22. Why is this book different from all other books?…

13 Apr
22. Why is this book different from all other books?…

Bonus blog: this is the last of the three blog posts I wrote for events at the 2012 Jewish Book Week, which I’m including here partially because I hope they’ll be vaguely interesting to read, but mainly out of principle: I was asked by a couple of the people running the festival to blog on some of the talks, as they weren’t getting as much social media action as they would have liked. Being the pliable, eager-to-help lapdog I am, (I mean that in a good way, but it doesn’t sound good reading it back…), I not only spent most of the talks scribbling furious notes and mentally composing blogs instead of relaxing, but I then spent my valuable time and not so valuable money hunting down something I haven’t seen since the early 1990’s, and never expected to have to use again: a cybercafe.

See, I hadn’t taken my laptop with me to London, and although I was told that they wanted the blogs written up before the next day, (with links, no less!), they couldn’t rustle up a computer for me to use. I completely understood the look of confusion on the policeman’s face when I asked if he knew where an internet cafe may be: since most people have two or three computers in their pockets and bags at any one time these days, I too had realised that I hadn’t seen one in years, possible decades. I eventually tracked one down, a dingy, windowless room underneath the smallest corner shop I’ve ever seen.

Naturally, all of the computers worked on Windows 98, and therefore crashed every five minutes. I spent four times longer than I would have done on my trusty, (if slightly wheezing) MacBook, and was paying for the pleasure, too.

Needless to say, two months and three emails later, they never used my articles on their blog.

So you get them! You lucky, lucky things…

This one may not mean much to you if you’re not a veteran of the four-hour wine-and-cracker-fest which is the Jewish festival of Passover. The ‘handbook’ to this Easter-time festival comes in as many different versions as there are [insert amusing and surprising metaphor of something of which there are a lot here], and this was the UK launch of this new edition, edited by author of one of my favourite ever books, ‘Everything is Illuminated.’

The post-talk signing event raised an interesting question, as I was wondering if it was slightly weird to get a religious book signed: apparently the authors had the same qualms, and weren’t going to do a signing for it until they saw the massive crowd of people buying the book and waiting for them afterwards. My own personal debate on whether or not to a) shell out £25 for a book of which I had dozens of copies as Hebrew school prizes rotting somewhere in an attic, and b) feel weird about getting it signed were avoided when, waiting at the very end of the queue, the temporary bookshop ran out of copies. Luckily, I’d brought with me a couple of copies of Safron Foer‘s other books, which are now be-inked and nestling happily on my two transatlantic bookshelves.

Enjoy, and prepare for the resumption of normal service…

Jonathan Safran Foer and Jeffrey Goldberg talk about their new Haggadah at Jewish Book Week, 2012.

There was only one event scheduled at Jewish Book Week for Saturday, 25th February, but it was a thought-provoking evening in front of a sell-out audience. Jonathan Safran Foer joined Jeffrey Goldberg to discuss their re-interpretation of what they described variously during the evening as the “quintessential Jewish book,” “the most radical book there is” and “the most universally recognised, oldest story there is”: the Haggadah. Quite a task.

Joined onstage by chair Maureen Kendler, Head of Education at the London School of Jewish Studies, Safran Foer took time out from the big screen, (with the recent release of the apparently awful film adaptation of his novel ‘Unbelievably Loud and Incredibly Close‘), to discuss the big table, as he recalled the pressing into service of things not traditionally viewed as tables to accommodate ever-growing families on seder nights. (Ron Arad would surely have approved). Both he and Jeffrey Goldberg intimated that becoming fathers, and therefore masters of the Passover service, had let to the creation of this new Haggadah, to add to the 4,000 or more already available: for Safran Foer in order to reshape Passover to fit what it means to him personally, and for Goldberg in order to banish memories of “arid” childhood services caused by an “archaic, unflexible” flimsy pamphlet of a Haggadah, sponsored by a coffee company and apparently common in the United States. If a Haggadah fails to impart the heart of what Safran Foer refers to as “the world’s most interesting story” then, says Goldberg, there is a failure there, which the new tome aims to set right.

How is this book different from all other books? Whilst Safran Foer explains that it would have been easy to make a beautiful, densely (and interestingly) annotated version, as editor he ended up rejecting several graphic designers and artists and instead employing a single typesetter for the book’s lay-out. Furthermore, he whittled down some twenty contributors to a bare minimum of four commentaries, in the process having to cut a contribution from Howard Jacobson which he lamented was brilliant, but not right for the project.

What remains is a nonetheless beautiful, ephemeral book. It may be without pictures but has a subtle well-thumbed, used look courtesy of pre-installed ink-blots and wine-stains. There is no overabundance of commentaries but simple, sparse contemplations on the Jewish nation historically, (by Goldberg); the Haggadah as literary criticism (by Rebecca Goldstein); the traditional Rabbinical view of the story, (by Nathaniel Deutsch); and a playful take by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.

This is in order to present the basic, set text but to leave enough ‘space’ for the user to explore and question, making it a “flexible, living book” as Safran Foer states on the evening, (in much the same way he adapted the fixed ‘dead’ text of his favourite novel and brought it to life through erasure in his last work, Tree of Codes’). Indeed, the main theme of the evening’s talk was questioning, and the importance of it not just on this one night a year but in Judaism as a whole, a statement echoed days before by the Chief Rabbi in his discussion with Marcus du Sautoy. Responding to a question from the audience on how to deal with controversial passages, (specifically the request for G-d to ‘pour out thy wrath’), Safran Foer joked (seriously) that if there is one thing he has learned from his shrink it is that everything should be questioned and discussed, with Goldberg added the example of slavery in the Torah.

The seder service, they pointed out, is probably the only time of year when such topics can and should be addressed as a family. This cross-denominational, simply translated, (by Nathan Englander), new version of the Haggadah ‘surprised’ Safran Foer with how conservative it had turned out due to a realisation that he wanted it to be useful, as opposed to simply beautiful or interesting: as such, he feels it is a wonderful place for the discussion to begin.

Judging by the hour-long queue to purchase the book after the event, plenty of people agree.


Posted by on April 13, 2012 in BOOKS


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2 responses to “22. Why is this book different from all other books?…

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