Why tell made-up stories about being Jewish?

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Why be Jewish? by Doron Kornbluth, Mosaica Press, 2011,  ISBN 0-9814974-7-0; 312 pages, price not listed.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–As a reader I found myself reacting both negatively and positively to this book.  Why negatively?  Because after reading the first paragraph of the acknowledgements, I knew that much of what I would read thereafter would be manufactured, the way dialogue in a television commercial is manufactured.  I knew the stories would be made up, cynically intending to manipulate me to make the purchase.

“In order to reflect the multiplicity of our Jewish experiences and outlooks, I have taken on different voices within this volume,” author Kornbluth wrote.  “Some of the voices are old; some are young. Some are male and some are female.  The words, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.”

The next paragraph continues: “But the ideas are not.  My thanks go, first and foremost, to the hundreds of students I’ve taught, and thousands of people I’ve met over the years in my Why Be Jewish? seminars and other classes and lectures.  The ideas, reasons, questions and answers found within these pages belong to them.” 

In other words, Kornbluth is saying that the personalized, often touching, stories that follow synthesize ideas he has encountered when he has taken his show on the road.  Perhaps so, but the stories are not real; they are embellished, all seeking to make a point–an artificial one– that we Jews should hew to the religion to which we are born. So whether it’s the Dalai Lama supposedly telling a person seeking enlightenment to go back to Judaism, or an unobservant Jew  eating a fast-food cheeseburger on Yom Kippur having an epiphany that he strayed too far, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s just words, words, on paper.

Well, I’m not against hewing to Judaism.  I just don’t think we need phony stories to make the point.  I think we should reach deeply into the wellsprings of Jewish literature–and our own hearts–and tell real stories, not made-up ones.  

I also said that I reacted positively to this book.   How can that be?  Because after I ploughed through the contrivances, I eventually go to the appendices.  And there, at last, I found substance, a gold mine of writing that, at last, provided a real-life, well-thought experience to contemplate. 

Titled “On Love & Lennon,” by Ze’ev Maghen, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, the essay dissected the lyrics of the John Lennon song “Imagine,” in which the former Beatle envisioned a world without countries, without anything to kill or die for, and without religions too.  Maghen also told of meeting three Hare Krishnas at Los Angeles International Airport–and finding that all three of them in their saffron robes were Israelis.  They preached to him about a world without boundaries.

From those two incidents, in entertaining fashion, Maghen inveighed against the undifferentiated Lennonesque world in which there were no differences, and the universalist world imagined by the Hare Krishna acolytes.  He pictured a world in which differences were abolished as boring, unsatisfying, and stultifying.   It was clear from his argument that it is not differences that should be abolished, but rather the rejection and fear, both born of ignorance, that those differences sometimes arouse.  

He told a parable about a sultan who was persuaded to eliminate Judaism from his land  Merchants representing the Jewish community brought  him two rugs.  One was beautifully and ornately woven, with intricate patterns that could fascinate anyone with a love for the precision of math or beautiful calligraphy.  The other rug was simply red, without differentiation.   What rug would the sultan prefer?  The beautifully patterned one, of course.  That being the case, why would he want to rule a country with a population as bland as the red rug?  

After so arguing for a differentiated rather than an undifferentiated world, Maghen next addressed the subject of Kornbluth’s book.  Why be Jewish?.  You can differentiate yourself from others by following any of a number of other religions, or no religion at all.  Some people, particularly fellow historians,  may like Maghen’s answer — that for Jews, the magnet can well be the rich history and heritage that they can tap into, a history unlike any other people’s. 

I’m not certain that this argument will win any converts, but for people who already have a sense of connection to Jewish peoplehood, it may inspire a desire to deepen it.

Now, to return to my initial distaste for Kornbluth’s approach.  How can I so enjoy a parable about a rug in some ancient sultanate, but be dismissive of what might be construed as similar parallels about cheeseburgers and the Dalai Lama?  Perhaps it’s the journalist in me who demands that modern-day stories be attributed, and to the extent possible, facts verified.  If Kornbluth wants to write fiction, let his characters speak in a novel, not in what is framed as objective, non-fiction.

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

 

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  1. [...] writer, having fairly recently published two books: Raising Kids To Love Being Jewish  and  Why Be Jewish? ,both of which have been reviewed by San Diego Jewish [...]


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