Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter— the Bible as Literature

Alter, Robert. ‘The Art of Bible Translation”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Bible as Literature

Amos Lassen

I am a huge fan of Robert Alter and love his biblical translations. We so often take the bible as a book of law and forget the wonderful literature that is there and Alter wants to change that. If you have worked in translation you know that it is more involved than a word for work repetition and that the nuance of a word is as important as its meaning. I believe that I sensed this the most in Alter’s translations of “The Song of Songs”. It is also important to understand that a translation is also a commentary.

What I have always loved about Alter’s translations (and by the way, his complete translation of the Hebrew Bible is now available in three volumes) is not only the literary power but also his passion. He uses that same passion here in explaining what he learned about the art of Bible translation over the twenty years he spent completing his own English version of the Hebrew Bible.

We immediately sense that his translation captures the beauty of the biblical Hebrew in which it was originally written. I am a Hebrew speaker and took courses in biblical Hebrew so I am well aware of the literary style of the Bible as well as how difficult it is to translate and get the true meaning of the original. The average person on the street is not aware of all of the subtleties of the Hebrew language. I truly believe that to give a good translation one must be totally aware of the nuances of two languages— the original and the one he is translating it too. When I lived in Israel I translated two plays by Tennessee Williams from English into Hebrew and I spent a tremendous amount of time working on translating southern English into spoken Hebrew. How do you explain a streetcar to someone who has never seen one before and how do you explain the Bible when much of what happens there happens one time only. I look at translation as a puzzle to be solved and that makes it not only interesting but fun.

It is surely Alter’s literary training that gives him the advantage of seeing that a translation of the Bible can convey the text’s meaning only by trying to capture the powerful and subtle literary style of the biblical Hebrew, something the modern English versions do not do justice to. The Bible’s style is one of beauty and it is the necessary way to relate the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed. The translators of the King James Version knew that the authority of the Bible is inseparable from its literary authority. To truly bring the Bible to life today, one must be able to recreate its literary virtuosity, and Alter discusses the principal aspects of style in the Hebrew Bible that any translator should try to reproduce: word choice, syntax, word play and sound play, rhythm, and dialogue. In the process, he provides an illuminating and accessible introduction to biblical style that also offers insights about the art of translation far beyond the Bible.”

Alter has succeeded brilliantly with his translation and now that it is done he shares his “deeply personal account of the pleasures and challenges of translating the Hebrew Bible into modern English”. This is an amazing and entertaining read as well as an intellectual endeavor.

“Punk Rock Hora: Adventures in Jew-Punk Land” by Michael Croland— Who Knew?

Croland, Michael. “Punk Rock Hora: Adventures in Jew-Punk Land”, Independently published, 2018.

Who Knew?

Amos Lassen

I should not be surprised that there are Jewish punk bands since there are Jewish everything “elses”. I guess I really never thought about it and I am very glad that Michael Croland did think about it and write this very informative and fun to read book.

Michael Croland has been following Jewish punk bands since 2005 and has been to many, many concerts and has gotten to know and to interview many musicians. He is an authority on the subject and eagerly shares what he knows. Just to give you an idea of his style, take a look at this: “Michael has drunk Manischewitz wine passed around a pit, witnessed a bagel fight between a singer and concertgoers, and scheduled his wedding around a band’s availability. He has danced the hora with the intensity turned up to 11, inspiring the fun hora interludes between chapters.”

Punk culture is on the edge just as Jewish culture often finds itself and Croland shows us how these two somewhat discordant cultures come together.  He shares comedic behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insightful analyses of the songs, and his unparalleled access to the artists. I must admit that punk rock never did anything for me but after reading this, I am ready to give it another chance. Not only do we learn how Michael fell in love with Jewish punk, we are privy to his “interviews with thought-provoking Jewish outcasts, playlists for Jewish holidays, and introductions to new bands.” This is more than just one genre of a book; it is memoir, it is a collection of articles about Jewish-punk music and then it is whatever you take it to be.

