale) in between, and features characters as varied as kings and cattle, sailors, and worms. The story is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Tellingly, the book is also rife with questions: Every speaker in the book poses at least one, and often several. And just as most of these literal questions go unanswered, the Book of Jonah by implication raises far more questions than it answers. Why does Jonah flee from God’s commands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dramatically when Jonah finally delivers his prophecy? What are we meant to make of the strange analogy with which the book ends, in which God compares a dead bush and a city?

While the Bible is generally thought of as a font of certainties, the Book of Jonah stands out as tantalizingly equivocal.

Predictably, scholars and sages of many religious stripes have done their best over the centuries to fill in the book’s perceived blanks. Jonah has been characterized as heroically self-sacrificing or hypocritical and cruel; the story has been read in the context of ancient Judaic political concerns or as a prefiguration of the narrative of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treated as fable, or allegory, or parody, or parable.

To me, the reason these interpretations ultimately fail in their attempts to dispel the book’s central questions is the same reason the Book of Jonah has remained so compelling over the two-thousand-plus years since its composition: The Book of Jonah’s ambiguities, its gaps, its questions, are neither incidental nor resolvable. Rather, they are integral features of the work as a whole. Like unresolved chords in a symphony, the omissions are what give the book its power. This is a tale that embraces uncertainty, that acknowledges the unanswerable.

And this is precisely why I think the Book of Jonah is so relevant in our time. Like Jonah, we can’t escape a confrontation with the complexities of our world—be they moral, political, scientific, or spiritual. We are bombarded every day through a myriad of technologies with examples of injustice across the globe: sin going unpunished, virtue unrewarded. That many, Jew and Gentile alike, are unsatisfied with attempts to account for all this within a theological framework can be seen in the dwindling participation in religion generally.

The Book of Jonah offers the reassurance that perplexity at the world around us is not new, nor is it irreligious. It is, rather, a sometimes inevitable part of engagement with the world. Further, in Jonah’s troubled relationship with God, the story suggests that our relationship with the divine will always be characterized by some degree of incomprehension. The Book of Jonah does not present lessons to dispatch spiritual dilemmas. Rather, it affirms their essential mystery.

These are the qualities that drew me to this particular Biblical story—and these are the qualities I tried to bring out in reimagining it in our own, so frequently confounding age.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 30, 2014

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

The Jewish Hall of Fame

Joshua Max FeldmanI once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, “You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!”

It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn’t revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it’s because there simply aren’t many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it’s because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can’t fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it’s one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it’s like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.

I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist’s outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: “He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*.”

The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they’re blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can’t offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one’s man’s effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.

(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn’t get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)

Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he’s popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That’s going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.

Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can’t overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.

Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.

Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.

Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.

Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.

Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.

The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you’re listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody AllenShomer Shabbos!

So, that’s my list. Who did I leave off?

*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it’s my sentence, right?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 28, 2014

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