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Arts & Culture Initiative Helps U.S. Libraries Promote Discussion of Jewish Books

January 19, 2005
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The dense fog that enveloped much of Massachusetts on a recent evening created an eerie made-for-Hollywood backdrop for the kickoff of a five-session program called, “Demons, Golems, and Dybbuks: Monsters of the Jewish Imagination.” The Jan. 13 discussion in Newton is part of a national literary program, Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature, a joint venture between Nextbook and the American Library Association.

“It’s a ghoulish night, appropriate for the topic,” said Susanne Klingenstein, who teaches at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as she welcomed the 25 participants gathered at the Newton Free Library’s main branch.

ALA’s Let’s Talk About It is a 20-year-old reading and discussion series that has reached hundreds of libraries and more than 4 million people across the country. The focus on Jewish literature is in partnership with Nextbook, a 2-year-old national initiative to promote 3,000 years of Jewish literature.

Bernard Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, said that the Nextbook-ALA collaboration is a way to expose people from all sorts of communities — urban and rural, large or small — to Jewish literature.

That’s precisely the view of Nextbook’s Matt Brogan, who spoke to the approximately 75 public and academic librarians who attended a workshop on the grant-based program held at the ALA’s midwinter conference, held from Jan. 14 through Monday in Boston.

“We’re trying to get a lot of people around the country reading and talking about Jewish books so that they can come to a better understanding of Jewish history and culture,” Brogan said in a conversation after the workshop.

“We are getting an enormous number of applications from places you wouldn’t expect — like Moscow, Idaho, and places in Alabama,” he added. “Many have said there is a level of intolerance in the country they are worried about, and they feel this is an opportunity in places where there aren’t a lot of Jewish people to foster an understanding of other cultures.”

In the first round of grant applications, 70 libraries, including the one in Newton, were selected. A second group of 35 libraries has just been approved to receive the $1,500 cash grant, which comes with training, promotional material, and other resources.

Each of Nextbook’s Let’s Talk About It sections highlights the works of five different Jewish writers.

“It’s not Jewish literature 101,” Brogan said. Instead, it’s a focus on specific areas of Jewish literature, featuring writers ranging from the well-known to the less familiar. The program is set up to attract a wide reading audience, he added.

Libraries applying for the grant must choose from four themes. Along with demons and golems, the theme selected for Newton’s program, there’s sex and love in Jewish literature, stories of estrangement and homecoming, and fathers and daughters in a changing world.

The writers whose work will be read include Grace Paley, Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, Cynthia Ozick and Tony Kushner.

Jeremy Dauber, the Atran assistant professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University, is the project’s scholar. He has what some might consider a dream job — putting the whole package together. Dauber, who joined Brogan on the ALA panel, has written an introductory essay for each of the 20 books. It’s available on Nextbook’s Web site,

“Putting these books in conversation with each other made me think about them in new and different ways,” Dauber said. “I had read Anzia Yezierska’s ‘Bread Givers,’ for example, but I had not read it next to ‘Tevye And His Daughters’ by Sholem Aleichem.”

These are two of the books exploring the theme of fathers and daughters, the program selected by the public library in Glencoe, Ill., in suburban Chicago.

Teri Hennes of the Glencoe library said Glencoe has a large Jewish population and an active community of readers who participate in library programs. Its program will begin in mid-March but has already attracted a number of participants. That’s due in part to the reputation of their scholars, two retired high school teachers who have extensive experience leading great books discussions.

Newton’s Purcell was amazed that her program, which required pre-registration, was filled two days after it was announced in the library newsletter.

Back in the Newton library, the group began with a discussion of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.” Klingenstein, a dynamic and entertaining leader, has her group — many of them middle-aged or retired — eagerly exploring the deeper meanings of the characters and their own intense reactions to them. Many of the participants remember seeing the play performed.

One reader admitted she was so engrossed in “The Dybbuk” that a mysterious noise startled her out of her reading.

Purcell leaned over and whispered — it’s a library, of course — “Isn’t it amazing that the book had such a powerful impact?”

The application process is open; there are two more grant cycles that will end on Sept. 30. Individual readers can check out the Nextbook or ALA Web sites — the latter is — for libraries that already have been selected or for more information on the program.

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