Croland has divided the book into three sections based upon years. Part one covers 2005-2010, part two from 2013-2016 and part three from 2016-2018. He explains that Jewish punks and proud Jews in their meaningful. Ways (but is that not true of all Jews?). We see that Jewish punks come in all flavors. In a sense they are outcasts from the mainstream yet hold on to their Jewish roots in ways that only they can explain. There are Zionists and anti-Zionists and there are queer Jews, anarchist Jews, socialist and vegan Jews and they come together as punk Jews or Jewish punks. Many have not abandoned their Jewishness and choose to reflect upon it in their music. The music might not be melodious and popular but it a reflection of these Jews who choose to employ their Judaism thusly.

In the epilogue, Croland shares that he once fantasized about ”Heebcore” and actually found humor in the ideas of there being punk Jews. But then he learned about “Yidcore” and from there he learned of others and he was on his way. In fact, he tells us that Jewish punk has made him feel more secure in who he is as a Jew and that he can be his own person and do things that are meaningful to him while embracing his own Judaism. Isn’t that basically what we all want anyway?

By writing about Jewish punk,  Croland has created an identity for himself and learned how to be comfortable in his own skin. Some of the bands we read about here include “Yidcore”, “Jewdriver”, “Moshiach Oi!”, “Golem”, “Schmekel” (actually this is the only Jew-punk band I have heard and that is because a friend of mine once worked with them), “The Shondes”, “The Groggers”, “Gangsta Rabbi”, “Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird”, and more.

I really had a great time reading this book—in fact, I enjoyed it so much that I read it in one sitting and then began looking at webpages of the bands. Reading Croland was like sharing an afternoon with a friend who has many new things to tell me. Great literature it is not but that’s fine. It’s fun to read just to enjoy once in a while.

“Initial Instructions: A Translation Celebrating the Book of Genesis in Lipogram” by Rabbi Joseph Prouser— What Would Genesis Be Without the Letter “E”?

Prouser, Joseph.  “Initial Instructions: A Translation Celebrating the Book of Genesis in Lipogram”, Ben Yehudah Press, 2018.

What Would “Genesis” Be Without the Letter ‘E’?

Amos Lassen

 “Initial Instructions” is a fresh rendering of the Bible’s beginning with an unusual twist: It doesn’t use the letter e.

“Initial Instructions” takes out words like “the,” “beginning”, “created,” “heavens,” and “earth” from its lexicon. Instead, Rabbi Joseph Prouser looks for original ways to render ancient meanings and reveal The Book of Genesis in a new way. A lipogram is a text that avoids a particular letter and thus offers the virtues of discipline and restraint.

“Clichés must be interpreted,” he explains in his introduction. “That which one would ordinarily express in a manner dictated by habit becomes a fresh, carefully crafted statement reflecting heightened consciousness. The resulting tone, language, and style are distinctive.

“The end product is (it is to be hoped) not a cumbersome composition — but rather fine poetry, like a sonnet the more beautiful and artful for its principled attention to form. Within the lipogram’s prescribed constraints, the writer moves freely, reveling in the innumerable possibilities which appear when boundaries are clearly established.”

It starts: “God’s initial act in His constantly unfolding work of cosmogony was formation of our world and its sky. All was, at that point, without form, and chaotic. It was profoundly dark, with God’s Spirit floating in a cosmic limbo. God said: “Now for light!” And it was light!! God saw how good His light was, distinguishing light from dark. God’s light was known as “day.” Dark was known as “night.” Following nightfall was morning. A first day!!”

Rabbi Prouser has taken and transformed an ancient word game into a way for producing poetic beauty and new understandings of Biblical texts. This becomes a metaphor for the self-control that facilitates both religious ritual and morality itself. The lipogram makes the book of Genesis come alive. We see the stories anew and the words of the Bible escape from the confines of the familiar and commonplace. Rabbi Prouser writes about how discipline and demands often result in beauty, creativity and freedom. We see that here.

From the Coffee House of Jewish Dreamers: Poems on the Weekly Torah Portion and Poems of Wonder and Wandering” by Isidore Century— Two Books in One


Century, Isidore. “From the Coffee House of Jewish Dreamers: Poems on the Weekly Torah Portion and Poems of Wonder and Wandering”, Ben Yehudah Press, 2018.

