Parashat Bo: In Honor of the Book Group’s 20th Anniversary – January 25, 2015
By Ginger Jacobs
Usually, when I plan on “doing the drash”, I study the parasha. This week’s portion is Bo which continues the story of Moses dealing with Pharaoh to “let my people go” and tells about the last 3 plagues: locusts covering the land, darkness so dark you can touch it, and the final plague the killing of the first born. The parasha goes on to describe the preparations the Israelites had to take to avoid the 10th plague, the actual leaving and a few laws of how to observe the Exodus, the command to “tell it to our children”.
This time was no exception. I studied the parasha, wrote a drash which went into various themes (community, free will, getting through personal darkness) and, true to my nature, raised questions (what price freedom, why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart), I sent it to Rabbi Heather who made several really good suggestions and I made changes. Then I made some more changes.
Wednesday, I woke up and wasn’t happy with what I wrote. Oh, it is a good Torah study, looking at the text, studying it, analyzing it, looking for themes and asking questions.
But it was a stretch to make the connection to the Book Group which is the reason for my giving the drash in the first place. The BCC Book Group (Bagels and Books) has been around for 20 years, and while the makeup has changed, there are several of us who “have been around” for all of the 20 years.
Over the 20 years, we have read over 200 books, fiction and non fiction. We share our lives with each other through our discussions of the books. We learn from each other, we look at books differently as we look at life differently. We listen to each other, even when we disagree about a book. We have become a community together and help each other in many ways, more than just carpooling. Together we have gone through sickness and lots of medical stuff, care and sometimes death of parents, death of spouse, weddings and other joyous life cycle events. We have enriched our ties with BCC.
As we learn from each other, so we have learned from the books. The books we read are as varied as the people in the group. The only “rule” we have about books is that it must be Jewish. But, even here, we have made exceptions once or twice, the first time being at the request of Harriet Perl who was part of our group for many years. For those who knew Harriet, you can imagine her challenging contributions.
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, was our very first book. We reread that on our 10th anniversary. No, we are not reading it again for our 20th! The range is from that to Snow in August by Pete Hamil, to Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon to Because God Loves Stories, a collection of wonderful short stories. We’ve read about Israel, about many Biblical people and events, we’ve read historical novels as well as historical non fiction. We’ve read Jewish science fiction and Jewish mysteries. We’ve read about the Holocaust from many different perspectives including those who deny the Holocaust happened. We’ve read many personal accounts of immigrants to this country, some to “strange” places such as North Dakota.
Reading and books have always been a part of my life. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my dad’s lap while he read to me. Tom Sawyer and Ferdinand the Bull are two of the books I remember most. (I still have the chairs we sat on while he read.) I taught my kids to love reading and while they didn’t always love reading, they do now, as do my grandchildren, at least those old enough to read. Books can take us places we can’t go, they can expose us to things we will never experience in other ways. Books can challenge us to learn more and to let our imagination fly.
Through the books, we learned about the way Japan helped save many Jews from the Nazis, we were with Aaron Lansky as he rescued Yiddish books; we saw homing pigeons fly during the war of liberation in Israel in 1948; we were gays hiding in Berlin throughout the war; we were lesbians in Israel and we were Rashi’s daughters; we were re-incarnated after the Holocaust; we wondered who wrote the Bible; we studied the historical Jesus. We were Jewish immigrants in New York writing our sorrows to Bintel’s Brief, part of the Yiddish Forward Newspaper. We’ve seen the tossed out tefillen in the waters around the Statue of Liberty. We’ve walked with converts to and from Judaism, and often back again. We’ve fought for air with the women trapped in the Triangle Fire. We’ve challenged our faith in God and Judaism, we’ve grown as Jews.
These are only a few of the places we have been, the people we have met, the stories we have lived.
Books have inspired us to learn more, from each other and other books. Over the years we have relied on certain members to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Harriet could always be counted on to keep us on target with the book and would help us look at it from a more analytic perspective, Avrum Chill would help explain some of the references to more traditional Judaism. Larry Nathenson is our “historian”, reminding us of the accuracy of events as well as keeping track of all the books we’ve read in the 20 years.
Bob Adels keeps an accounting of books that we might read, checking to make sure there are plenty of copies available in the libraries.
How do we decide what book to read? Anyone and everyone can make suggestions. Sometimes we suggest a book we’ve read or others we know have read. Sometimes we hear about a book or read a review or hear a review on NPR. At each meeting we discuss what we will read. The list is always flexible, books going on and coming off. Some books might be a great read but there isn’t much for discussion. It is a communal decision. We have the free will that Pharaoh didn’t have: the free will to join the group, to attend, to be part of the community, to choose what to read and where to discuss. We choose each other, we choose learning both from the books and each other.
Someone volunteers to be host and it is the host’s responsibility to contact the members and make food assignments for the next session. We take turns hosting and sharing food. First timers are exempt from bringing food but if they come again, they are included. We share the responsibility of feeding one another (as did the Israelites in BO, they were told to eat all of the Paschal lamb but if it were too big for one household, they should invite another household to join them).
Of course we eat first. After all, we are a Jewish group. While we don’t eat the pascal lamb from Parasha BO, we eat other Jewish food, bagels and lox. Here too, we have evolved and changed. Over the years, many of us have stopped eating dairy so we use goat cheese cream cheese and a few of us are now gluten free and face the challenge of finding a decent gluten free bagel. But we are up to challenges of all kinds.
We challenge ourselves to find time to read, with all else that we do. We are committed to that. Only lately, have some of us given ourselves permission not to finish a book that we really don’t like. Over the years, we have discovered that we often have the best discussions about books none of us liked. Then there are times when most of us don’t like a book at all and yet there are 1 or 2 people who like it. We listen to each other and several times, I have almost changed my mind about a book, certainly have seen it in a different light. We learn from one another as we digress from the book into related subjects or take from our life experiences and transfer them to the book.
We approach books in different ways. We look at the writing style, the context, the believability of the plot. We might comment that we liked or didn’t like the book but we always try to analyze it, what did the author mean, was it accomplished? Do we like the characters, do they grow at all? What is it saying on the surface? What does it really mean? Again with the questions.
In BO, there is darkness, a darkness so thick we can touch it. Haven’t we all been there, in dim or dark places reaching for light. I often look to my community to help me through the darkness. It is always good to have hands to guide me through the dark spots. We move towards the light. We read, we debate, we learn, we laugh and sometimes we even get teary.
As we start on our next 20 years, we encourage you, those here and those at home, to feel free to talk to any of us about joining our group, our community. We’d love to have more folks share their ideas and wisdom. We’d love to learn from you.
Will the members of the book group please stand up and help me wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom.