By Reporter staff
The Book Club at Temple Concord will hit a milestone in November: members will discuss the club’s 200th book. The club, which was founded by Marjorie Greenberg in 2004, read its first book, “The Outside World” by Tova Mirvis, in November of that year. Merri Pell-Preus took over as coordinator when Greenberg moved to Massachusetts.
The club originally only met 10 times a year, but some members wanted to discuss works that didn’t make the yearly list. “We had ‘extra meetings’ in July and August, initially going out to lunch,” Pell-Preus said. “Many people wanted to read ‘The Help,’ but there was one very, very minor Jewish character and it wasn’t a Jewish book. So, we read it one July and many people from the Jewish community attended, and we had a discussion about the book and afterward shared our memories about the black women who cleaned our mothers’ houses, especially in the New York City area, and how our mothers and the cleaning women interacted. We followed a 10-month schedule for several years, eventually reading Holocaust and Nazi era books during those ‘optional’ summer months outside our official reading season.”
The change to year-round meetings became official when some club members became snowbirds and were only in the Binghamton area from spring to early autumn. Pell-Preus noted that the snowbirds were looking “to participate in Jewish programming [during the summer months]... Throughout the years, as people retired, they found their way to the club, retired teachers in particular – beginning with Judy Simon and Barbara Zelter. Now I can barely remember when Sandy Foreman, Suzanne Holwitt and Liz Smithmeyer weren’t part of the group. Phil Goodman is dedicated – and one of our few fans of Philip Roth – persuading us to read a few Roth novels and ‘Patrimony,” a memoir about his father.”
Pell-Preus noted there were some growing pains. “For a long time, we tiptoed around controversial books about the state of Israel. When [a Holocaust survivor] was part of the group we avoided books about the Holocaust,” she added. “Nowadays, no subject is off the table. No judgy comments on religious observance, haredi, Chasidism. We avoided the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years, but we have evolved. After reading ‘The Lemon Tree,’ I realized that we can have an honest conversation despite different points of view. As more Israeli fiction is available in translation, we try to read a contemporary Israeli novel every year.”
One of the group’s best discussions came after reading “Crossing California,” a book all the members disliked. “[That was] back when we naively relied on good reviews by respected critics,” Pell-Preus said. “I proposed one of the few rules we have insisted on ever since. The person suggesting a book had to have read it cover to cover. We agreed that reviewers – but not always professional critics – were often authors, acquainted, for all we knew, with authors whose books they reviewed. That said, we still had a meaningful discussion of the book.”
Smithmeyer noted that she thought one of the best discussions they ever had was about the novel “Leaving Lucy Pear” by Anna Solomon. “Much of the novel, set in the 1920s, is about the inner lives of the characters as well as the dilemmas they find in their lives,” she said. “They struggle to balance their wishes for themselves and their obligations to their families, compounded by the effects of their community, their time and the repercussions of the decisions of their pasts. [Among the questions discussed were], What is a mother? What is a sham marriage? What are the complexities of ‘good works’?”
The club has offered Smithmeyer the chance to read books she might not have discovered on her own. “When we select our books for the coming year, I find I’ve read a few and have several others on my list,” she said. “I hadn’t heard of ‘Waking Lions: A Novel’ by Ayelet Gundur-Goshen, but fortunately, it was nominated. The neurosurgeon protagonist’s mistake brings him into contact with Eritrean refugees in Israel. Lies and promises, guilt and secrets! I was so glad I got to read this book and discuss it with others!”
During the pandemic, the club met on Zoom and is now continuing in a hybrid model. This means that members who have moved out of town or who are snowbirds can participate year-round. Goodman missed the in-person meetings if only for the refreshments. “Prior to COVID, there was always coffee and tea and a nice nosh at the meetings,” he said. “And a huge feast of delicious homemade foods at the annual meeting when we voted on the reading list for the following year.”
The Book Club reading list for the rest of the year includes: November 3, “The Other Einstein” by Marie Benedict; December 1, “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles; January 5 a Book Club doubleheader: “Eli’s Promise” by Ronald H. Balson and “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men” by Eric Lichtblau; February 2, to be announced; March 2, “The Book of Lost Names’ by Kristin Harmel; April 6, “Hannah’s War” by Jan Eliasberg; May 4, “Exile Music” by Jennifer Steil (the author will join the club via Zoom); and June 1, “A Place at the Table” by Saadia Faruqui and Laura Shovan, followed by the annual book selection meeting. Meetings begin at 10:30 am.
For more information about the club, contact Pell-Preus at 222-2875 or email@example.com.