Two Books in One

Amos Lassen

One half of “From the Coffee House of Jewish Dreamers: Poems on the Weekly Torah Portion and Poems of Wonder and Wandering” is a collection of forty years of the poetry of Isidore Century that until now had been published only in journals and chapbooks. Century’s poems recall growing up during the Depression to Yiddish immigrant parents; his coming to terms with the scars of his youth; his adult discovery of Jewish traditions and Jerusalem; and his continuing game of hide-and-seek with God. The other half of this volume, are his poems of the weekly Torah portion, are his poems of each weekly Torah portion.

This is the first book-length collection of Mr. Century’s poetry. Some of his work has been previously collected in three chap books, but this will be the first publication for many of the Parsha Poems, as well as several of the Tales of Wonder and Wandering.

At the age of 45, Century began to explore his Jewish identity and to produce his poetry for the first time. He writes of and for alienated Jews like himself— those who wish to remain Jews but have trouble finding a way to unite tradition and a search for spirituality and who are between the two.

The poems themselves are divided into two sections. The “Parsha Poems”, give a double-take on the weekly Torah portion. The other part, “Tales of Wonder and Wandering” are about Century’s  early life and subsequent journeys of the body and the soul.

Century is concerned about the children of the Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century and his poetry is about trying to live with the scars that were inflicted upon them.

In the 60s we did not talk about parents who never recovered from the trauma of immigration from Europe. Century’s mother believed in discipline and his father worked hard while inspired by Communist dreams of worker solidarity but beaten down by American frustrations of hard work and low pay. Century does not hold back and his poems are raw.

Moving on to the 1970s, Century began to explore aspects of his Jewish identity, religiously and nationally. He writes about his trips to Israel and a desire to return to the religion that until then had not been part of his life. This was “a challenge that he never fully accepts, nor outright rejects.”

“Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism” by Malka Simkovich— Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch

Simkovich, Malka. “Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism”, Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch

Amos Lassen

In order to explore the world of the Second Temple, we must be aware of the tremendous diversity that exists in the stories, in the commentaries and in the other documents that were written by Jews during the period from 539 BCE to 70 CE. We go to Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, to the Jewish sectarians and the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, to the Cairo genizah, and to the ancient caves that kept the secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jewish history during this era was formative and Simkovich analyzes some of the period’s most important works so that we can better understand familiar and possible meanings.

The book is divided into four parts and brings past and present together. Part 1 contains modern stories of discovery of Second Temple literature. Part 2 looks at the Jewish communities that flourished both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. Part 3 studies the lives, worldviews, and significant writings of Second Temple authors and Part 4 examines how the authors of the time introduced novel, rewritten, and expanded versions of Bible stories in hopes of imparting messages to the people. Without question, Part 4 is stimulating but to reach that point we had to go through the other three periods.

We learn of the very creative ways that Jews practiced their religion and understood the scriptures. Most of them were now in cultural settings that were very much unlike those who lived in the land of Israel. They had to take an ancient religion and adapt it to the times in which they lived much like Jews have had to do everywhere for centuries. A religion is only valuable if it means something to its adherents.

We can look at this volume in two different ways— as a summary of the literature of the Second Temple or as taking the first steps into the larger study of the literature of the time. This is a wonderful introduction. In most cases the authors of the literature are not those that are familiar to us and Simkovich not only introduces them but gives their importance. Included here are the writings that make up the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls to Judaism and Christianity, as well as other period literature. I find it fascinating as will anyone who is interested “in the world of Hillel, Shammai, Josephus, and Jesus.”

Table of Contents:

Introduction: In Search of the Second Temple Era    

Part 1. The Modern Recovery of Second Temple Literature    

Chapter 1. The Cairo Genizah    
Chapter 2. Manuscripts and Monasteries    
Chapter 3. The Dead Sea Scrolls    

Part 2. Jewish Life in the Second Temple Period

Chapter 4. Jerusalem    
Chapter 5. Alexandria    
Chapter 6. Antioch    


Part 3. The Worldviews of Second Temple Writers


Chapter 7. The Wisdom Seekers    
Chapter 8. The Sectarians    
Chapter 9. Interpreters of Israelite History    
Chapter 10. Josephus Flavius  


Part 4. The Holy Texts of Second Temple Judaism


Chapter 11. The Codified Bible    
Chapter 12. Rewriting the Bible    
Chapter 13. The Expanded Bible


Glossary of Key Names, Places, and Books    
General Index    
Index by Passage    

“The House of Twenty Thousand Books” by Seth Abramsky—mMeet Chimen Abramsky

Abramsky, Sasha. “The House of Twenty Thousand Books”, New York Review of Books, 2018.

