Jews are known as ‘People of the Book’. Even though the term refers to being people of the Bible, we can use it to describe ourselves as people who value education and books. I have never walked into a Jewish home and found it devoid of books as I have with some non-Jewish houses. We see the value of books and learning for ourselves, but also for our children.
It is easy to pick the first few Jewish books: the Tanach, Chumash and Siddur. When we look at works of fiction the lines become blurred.
Is a Jewish book is any book by a Jewish author? Does the protagonist have to be Jewish? Must it be set in a Jewish home, school or community? Or must it have the almost undefinable Jewish ‘sensibilities’? As the Holocaust stands out as one of the most important events in our recent history, is any book on the Holocaust a Jewish book?
The answer to all these questions is yes and no. One of the things that makes a difference is how the book is read and engaged with. The act of reading is not simply seeing a word on paper and understanding. It is an almost tactile process with your mind. Therefore almost any book read by a Jewish reader could be seen as a Jewish book.
On the other hand, a Jewish author can defiantly write a piece that is not Jewish and a non-Jewish author can write a Jewish book. A book where the protagonist is Jewish might not be a Jewish book. I recently came across a book by a Jewish author about a young witch who has a Jewish name. To me, as there is nothing in the book other than a character stating that she Is Jewish, this is not a Jewish book. Yet, there may be books where the characters and themes are not Jewish, but which nonetheless feel Jewish. There is a book I love about a young Italian girl with a crazy family that has so many similarities to my own life that I think this may really be a Jewish book.
I recently come across the idea that a Jew is like a five legged table. The legs were said to be Jewish memory: family, Sinai or Torah, the State of Israel and language – Hebrew of Yiddish. Jews choose which of the legs of the table have importance in their life and, just as a table does not need five legs to balance, the Jew will be steady with any three legs. The analogy could be applied to Jewish books. A Jewish book does not have to be filled with the stereotypical features of Jews and Judaism. But without literary chicken soup and kneidel, we may have difficulty recognising the book as Jewish.
The question of what is and is not a Jewish book will continue to be debated. The question does have some importance, because it will affect the eligibility of books for the growing number of Jewish fiction awards, as well as the choices of books to be read by a Jewish book club.
This article is based on a presentation given at Limmud Oz 2012.