I 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.
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When 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.
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Although it fell, in retrospect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kindle and the Kindle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kindle was on the day in the summer of 2008 when I first descended into a dark room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem and, standing in front of a dimly lit display case, encountered its exact opposite.
I spent much of the next four years writing the story of the object I found in the museum, a manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex – a millennium-old bundle of animal skins that is the oldest and most accurate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entirely from the march of technology. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e-mail from my cellphone. But I never purchased a Kindle or any of its cousins, nor did I fully understand what they augured.
The Aleppo Codex is a book, one of the most important on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my deadline passed and I finally looked up to find myself staring into the dead electronic eye of the Kindle Fire, I saw that the meaning of “book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of revolution engrossed in a mirror image of the present.
To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 A.D. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment – a book. The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript.
For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial – according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishized, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.
An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original five-hundred-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem synagogue when the First Crusade arrived under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. The crusaders sacked the city, massacred its inhabitants, and seized property. According to a Muslim historian, they burned a synagogue with Jews inside, but historical records also inform us that the Christians saved hundreds of Jewish books to hold for ransom.
The Jews’ weakness in this regard was well known, and in some of the correspondences of the time it seems their concern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their concern for human captives. The books, each one painstakingly copied, like the codex, by hand, contained priceless and sometimes irreplaceable information. After Jerusalem fell, the Jewish community in Fustat, next to Cairo, raised money and sent 123 dinars with an emissary and instructions to “redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ransoming of the people of God, who are in the captivity of the Kingdom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sentence, came first. Continue reading
In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.
Chaim Sheba, a surgeon general of the Israeli army and later the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, was also a colorful, pioneering Israeli geneticist. Early in his career, Sheba stumbled into human genetics in the process of preparing to practice medicine in his adopted country. Born in Austria, he left for Palestine with a “still wet” medical school diploma from the University of Vienna expecting to “dry the uninhabited swamps.” Drying the swamps was a way to eliminate malaria, a disease common not only in Palestine, but throughout the coastal Mediterranean basin. While on the boat to Palestine, Sheba read a book about tropical diseases and learned that one of the major complications of malaria was blackwater fever. Typically, the “black water” urine of individuals with red blood cells disrupted by malarial parasites contained the dark-colored breakdown products of the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin.
When Sheba arrived in Palestine, he learned about an unexpected springtime occurrence of blackwater fever caused by eating fava beans, a popular Mediterranean delicacy. Favism had been known in ancient Greek times with Pythagoras, Diogenes and Plutarch all warning about the dangers of eating fava beans. Eating the beans or even smelling the pollen caused a sudden illness of abdominal pains and vomiting, followed by pallor, jaundice and brown-colored urine – all resulting from the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. During the 1930s, all of the patients that Sheba observed with favism were Jewish males of Iraqi, Yemenite, or Kurdish origin. During World War II, while serving as a surgeon in the British Army, Sheba observed men who experienced severe breakdown of red blood cells resulting from ingestion of the newly developed antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs. These reactions occurred primarily among Iraqi, Turkish, Greek, Yemenite, and Kurdish Jewish soldiers, and were also common among non-Jewish Greek and Cypriot soldiers, and Italian prisoners of war. To Sheba, it was striking that Ashkenazi Jews did not share these sensitivities that were prevalent among their co-religionists.
The reason for this difference between the Ashkenazi and other Jews became apparent after the war — an inability to repair damage to red blood cells that resulted from exposure to agents that were non-toxic to the majority of the population. This inability occurred in individuals who are deficient for the enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). As its name would suggest, G6PD normally breaks down the sugar, glucose, and, in the process, generates an antioxidant that repairs red blood cells. Although G6PD is produced and used by all of the cells of the body, only red blood cells are sensitive to the effects of oxidizing agents. The enzyme is encoded by a gene on the X chromosome and men who carry a mutant gene on their single X chromosome are susceptible to these exposures. Women who have two copies of the X chromosome are relatively resistant to this condition when one of their X chromosomes carries a mutant G6PD gene.
Over time, Sheba recognized that other genetic diseases (Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, familial Mediterranean fever) were found almost exclusively within certain Jewish groups, reflecting the unique history of those groups. He assumed that these diseases were caused by transmission of a mutant gene that occurred sometime in the distant past, and then transmitted by a group of “founders” who migrated to that site of the Jewish Diaspora. This phenomenon has come to be known as a “founder effect.” Sheba was fond of using Biblical genealogies and spoke of conditions being transmitted by the descendents of the sons of Noah or other, later Biblical characters. Thus, Sheba established the notion that these diseases serve as genetic markers for the populations in which they occurred. Although not all of the members of the population carried these mutant genes, enough do to recognize a shared genetic legacy.