Meet Chimen Abramsky

Amos Lassen

“The House of Twenty Thousand Books” is a grandson’s elegy for the now gone world of his grandparents’ house in London and the exuberant, passionate jostling of two traditions ¬– Jewish and Marxist – that came together as he his grew up. Here is a memoir of the fatal encounter between the Russian Jewish desire for freedom and the Stalinist creed. Here is a grandson’s “unsparing, but loving reckoning with a conflicted inheritance.”

This is the story of Chimen Abramsky, a polymath and bibliophile who amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. For more than fifty years Chimen and his wife, Miriam, hosted epic gatherings in their house of books that brought together many of the age’s greatest thinkers.

Chimen was the atheist son of one of the century’s most important rabbis. He was born in 1916 near Minsk, spent his early teenage years in Moscow while his father served time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing, and then immigrated to London, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx and became involved in left-wing politics. He briefly attended the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem until  her studies were interrupted by World War II. Returning England, he married, and for many years he and his wife, Miriam ran a respected Jewish bookshop in London’s East End. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Chimen joined the Communist Party and became a leading figure in the party’s National Jewish Committee. He remained a member until 1958, when, shockingly late, he finally acknowledged the atrocities committed by Stalin. In middle age, Chimen reinvented himself once more, this time as a liberal thinker, humanist, professor, and manuscripts’ expert for Sotheby’s auction house. 

Journalist Sasha Abramsky re-creates his grandfather’s world and brings to life the people, the books, and the ideas that filled his grandparents’ house, from gatherings that included Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin to books with Marx’s handwritten notes, William Morris manuscripts and woodcuts, an early sixteenth-century Bomberg Bible, and a first edition of Descartes’s “Meditations”. Abramsky takes us on a journey through our times, from the worlds of Eastern European Jewry that are no more to the politics of modernity.

I have long wanted to read an intellectual history that would answer the many questions I has about Jewry and intellectualism at the approach of the modern world. I did not get answers to all of my questions but I did get a brilliant read. This is a book that burns with “a passion for ideas, the value of history, the need for argument.” It is “a moving testimonial to the persistence of human curiosity in a world that seems to drift farther and farther from the delight of intellectual pursuits.” Here is one man’s love for the printed word. There was (and still is) an intellectual milieu that was built around old books and long evenings spent in political debate.” We are just not aware as to where to find them.

Sasha Abramsky gives us  smart, concise pocket explanations of matters ranging from the effect of 18th-century French utopianism on leftist thinking to brief discourses on methodologies of Talmud study. He draws on interviews with Chis grandfather’s contemporaries and archives and this book is a sensitive and honest look at how many of the conversations at his grandfather’s house were conducted.

Sasha chooses to give us essays about the ideas, historical events and personalities that animated his grandfather and he is so vivid a writer that scenes he presents, stay with us.  Here is “A narrative that tells the tale of the 20th century: communists, Zionists, fascists, fetishists, secularists and a great scene of academic intrigue. Chimen Abramsky is a worthy subject: his unorthodox intellectual approach and his awe-inspiring collection of books are both marvels to behold. While Abramsky’s grandson writes the story of his life with subtlety and affection, he also evokes the culture of the time in all its foolishness, grandeur, earnestness and ideological disappointment.” —Jeff Deutsch, Seminary Co-op Bookstore

Chimen’s friendships with Isaiah Berlin, Piero Sraffa, and other twentieth century thinkers will interest many readers but the most fascinating story is the evolution of Chimen himself—the son with a serious rabbinic family tree who rejected religion but ran two Seders a year and never served non-kosher food in his home; the Party member who eulogized Stalin, until he discovered the lies and turned in his membership card; the book dealer who spent decades collecting Socialist literature, only to become one of Europe’s leading collectors of Judaica. This is “A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love.” —Kirkus Reviews

