Reprinted from Jbooks.com, a member of the Jewz.com network.
Whenever my old friend, the curmudgeonly book-lover, came across an anthology with a title like "Best Plays" or "Best-Loved Poems," he'd always mutter "Best? Best? Who says so?" Who, indeed? Why, editors of anthologies claiming "bestness," of course.
The editor of Best Contemporary Jewish Writing is San Francisco-based Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and himself included in Utne Reader's list of America's "100 Most Important Visionaries." Continuing his quest for the best, Lerner concludes his collection with a list of "The One Hundred Best Contemporary Jewish Books." So many judgment calls about what's best may well stimulate debate. Still, why quibble? As Lerner explains, this is simply his opinion of what is "most significant."
Lerner is a man with a mission and the mission concerns Jewish spiritual renewal. If large numbers of American Jews in the early and middle decades of the 20th century were breaking loose from their traditional moorings, the last few decades have witnessed, if not quite a return to origins, then certainly a renewed interest among Jews in their religious and cultural heritage. And indeed the sheer diversity of voices in this collection, the passion, intelligence, and sense of commitment that can be heard, are ample evidence of this renewal.
Many kinds of writing have been included: memoirs, essays, literary criticism, fiction, and poetry. Senator Joseph Lieberman describes the origins of his commitment to public life. Moroccan-born Ruth Knafo Setton reflects on her personal experiences as a "Sephardic Jew-ess" (from the title of her piece). In "Gay and Orthodox," Rabbi Steve Greenberg discusses the dilemmas he has faced trying to reconcile his sexuality with Scriptural injunctions against lying with men. Questions of Jewish identity, such as finding the right path between assimilation and distinctness, are addressed in a variety of forms, including an engaging poem by Kenneth Koch and a thoughtful essay by David Biale.
Several pieces by feminists, like theologian Rachel Adler and novelist Anita Diamant, offer provocative and illuminating interpretations of biblical stories (although Susan Schnur's diatribe against sexism in the Book of Esther is simply obtuse). On the current literary front, Morris Dickstein surveys contemporary Jewish writers, while Norman Podhoretz has some incisive things to say about Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.
Perhaps the most fascinating material in this book deals with human responsibility towards the natural world. "My commitment to the life of the planet is stronger than my commitment to any philosophy or creed," declares Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. "If you have felt commanded by the Divine Imperative to protect Earth from planetary destruction, then you have undergone the first stage of a Gaian initiation." Citing Evan Eisenberg's book "The Ecology of Eden" (one of the "Hundred Best" on Lerner's list), Arthur Waskow offers an account of the Hebrew religion as a response of humble, freedom-loving Western Semites--shepherds, hunter-gatherers, and hill farmers--to the far more regimented, hierarchical world of the Babylonian empire, where a revolution in agricultural technology had created wealth, order, and stability, but at the cost of a drastic change in man's relationship to earth, to women, and to his fellow man.
Two later sections, "Living in the Shadows of the Holocaust" and "Israel in Conflict," are marked by a certain tendentiousness. Although Lerner makes some concession to representing both sides of the argument between those pushing for the peace process and those who consider it sadly unrealistic, the overall thrust is to lend plausibility to the doves. A triad of essays discussing the Holocaust--by Jonathan Rosen, Zymunt Bauman, and Tikkun's associate editor Peter Gabel--make some interesting points about everything from the film "Schindler's List" to the Nazi mentality--but read in sequence, they function as a kind of three-pronged critique of Jews who (as they see it) use the Holocaust as an "excuse" to justify Israeli hard-line policies.
Jews concerned about their safety and survival having thus been discredited as victims of mass hysteria (too bad the mass murders and terrorist attacks weren't just mass delusions!), the stage is set for Israeli revisionist historian Benny Morris's critique of previous Israeli historians for their tendency to minimize Israel's role in getting Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes during the Israeli War of Independence. Then, for anyone still concerned about the dangers of anti-Semitism--say anyone who's been following the venomous goings-on at the soi-disant "anti-racism" (viz. anti-Zionism) conference in Durban--Jerome Slater notes (rightly, but perhaps no longer all that relevantly) that Palestinian Arabs were not innately anti-Jewish and only became that way after their land was occupied by Israel. (To this, one might say: nor were Germans overwhelmingly anti-Semitic until they were humiliated at Versailles! To recognize a "root cause" does not necessarily, by itself, enable one to undo the effects.) A grimmer and (sadly one fears) more realistic view is provided in Daniel Pipes' essay "Land for What?"
Still, there is an optimism, excitement, and animation about this collection that is hard to resist. This volume is the first in a series that is planned to come out each year. It is clearly an auspicious beginning.