For Many, Book Clubs Offer Easy, Stimulating Path to Jewish Identity

A dozen women are sitting in a second-floor lounge at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, heatedly discussing the first volume of Maggie Anton’s trilogy, “Rashi’s Daughters.” “I thought it was a cheap ‘Red Tent’ imitation,” says one woman, referring to Anita Diamant’s popular biblical-era novel.

Another said she “gobbled up” the bits on 11th-century midwifery.

The women, ranging in age from mid-40s to early-70s, are members of a monthly book group. The group isn’t advertised as “Jewish” but the women all are Jewish, as are most of the books they read.

Several of them go to other Jewish book groups. Nine are JCC members. Five take Jewish adult education classes.

Only three belong to a synagogue.

“I like to read, I like to learn,” Roslyn Rhodes says. “I don’t have any Jewish background. Even when I go to temple, I feel like, why is this being said? Why is that being said?”

Judith King goes even further: She flies in from Colorado once a month “just to feel Jewish again.”

For these women, the book club is a chance to stretch their minds and get together with other women in a friendly, supportive setting.

For them and thousands of others across the country, it’s also a way to connect with their Jewish heritage and the greater Jewish community.

“Jewish book clubs are growing,” confirms Jonathan Schwartz, director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The library sponsors “Book Club in a Box,” sending free packages of 12 books, plus discussion guides, to more than 70 local Jewish book clubs.

As such clubs proliferate, the traditional demographic — older women — is changing. Clubs are skewing younger, moving online and targeting niche audiences.

“The initial catalyst to joining is social,” says Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which sponsors national Jewish Book Month, held this year from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. “It has to be a group where people get along.”

When the council started a recent study of book clubs, Hessel was surprised at the wide variety they found, including clubs where daughters cook for their mothers before each discussion, and another where women meet in the park with their children and watch the kids play while discussing books.

It’s the informal Jewish education that appeals to people, Hessel says.

“They are nonthreatening. Anyone, regardless of their Judaic background, can feel comfortable,” she says.

Most book clubs used to be informal, held in members’ living rooms. Today more and more institutions — from JCCs to Hadassah groups to synagogues — are sponsoring them, both to meet members’ needs and to attract new people.

Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in West Bloomfield, Mich., sponsors six book clubs. Eight years ago, Rachel Kamin, the temple’s libraries and media center director, started a mother-daughter group.

Rabbis told her she should run one for boys as well. When the boys showed up, dads in tow, Kamin was “shocked,” she says.

Twenty-five synagogues take part in “One Book, One Congregation,” a national program launched early this year by Nextbook, a three-year-old organization that promotes Jewish reading.

Based on similar mass reading projects sponsored by cities from San Francisco to New York, “One Book, One Congregation” asks members of participating shuls to read the same book at the same time. Books are chosen from the Jewish Encounters series of short, lively books on Jewish personalities and themes published by Nextbook and Shocken Books.

Nextbook offers a 40 percent discount on orders of 20 or more books. They bent the rules, however, for six Jewish prisoners in Pennsylvania who ordered Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” for their book group.

A similar community-wide read is taking place this fall in Long Island, N.Y., with the goal of using Jewish books to stimulate discussion around core Jewish ideas. Four dozen groups — including Hadassah branches, synagogues, Jewish community centers, libraries and even a women’s studies group at the local community college — all are reading Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower” in preparation for six weeks of discussion, films and lectures exploring the Jewish concept of forgiveness.

“We’re using the explosion of interest in book clubs and Jewish books as an opportunity to discuss different ideas,” says project coordinator Sharie Calderone, who is coordinating the project for the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services in New York.

As the discussions continue and move to other topics, the hope is that a sense of one large community, brought together by its consideration of the same ideas, will emerge.

“We call it building community, one book at a time,” Calderone says.

Books are powerful community-builders, says author Jonathan Rosen, editor of the Jewish Encounters series. A Jewish book, like Jewish culture itself, “is a conversation, and that’s why Jewish book clubs are such a good thing. Bringing together people to talk about books creates community.”

Rosen likens the relationship between a book and its group discussion to that between the Torah and the Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition.

“There’s a way in which we’re becoming an oral culture again, and there’s a way in which book clubs allow us to become that oral culture,” he says.

Some book clubs are moving online to attract people who are too busy to add another meeting into their schedules.

Modern Mom, Inc., is launching its Modern Jewish Mom online book club Oct. 17 with a live chat with author Maggie Anton. CEO Meredith Jacobs plans to offer live author chats every month, as well as a message board where people can share impressions of the books as they read them.

“You can do this while folding laundry or packing lunches, and still have a community of readers to connect to,” she says.

Book clubs can target specific political or social sensibilities, creating an additional way for members of certain organizations to connect to the larger group.

In February, the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs, a social justice organization in Chicago, created a book club for its young activists. The group doesn’t pick Jewish books but rather books on topics such as race, immigration and labor relations, the focus of the council’s work.

“I wanted it to be a catalyst for discussing issues the JCUA is involved in, not just, ‘that’s a good book, pass the wine,’ ” says chairwoman Lauren Bezmos, 29. “Even when we don’t analyze a book in connection to values written in the Torah, I do feel a connection to the Jewish community through the discussions.”

Book clubs allow people to explore and express their Jewish identity outside the realm of the synagogue or other Jewish institutions.

“It’s an extreme form of Jewish culture itself,” says Dan Schifrin, a San Francisco Bay area writer and editor. “As Jewish culture is a place where people can connect to Jewish life without the anxieties they feel about institutional or ritual life, people feel a freedom to express their Jewish identity in a Jewish book club, through the prism of a book. It gives it more distance.”

Schifrin has suggested that Jewish book clubs might be “the new chavurot.”

Like those lay-led congregations that attract Jews unhappy with traditional synagogues, book clubs transmit Jewish identity in an alternative way. The communities they create can exist independently or they can act as gateways, bringing people slowly, gently, into the larger Jewish orbit.

Nancy Cole, a reflexologist in her 30s, wasn’t affiliated with Jewish life at all when a client invited her a year ago to check out Nextbook’s Chicago salon, a reading group for young adults sponsored by the national organization.

Unlike most book clubs, which read entire books, salon participants discuss short readings grouped around a specific Jewish theme.

Cole now is an enthusiastic regular. And exploring her Jewish roots has led her to want more.

“For me to have the opportunity to be involved Jewishly through this literary and cultural angle is terrific,” she says. “It’s my way in. I’m considering becoming affiliated in other ways.”

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