 I wish that I had had a grandfather that I could write a book like this and every page made my eyes open even wider. Here is a grandson’s well-written tribute to grandparents, especially the grandfather, who valued family and books and their common Jewish intellectual heritage.  There are thoughts on political subjects from the end of the Russian czar, through Hitler’s reign, to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall as well as musings on what makes for a good life. Sasha even goes so far to show the role of religious symbols and traditions, even in the absence of explicit faith and this becomes one of the themes of the book.
“Chimen was like a character out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or an antiquarian out of a Dickens novel, or an eccentric eighteenth-century salon host, or, more accurately, a chimera of them all… acknowledged as one of the world’s great experts in socialist and Jewish history.”

Chimen was born in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and, as the son of a prominent rabbi, was forced to undergo substantial deprivations and political persecution before his family was allowed to immigrate and settle in London. There, his father became the head of the country’s Jewish religious court and one of its most powerful Jewish voices. Despite his father’s religiosity and his own unpleasant experiences with Lenin’s rule, Chimen embraced communism and remained a staunch advocate for nearly twenty years. Sasha admits his discomfort at his grandfather’s seemingly willful blindness to the atrocities of Joseph Stalin’s rule over the U.S.S.R. and his belated disavowal long after the tyrant’s crimes became known to the world. Although Chimen’s disavowal of his prior political faith would be forceful, he remained enamored of leftwing causes and associated with some of the leading figures of Great Britain’s Labor Party.

However, this involvement in politics is only a secondary subject of the book, however. The main focus and most interesting parts of the book revolve around Chimen’s home and his collection of literature. Over the course of sixty years, he built up a huge collection of Marxist and Jewish history.. He owned original letters from Friedrich Engels, rare copies of the Torah from the seventeenth century as well as first editions and small printings that would cost a fortune today. He slowly became a leading expert in his field and would eventually act as an informal adviser and cataloger for the auction house Sotheby’s. Although Chimen enjoyed helping others acquire books, his greatest passion was still his own collection.

There were only two rooms in the home without books— the bathroom and the kitchen. Chimen’s dinner table became a revolving door for a number of Britain’s most prominent intellectuals. Reading over the snippets of those conversations made me wonder if with the new technology, we are losing developing the mind in the way that face to face confrontation provides (remember Ph.D. orals?). When Chimen finally died, the majority of his collection was sold off, with only a few prized pieces scattered among his relatives.

This was a book written with clear affection for its subject and Sasha Abramsky never pretends he was the clear favorite or privy to secrets of the family that no one else knew. He writes of moments of tension in familial interactions and he also recognizes such moments do not define a loving family. He keeps his focus on the vision of a man who admired the mind and who recognized the importance of books.  

“Women” by Mikhail Sebastian— Snapshots of Love

Sebastian, Mikhail. “WOMEN”,  translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Other Press, 2019.

Snapshots of Love

Amos Lassen

“Women” by Mikhail Sebastian is a rediscovered classic that presents nuanced snapshots of love in the early twentieth century. Stefan Valeriu, a young man from Romania just completed his medical studies in Paris and spends his vacation in the Alps, where he quickly becomes entangled with three different women. “Women” follows Stefan after his return to Paris as he reflects on the women in his life. At times he plays the lover, and at other times, he is an observer, watching from the periphery.

The movie consists of four interrelated stories that are portraits of romantic relationships in all their complexity (from unrequited loves and passionate affairs to tepid marriages of convenience). Sebastian looks at longing, otherness, empathy, and regret. Even though this was written in the 1930s, the four stories remain fresh and contemporary, especially regarding the roles of women and stigmas on sex.

Mikhail, himself, has played various roles such as the scorned friend, the passionate lover, the spontaneous student who throws his life aside for romance, or simply the passive observer of a doomed marriage. His prose is elegant and filled with wit. He challenges what’s really needed to create a good and lasting relationship, as well as the importance of fidelity and love as a necessary precursor to happiness.

