AUTHORS AND BOOKS DISCUSSED AT OUR LAST MEETING:
As the first item on our agenda last night, we were treated to a fascinating report by one of our members, Dr. Paula Goldberg, about a weekend course that she recently attended, at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, about the life and work of Chaim Grade (pronounced GRAH-duh). According to the flier for this course: “Chaim Grade [is] considered one of the most influential writers of Yiddish poetry and prose. Many argue that Grade – and not Isaac Bashevis Singer – was the Yiddish writer who should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.” Yet, none of us in our group had ever heard of Chaim Grade. How is this possible?
The fault, according to the New York Times, lies with the widow: “For more than two decades after his death in 1982, Inna Hecker Grade cantankerously repulsed almost all efforts to translate or publish his work or sift through his papers.” Whether Inna was also cantankerous and repulsive during the 34 years of their marriage before Chaim’s death, the New York Times does not say, but what other explanation could there be for his failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Fortunately for the history of literature, Inna Grade died on May 2, 2010, exactly two years ago today, so we will be saying Kaddish for her at the minyan tonight. Apparently, Inna was something of a hoarder, because, after she died, intrepid searchers uncovered a treasure-trove of Chaim Grade’s books and manuscripts in their apartment in the Bronx. “This is our thrilling moment in Yiddish literature, this is our Dead Sea Scrolls,” exulted Aaron Lansky, president of the Yiddish Book Center, upon entering her apartment.
During his lifetime, Grade published numerous books, many of which are available in English translation, including The Yeshiva, My Mother's Sabbath Days, and The Sacred and the Profane. (This last might not have been a publisher’s dream title. A quick check on Amazon reveals more than 20 other books with the same title, written by Mircea Eliade and Willard R. Trask, Samantha Abigail Ashford, Eurydice Georganteli, Faye Kellerman, Isabelle May, Clarence Kelly, Desiree Ntolo, William Michaels, Terence Reid, Dean Motter and Ken Steacy, Jake Kinzey, Marcelle Bernstein, Jeffrey M. Wallmann, Andrew Graham-Dixon, David Weiss, Steve Barney, Hary Somers, Arnold Bennett, Iris Murdoch, Justin Green, and Carl Van Vechten, to mention but a few. Perhaps a more original title might have sold a few more copies of Grade’s classic.)
Next, our resident historian, Phil Silverman, told us about two seemingly disparate books that, between them, nicely illustrate the different perspectives brought to bear on their subject by Muslim and Jewish historians. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Mir Tamim Ansary, serves as a useful antidote to our Eurocentric and Judeo-Christian perspective. It reminds us that, from the birth of Mohammed until the present day, Muslims see the world as centered in the Middle East (which the author calls the Middle World); that they believe in the supremacy of the community, rather than in the autonomy of the individual; and that they will never relinquish their fight to expel the infidels from the Middle World. So much for peace in the Middle East.
The other book, American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna, chronicles the growth of the Jewish population in the America, from the colonial era through the present day. It is a story of Jews struggling to preserve their Judaism in a predominantly Christian country, as well as the story of a small, impoverished, and oppressed group growing in size and prosperity, eventually achieving astonishing successes in all walks of life. This is a work of history that is very much Eurocentric and individually-focused.
Both books are well-written and easy to read, and they make for an interesting juxtaposition of opposing world views.
Our final contributor of the evening was our resident scholar and book maven, Bev Cohen. Last night she chose to review a very interesting book by a Jewish author, who happens to be her son-in-law: Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity, by Daniel B. Smith. This book deals with the fascinating phenomenon of auditory hallucination, which nowadays is considered a sure sign of insanity but, once upon a time, was quite possibly the source of most of the material in our Bible. After all, there is tradition that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God, and the phrase, “Then the Lord said to Moses,” recurs frequently in the first five books. There are some who believe that Moses, as well as a number of other biblical figures, was transmitting what psychologists today might call auditory hallucinations. In fact, according to some scholars, such as Julian Jaynes, back in the days of Exodus and the Trojan War, all people heard what we would today call auditory hallucinations all the time. (See The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.)
What Daniel Smith tells us in this entertaining and informative book is that lots of people today still hear voices, and they are not all suffering from schizophrenia. In fact, some perfectly normal people have experienced this phenomenon.
To learn more about this subject, and about Bev’s son-in-law, you can watch his interview with Stephen Colbert here.
CORRECTION: Phil Silverman knew who Chaim Grade was. Dr. Goldberg added to his limited knowledge of this author, and he wishes to convey his thanks to her.