April 30, 2009
Epiphanies. They can come from the most unusual places. For David Plotz, editor of Slate.com, it came at a cousin’s bat mitzva.
In the introduction to his Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible (Harper), he explains how boredom had him flipping through the Humash until he encountered a rather graphic depiction of the rape of Dinah and the revenge wreaked by her relatives.
“Needless to say, this isn’t a story they taught me at Temple Sinai’s Hebrew school in 1980,” he wrote.
After several seconds of deep thought, Plotz described his book for NJ Jewish News with one word: “provocation.”
First-time Bible readers often deal with multiple issues, finding the stories funny, odd, and confusing, Plotz told NJJN in a phone interview from his office in Washington, DC. He completely understands how some might not appreciate his book, which is an offshoot of a blog he began on Slate several years ago. A fair portion of the estimated 11,000 e-mails he’s received — not to mention the thousands of comments posted to the website — have been negative, with readers telling him, among other things, that he knows nothing of the Bible or that he is going to Hell.
“The more substantive part was from Jews who thought: ‘This is not how we read in our tradition and you don’t know anything and your ignorance and your naivete make your readings just shallow and stupid, so you should shut up.’
“I know I’m reading out of tradition,” said Plotz. “I know I’m reading not in a way that Jews are supposed to read, and I know there’s a whole tradition of criticism and commentary and scholarship.”
Plotz, 39, grew up in a traditional Jewish home. “We celebrated Passover and we’d go to synagogue on the High Holy Days and celebrate Hanukka, but it was not a deeply religious household,” said Plotz, who attended an Episcopal high school in Washington. Now he, his wife, and their three children belong to a Conservative congregation where his eight-year-old daughter is learning the PG version of the Bible stories.
Although Plotz has been to the Holy Land several times — his wife is Israeli — he made a trip specifically to visit some of the sites mentioned in the Bible. “I didn’t come away feeling, ‘Oh now I’ve seen the Wailing Wall; God was here.’ But I did come away feeling that this astonishing continuity of our people with that land is amazing.” Knowing that his ancestors walked the land thousands of years ago, he said, is “humbling and inspiring.”
“It didn’t make me believe in God, but it made me believe in what an interesting and resilient people we are and I’m glad I’m one of them.”
Plotz has yet to speak at a Jewish event. “I think that will be the real test,” he said. “I think the stakes are higher for Jews on this. The Christians will say, ‘Well, you didn’t read the second half of the Book.’ But for Jews, it will be interesting to see if the response is appreciative or skeptical.”
The condensed edition
Unlike Plotz, who wrote about the Tanach, chapter and verse, Jonathan Goldstein selected a handful of familiar stories, including the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark, and The Golden Calf, among others, for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! (Riverhead Books).
Goldstein, a writer and contributing editor to Public Radio International’s This American Life, described the Jewish household of his childhood as similar to Plotz’s: “It was not religious, per se. We were more what you call traditional,” he said about growing up in Laval, a suburb near Montreal. “While we weren’t kosher, we were kosher-style, the apartment across the hall from kosher. We didn’t observe all of the laws but we had the Jerusalem napkin holder and went to restaurants that had the signs outside in Hebrew calligraphy.”
Even though he wasn’t Orthodox, he attended an Orthodox synagogue. “I felt, if I was going to go, I was going to get the full treatment.” He said he would sometimes “get giggly” over the austerity and seriousness. “It just seemed to invite ticklishness.” This lingering influence can be seen in his book. “I kind of veered on the side of just going for the cheap laugh,” he said.
Writing his collection of Bible tales was a way for Goldstein, also 39, to reconnect with those days. “These were the first stories I ever heard, before television and cartoons. It was like a way to hang out with old friends, picking up the biblical hero figurines and playing with them.
“On another level, it was a chance to wrestle with these stories and figure out where I stood with them. It’s the kind of thing that everybody has to come to terms with at some point: where they stand vis-a-vis God and their own Bible.”
Goldstein did “a lot of research” in the preliminary stages, but the stories that came back to him were the ones he learned in Hebrew school and “my father’s screwed-up versions” that were hard-wired into his consciousness. “I stopped thinking of it as a scholarly pursuit and went with my gut.”
As he prepared for a book tour that would take him to New York, Washington, DC, and the West Coast, Goldstein wondered about the reception he would get, concerned that readers might find his book disrespectful.
“There are a lot of things in there which I think have other ambitions, that examine philosophical and ontological questions that I have had. Hopefully, that will be seen or appreciated. But at the end of the day, I just hope it’ll make people laugh.
Shock of recognition
Reading the Bible has joined me to Jewish life in a way I never thought possible. I can trace when this started to the minute: It was when I read about Jacob blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, at the end of Genesis. I suddenly realized: Oh, that’s why I’m supposed to lay my hand on my son’s head and bless him in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh. This shock of recognition has been followed by many more — when I came across the words of the Shema, the most important Jewish prayer, in Deuteronomy; when I read about the celebration of Passover in the book of Ezra; when I read in Psalms the lyrics of Christian hymns I love to sing. Reading the Shema in Deuteronomy did not make the existence of God more real to me, but it did make me feel that I belonged. Its words were read and spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather’s great-great-grandfather, and his father, too, and so on back to the Judean desert. And now those words are mine, too. I still don’t believe Ephraim and Manasseh ever existed, but I feel a sense of historical continuity, and a duty to that history.
— From Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, by David Plotz