Sebastian is one of the most important Romanian writers of the twentieth century. He has worked as a lawyer and writer and was part of an influential literary circle.   We see how oppressive atmosphere foreshadows the rise of Romanian authoritarianism and the destruction of Romanian Jewry. The book charts the psychological effects of anti-Semitism on both its perpetrators and its victims.


“The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary” by Robert Alter— The Literary Bible

Alter, Robert. “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary”,  (Three-Volume Set), W.W. Norton, 2018.

The Literary Bible

Amos Lassen

Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is “a masterpiece of deep learning and fine sensibility”. Alter reanimates “one of the formative works of our culture.” He captures its  poetry and prose as few others have been able to do. With Alter we feel the literary power and spiritual inspiration of the times in which the Bible was written. We read of the family frictions of Genesis, King David’s flawed humanity, the serene wisdom of Psalms and Job’s incendiary questioning of God’s ways and we see both the immediacy and relevance of these stories. Alter’s commentary pulls us into the literary and historical dimensions of the text. 

Alter aspires to represent “biblical narrative prose” in this meticulously cited but “clunky translation” of the Hebrew Bible from the original ancient Hebrew. Alter ‘s stated goal to translate the Hebrew Bible “in a language that conveys the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and at the same time has stylistic and rhythmic integrity as literary English.” We see that beginning with his translation of the opening of Genesis: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” Alter explains, in a footnote, that he used the word “welter” to create an alliterative parallel to the rhyme of the Hebrew “tohu wabohu.” Alter frequently gives such explanations frequently, especially in places where his version differs substantially from the King James version. Because of these choices, readers will have different opinions on the degree of Alter’s success in creating a version with broad appeal. Others might find the heavy footnoting to be a distraction while reading.

Alter was dissatisfied with the existing translations and thought about translating Genesis and doing something about the English that would make it show more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try.

Alter is  a literary person who is also a Bible scholar, and as a literary person, he reads the Hebrew and sees its style, its subtle prose and remarks that the existing translations don’t do justice to it because the modern translators don’t look at the stylistic aspects of the Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew is one of those languages in which you can get rid of all kinds of auxiliary words around verbs.

As a language, Biblical Hebrew is removed from us by anywhere from twenty-five hundred to three thousand years. There are problems with whether we really know what a particular word means, its nuances and connotations. Do we know what it means at all if it happens to be a word that only occurs once or twice in the Bible? There is also the problem of textual transmission. These ancient texts are all copied by generations upon generations of scribes, and the scribes, being human, make mistakes, and sometimes there is something that’s not very intelligible, maybe because it’s an ancient usage or maybe because the scribe has scrambled it.

Alter’s generous commentary, alerts readers to the literary and historical dimensions of the text of the definitive edition of the Hebrew Bible. For Robert Alter,  translation is necessarily a very different process. In a sense, Alter’s translations are the consummation of his career-long effort to make us think seriously about the Bible as literature.

“Levi-Strauss: A Biography” by Emmanuel Loyer— A Sensitive Portrait of a French Intellectual

Loyer, Emmanuelle. “Levi-Strauss: A Biography”, Polity, 2018.

A Sensitive Portrait of a French Intellectual

Amos Lassen

Historian Emmanuelle Loyer’s award winning biography of Claude Levi Strauss is finally available to us in English and it is an amazing read. We go back to Levi-Strauss’s childhood in an assimilated Jewish household and meet him early on as a promising student and follow him into his first forays into political and intellectual movements. As a young professor, Lévi-Strauss left Paris in 1935 for São Paulo to teach sociology and while there he took part in expeditions into the Brazilian hinterland, where he discovered the Amerindian Other and became an anthropologist. Upon returning to Paris, the racial laws of the Vichy regime forced him to leave France again, this time for the United States where in 1941, he became Professor Claude L. Strauss in order  to avoid confusion with the jeans manufacturer with the same name.

Lévi-Strauss returned to France after the war and it was then that he produced his greatest works: several decades of intense labor during which he reinvented anthropology, establishing it as a discipline that offered a new view on the world. During those years, Lévi-Strauss became something of a French national monument and a celebrity intellectual of international renown. Levi-Strauss always claimed his perspective was a ‘view from afar’ and this is what allowed him  to deliver incisive and subversive diagnoses of our waning modernity.

