Off the Shelf: Light, fire and fathers

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I have an eclectic taste in books. Sorry, eclectic was a high school vocabulary word that I fell in love with: it’s just a fancy way of saying I like to read a wide variety of books. Years ago, there was bookstore on Washington Avenue in Endicott. The salesman and I became friendly, and he tried to figure out my taste in books, but finally gave up. It’s not that I read everything, but my concern is less with genre than with whether a particular book sounds interesting. How do I define interesting? Even I can’t give you a firm answer. However, the assorted nonfiction works in this review do have one thing in common: a connection to Judaism.

A new view of creation

I don’t think regular readers of this column will be surprised that the title of Liana Finck’s latest book caught my interest: “Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation” (Random House). The “Her” in the title is not a typo: In this graphic retelling of the biblical book of Genesis, God is a woman. The black-and-white drawings are relatively simple, but this new version of Genesis was more complex than I expected. What is especially interesting is where Finck’s work remains close to the original text and when it offers a revised version, while never completely departing from the biblical stories. 

You could say that Finck has remade God in her own image: her God loves to create, but also suffers from periodic depression. Although God loves Her creation, She finds that men refuse to see Her as anything other than a stern old man with a beard. Men dominated the story, although there is also a delightful version of Lilith, who refused to let the Man (AKA Adam) give her a name because she had already named herself. 

After God begins to withdraw Herself from the world, the next stories take a more contemporary tone. For example, Abra(ha)m follows God’s voice, but he leaves his home in order to become an artist and travels to a place that resembles New York City. The city becomes more and more polluted and, by the time Jacob’s story is told, people have to wear helmets to breathe the outside air. Another change occurs in the story of Joseph: when he is thrown down a well, he’s captured by mermen who take him to a kingdom where, similar to the biblical story, he becomes the Sea King’s favorite after interpreting his dreams and helping collect food for the upcoming famine. 

It’s possible to read “Let There Be Light” without knowing the biblical stories, but it’s much more fun if you do. My favorite section was the incredibly clever “The Begats (A Rash of Miraculous Births),” which left me puzzled at first and then made me laugh. The sweetest part of the book is the meeting of Leah and Esau, but to say more would spoil the surprise. Finck’s book may seem sacrilegious to some, but I found it thought provoking and intriguing. 

Music, war and inspiration

I read and reviewed Matt Friedman’s first three books and was intrigued by the subject matter of his latest work, “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai” (Spiegel and Grau), which tells of Leonard Cohen’s visit to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Cohen: the work I know best is from his “Songs from a Room” album, which was released in 1969 and contained the “Story of Isaac,” a song that Friedman notes Cohen later stopped singing. It was only in the past few years that I learned about his later, more famous music.

“Who By Fire” features contrasting images: Israeli soldiers fighting and dying in the Yom Kippur War and the self-absorbed Cohen, who was living in Greece at the time and had talked about ending his music career. Friedman shows how the war took Israel by surprise and, for the first time in the country’s short history, it looked like it might lose. It’s unclear whether Cohen’s visit was to help Israel or if he just wanted to escape from the woman he referred to as his wife (they were not legally married) and their young son. (Even though Friedman has access to Cohen’s notebooks from that time, his notes are often vague and evasive.) However, whatever his personal reasons for traveling to Israel, Cohen’s concerts for the troops became an important symbol for those young Israelis.

Cohen was not a practicing Jew, but, as Friedman makes clear, he never completely rejected Judaism. However, while Cohen played only for the Israelis during his tour, he later claimed that he never took sides in the conflict. This change can also seen in the lyrics from a song, “Lover, Lover, Lover” that he wrote while he was in Israel: the original version identified with the Israeli soldiers. In the formally released version, those lines were gone, something which turned at least one Israeli, whom Friedman interviewed, against Cohen.

The best parts of “Who By Fire” are the recollections of the Israelis who saw Cohen perform during the war. Cohen and Israeli musicians, who were also on tour, played in airplane hangers, encampments and the desert. The concerts were informal, but seeing Cohen had a great effect on the morale of the Israelis who were familiar with his work. The most moving chapter, “The Story of Isaac,” talks about what Israelis sacrificed for their country during the war and features a real life Isaac who returned from abroad in order to protect Israel. As Friedman notes, if this were fiction, readers would shake their heads with disbelief at the use of a biblical name for someone who risked his life for his country.

Friedman does manage to tie the disparate stories together because it is the myth of Cohen that matters, not the man. Whether he felt solidarity with Israel or he just was escaping from his own life is irrelevant. For Cohen, Israel is where he rediscovered his love of music. For Israelis, Cohen was a sign that the world had not deserted them in their time of need.

Fathers and children in the Talmud

One way to study the Talmud is to search the text for clues about the social reality of the time it was written and compiled. Reading between the lines – for example, how groups of people are defined – increases insight into rabbinic lives and thought. “The Return of the Absent Father: A New Reading of a Chain of Stories from the Babylonian Talmud” by Haim Weiss and Shira Stav (University of Pennsylvania Press) focuses on an aspect of rabbinic life that has rarely been explored: the relationship between fathers (usually rabbis) and their children. The authors note that scholars usually focus on the draw of the study house (the desire to study Torah) versus the pull of marital life (including sexual relationships with wives). However, Weiss and Stav show how these same stories can be used to explore the difference between absent fathers and those who remain close to home and supervise their children. 

The seven stories featured come from Ketubot 62b-63a of the Babylonian Talmud. It’s difficult to discuss the authors’ analysis without knowing the particular stories, but they all have common elements. One is that the wives/daughters are usually unnamed and rarely speak. The action focuses on male behavior and decision making. The main exception is in the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife; however, her name is not given in this version and her father rewards Akiva at the end of the tale with half his wealth, rather than giving it to his daughter, who made Akiva’s success possible. Not only did husbands spend years studying without returning home, they rarely interacted with their children – leaving household matters and the raising of those children to their wives. In these stories, fathers who attended to their children’s lives are portrayed as being ineffectual.

Weiss and Stav note these stories contain an idealized version of women who are able manage without their husbands. The authors call these women “living widows”: their husbands are alive, but they might as well not be. In fact, they credit the Babylonian Jewish culture as creating “a class of married monk.” Although technically married, the men lived at their study houses for years at a time with no knowledge of what was happening in their homes. As portrayed in a few of these stories, some were away for so long they didn’t remember where their houses were located nor recognize their children when they saw them.

“The Return of the Absent Father” contains a great deal of scholarly jargon and uses psychoanalytic theory to explain some of the tales. At times, it feels as if the authors are trying to read too much into the stories, but what they reveal about the multi-level way of understanding these texts should appeal to those interested in the study of the Talmud.