In a recent New York Times article, Alice Walker was quoted as praising an author whose works are notoriously and outrageously anti-Semitic. First this brought up the question, Can you judge a person by what she reads? But, as a result of the publicity, many people went looking back at Alice Walker’s previous works, and found that she had her own history of anti-Semitic writings.
Prior to all of that, I had, of course, read The Color Purple as part of my American education, and the rabbi at my synagogue had used a number of Alice Walker’s poems in religious services over the years. Most likely we won’t be reading her work in our services from now on, but the question is, Should we continue to read her books, or any books by authors that disturb us? My own answer is yes, with the caveat that I always want the chance to speak out about those things that disturb me, or disturb others. I don’t want to shove everything that offends me into the back of a dark closet, where I can’t do anything about it.
But, I still find it very difficult to push myself to read, and watch, things that disturb me. Over the years, I’ve had to develop a way to manage that sort of difficult reading. I’ve put together a pile of books by my bedside that I read a little bit at a time, mixing together books that challenge me and books that I enjoy, as a brain cleanser, so that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by other people’s points of view, at least when I don’t want to be. I’ve pushed myself to read all sorts of political tomes, including books about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and when the emotions (anger, frustration, confusion, and often fear), get to be too much, I just switch over to a chapter of something else, to balance the scales.
I’m in a bit of a quandary, though, now that my official schooling is over, to decide which books to put on my required reading pile. I know that I need to continue to challenge myself going forward, but in which particular areas? And exactly how challenging do these books need to be?
As of now I have about twelve books on my reading pile, with another thirty on standby. I’m still plodding through Harry Potter in Hebrew, though I’m not sure why it’s so much harder for me to read than the Harry Potter books in French. It undermines my confidence in all of those years of Jewish education that I never learned the Hebrew word for magic wand. I’ve also been reading through the Hebrew bible, in Hebrew, for years now, a page at a time. Biblical Hebrew is even harder to understand than Harry Potter Hebrew.
When that gets too frustrating, I can move over to my Beginning Spanish Reader, though that has recently become too hard for me, and I had to go back fifty pages or so for remedial reading. And then there’s a Spanish vocabulary and phrase book for Social Workers, but most of that just flies over my head.
I’m also reading the review book for the social work licensing exam, slowly, because it’s so freaking tedious, and balancing that out by reading a book of essays by David Rakoff that is even funnier than I remembered. Then there are the psychology books, most recently on Addiction and Body Therapy and Non-Directive Play Therapy, which sometimes interest me and other times make me very angry, and then books on Jewish philosophy by Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others, which I don’t really understand. I’ve been trying to cushion that particular torment with a book of dog essays that I got as a present for my birthday.
Oh, and I am very proud of myself for finally finishing Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. It only took me three and a half years. And as a reward for that effort I let myself add a book of memoir essays to the pile, by fellow blogger Sheila Morris, called Deep In The heart. Unfortunately I finished that one too quickly for my own good, and I will need to go and buy her new book to fill the void.
Of course I’m also reading mysteries, but they don’t go on the study pile; they get pride of place next to my writing notebooks, because I can read whole chapters of them at a time without wanting to scream at anyone. I take as much time as possible to revel in books by writers like Rhys Bowen, and Louise Penny, and Jacqueline Winspear, and Donna Andrews, and Ellen Crosby, and Charles Todd, and Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). And more recommendations are welcome!!!!
I’m not quite sure why I need to have such a tall pile of books to read at any given time, except that there are too many parts of my brain that need to be satisfied. Having a brain that likes to run in twenty directions at once is kind of inconvenient, but I don’t really want to go back to having someone else tell me what to read either. I’m sure Cricket would agree with me on the subject of reading autonomy, if she could read. As it stands, she finds all of my reading annoying, and time consuming, and she thinks I would much prefer sniffing individual blades of grass with her for hours at a time. At the very least, she would enjoy that more. Ellie would too, come to think of it. Though she’s more of a squirrel chaser than a grass sniffer.
While we’re on the topic of required reading, if you haven’t had the chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review for the book, I’d be honored!
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.