Emmanuelle Loyer was awarded the 2015 Prix Femina Essai last autumn for this biography of Lévi-Strauss. She did incredible research drawing upon previously unused archives. She explores the career of Levi-Strauss whose thought was shaped by a keen sense of the senses. She writes of his multi-faceted identity and this is one of the most striking features to appear in the biography. We see Levi-Strauss as anxious to belong to several eras and several cultures at once.

He was obsessed by eras that he had not lived in and said he was a man of the nineteenth century and liked the “freshness” of the sixteenth-century perspective. We gain insight into young Lévi-Strauss; professor of philosophy and socialist militant and it was these experiences that he seems subsequently to have renounced. In going through family letters, Loyer learned that he was keen on cars (but having trouble passing his license), and as a man who finds everything fascinating  including the philosophy lessons he taught at the lycée de Mont de Marsan, his first position in 1933. He described the teaching of philosophy at the Sorbonne as an artificial rhetoric that “missed” the world and left him terribly dissatisfied. Politically, he was a zealous socialist at one stage, not only aspiring to theorize the party philosophy but also as a hands-on activist. He later distanced himself from politics and underestimated

Ethnology came into being well before Lévi-Strauss, but he was the one that reformed ity by renaming it “anthropology” and tying it to a strong theoretical program of structuralism (an ambition for knowledge to rival that of philosophy). This semantic change occurred in the 1950s, with his return from the United States. He institutionalized it within French academia by calling his Chair at the College de France “Social Anthropology”. Through the biography, I wanted to write the history of these groups of knowledge we call “disciplines” and which shift over time.

The young professor Lévi-Strauss was appointed to Brazil to teach the philosophizing sociology of Auguste Comte and Durkheim such as they were interpreted on the Brazilian side. Yet he, on the contrary, wanted to anchor social science in empirical research and investigation. Brazil seemed to him to be  a wonderful laboratory, especially the city of São Paulo which was a model of urbanity in its purest form. That is why he sent his students into the streets and to the archives and had them undertake very empirical fieldwork. This was frowned upon at the university where traditional lectures were de rigueur.

He became interested in modesty “because of theories and results in science, that work by the accumulation and revision of knowledge and are destined to expire. Wisdom because the social sciences cannot aspire to the same kind of truth as the hard sciences; their predictions are often wrong and their conclusions approximate. Wisdom is the social sciences’ fated “middle ground” between knowledge and action, without being wholly one or the other. Wisdom also in that scientific research, which for Lévi-Strauss is as truly worthy and beautiful as art, is never finished; any scientific quest leads to new questions and makes it clear why the process will be endless.” Levi-Strauss faced two types of criticism. There were those coming from the often English-speaking anthropological community who attacked the scholarly foundations of his work, calling a given factual analysis into question by implying that it is rather “hazy” and very “French thinking”. Then in  the early 1970s (and even before in fact), “the structuralist paradigm was challenged by a whole area of thought in philosophy and the social sciences (Marxist ethnology, Bourdieu’s sociology, post-structuralist philosophy, etc.), and there were the specifically ideological attacks after 1968 which saw in structuralism an overhanging, objectifying, neocolonial thought; at the time, the emphasis shifted back to social stakeholders against the structure, strategies against rules, plural and decentered narratives against the single great narrative, etc.”

His perspective as an ethnologist and then as an old man (he lived until almost 101) allowed him to look at our world from a distance, and he did not like what he saw. In his critique of Western modernity, he targeted the arrogance of a humanism that had established man as master of the cosmos. He saw, for example, historical tragedies such as genocide as “explained by this enshrining of the human reign and the separation instituted between men and other living beings.”  In his work, he aimed above all to reconcile the sensible and the intelligible realms. In his life, he was constantly nourished by art, music, painting, and literature, but also by the more popular arts like cooking. The enigma of beauty played a crucial role in both his life and his thought. And in the end, aesthetic considerations seemed to him to be the main problems for the social sciences.

This is the story of a true intellectual adventurer whose invites us to rethink questions of the human and the meaning of progress. We see Lévi-Strauss less as a modern than as our own great and disquieted contemporary. The inspiration that continues to come out of the work of Lévi-Strauss is a mystery to many anthropologists. There was no account for his originality and independence before Emmanuelle Loyer’s  look at his life and work.

“Siddur Avodat HaLev” by the Rabbinic Coucil of America— With Women in Mind

Rabbinical Council of America. “Siddur Avodat HaLev”, (Hebrew and English Edition), Koren Books, 2018.

With Women in Mind

Amos Lassen

The new RCA Siddur – Siddur Avodat HaLev is a full siddur for Weekdays, Shabbat and Haggim.  It has been ten years in the making and now has a fully contemporary translation, new commentaries utilizing classic as well as contemporary Rabbinic and traditional sources. additional prayers for life-cycle events and the modern observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom HaShoah and Yom Yerushalayim, the complete Sefer Tehilim, supplementary essays by classic and contemporary Rabbis, appropriate female textual and grammatical formulations where needed. The Siddur Avodat Halev is the new standard Siddur for RCA Synagogues for generations. Additionally there are detailed on-page halakhic instructions approved by recognized authorities.

This is the new Orthodox Prayer Book that keeps women in mind and it “seeks to reflect a sensitivity to women’s prayer experiences.” The siddur accommodates women through its textual and grammatical updates and many of those updates, however, are unprecedented for an Orthodox siddur. The book provides the text for a group of women saying the blessing after a meal, a prayer that is usually omitted with the assumption that a man will nearly always lead that prayer. References to “gentlemen” have been changed to “esteemed companions.” The commentary and supplemental essays make use of female scholarship.

Yet, even with the book’s inclusivity, there are some lines it does not cross. Today Modern Orthodoxy’s leading institutions are divided on the question of whether women can be faith leaders and the prayer book totally ignores this. Hotly contested issues like female clergy are best left out of a siddur.

A new prayer book can mean overhauls to long-treasured siddurim and can take years of dedicated work by a team of rabbis. The traditional Hebrew text presents challenges for rabbis looking for inclusive liturgy. Hebrew is a gendered language; the words for God are nearly all masculine. The process of correcting for this perceived imbalance started years ago among the more liberal Jewish denominations. In 2007, the Reform movement removed gendered references to God from the English in its new siddur. In 2016, the Conservative movement’s Siddur Lev Shalem did the same, for instance calling God “sovereign” instead of “king.”

This siddur continues that trend. It is aimed at American Modern Orthodox Jews,  an observant and wealthy segment of Judaism that values participation in secular culture and professional life while keeping kosher and refraining from work on the Sabbath.

Besides the changes geared toward women, the new siddur, like its predecessors in the Reform and Conservative movements, broadly focuses on incorporating new commentary and translation to complement the centuries-old liturgy. There are notes for nearly every prayer, and includes rabbinic insight into lifecycle traditions like weddings, brises and b’nai mitzvahs.

The features aimed at female congregants are not only for women. The siddur not just women-friendly, but sensitizing men and women to the importance of women in prayer. In its Hebrew text, prayers written in first person offer optional feminized verbs. Perhaps the single most important textual update in the book has to do with the prayer after eating, the birkat hamazon. While there is a rabbinically accepted formula for how to begin the prayer when the participants are only women, that text is nearly impossible to find in any Orthodox siddur. “Avodat Halev” includes that text, and a note explaining the  religious law, behind it. For good measure, it includes, in Hebrew, the feminized version of the words “head of the household” thus recognizing that such a role can be occupied by women.

In the siddur’s English translation, gender-neutral pronouns are used wherever possible, showing that the Rabbinic Council understands how sensitive people are to the question of gender in Judaism.

The siddur also has commentary and supplementary essays from female scholars like the legendary bible teacher Nechama Lebowitz, the historian Yaffa Eliach and the Yeshiva University professor Deena Rabinovich — a rarity for an Orthodox book.

One particular bit of commentary notes that women should always seek a halachic prenuptial agreement, to make sure that they will not get stuck being an agunah, a woman whose husband won’t grant her a divorce.

The new siddur, however, while offering more ways for women to feel like equal participants in a prayer service, does not acknowledge the possibility that they might lead a prayer service.