Why I Love (Jewish) Books
By Angela Roskop Erisman, Ph.D.
Angela Roskop Erisman is Managing Director of Hebrew Union College Press and Editorial Director at the Marginalia Review of Books. She has taught Hebrew language and Bible courses at HUC-JIR and Xavier University and served as a freelance editor/writing coach in all areas of Jewish Studies. Her scholarly interests include Torah, ancient historiography, literary theory, archaeology, and biblical law, and she is author of The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah. When not studying Torah or polishing prose, she cooks, does calligraphy, and plays the violin.
I lack my mother’s talent at crafty things. My childhood cross-stitches were uneven. Crocheting made my fingers hurt. And knitting? A non-starter. But I do enjoy the results of her work, and my favorite is a pinwheel quilt she made for me many years ago—out of book fabric. It’s big. I love to disappear beneath its folds on a cold afternoon with a good book. The quilt is not the only thing I get lost in.
As a scholar and a publisher, books are a big part of my life. I read them. I write them. I edit them. You’d think it would be a great joy to sit around and read all day. On one level, it is. I’m really very, very lucky. On the other hand, when you read a lot of the same kinds of books on the same subjects, as I’m often required to do, it can feel more like drudgery. You might keep reading words, but your brain checks out. One of the reasons I love books is that they keep my brain from getting too narrow and mushy. Books give us access to ideas that challenge us. Well-written books also call on us think about how words work and the creative, fun, and beautiful things one can do with them. When I’m feeling the drudgery, I try to mix it up a little and read a poem or a short story or an article about something completely different. My brain becomes sharper and more expansive. I can look at my work and the world around me with more observant eyes, able to notice and embrace things I might otherwise have missed.
Another reason I love books is that they make me a better human being. I read quite a lot about how we read and what it does to us when we do. One person who has really influenced me is Martha Nussbaum. Her books are (necessarily) complicated, but her main point is simple. Books, especially fictional books, invite us to enter into experiences we may never otherwise have. They teach us to navigate the moral complexities of life as we empathize with characters, see how their predicaments work out (or fail to), and think critically about what we’ve read. As a result, books cultivate in us important human qualities like love and justice. Who says you can’t learn anything practical from fiction… And, in a for-the-Bible-tells-me-so world where it seems like the only options are blind adherence or bust, Nussbaum’s ideas put a whole new spin on what a relationship with that old book might look like.
I love books—or, more to the point, libraries—for social and political reasons, too. In a wonderfully thought-provoking article in The New York Review of Books, well worth reading in its entirety, novelist Zadie Smith writes, “A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal… [The library is] the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.” It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much money you have, how well-dressed you are. Anyone off the street can walk into a library, find a quiet, private space in the midst of this public space, and browse the best ideas and the most delightful stories in human history for as long as they like. Or at least until closing time, although I know stories of people-who-shall-remain-nameless who have managed to thwart authorities and remain in the library all night. Not that I’m encouraging that kind of behavior. Circulation desks exist for a reason.
Books are also a powerful way to connect with tradition. I have long loved a saying attributed to the Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe, which contains the line, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.” Like many people, my relationship with religion is complicated. I loved and studied Jewish literature for over a decade before it ceased to be merely an intellectual interest and became a personal one. By that time, conversion was not practical. But every time I open my Bible, read a commentary, or write one, I enter into conversation with the Jewish stream of tradition and find my own place within it. Books are certainly not the only shapers of culture and identity. Come to my house next December for latkes and house-cured salmon, and you’ll see. But I love books not only because they shape my capacity for love and justice and help me understand the complexity of human nature, but also because help me know who I am. And you can digest them as many times as you like.
It may be about as tough to define a Jewish book as it is to define a Jew. I like to think that every book that makes you think, that evokes your creativity, that opens you to new possibilities in life, is in some sense a Jewish book. Some ancient Jews embraced literature that was written outside of the Jewish tradition. Ben Sira, for example, recognized wisdom to be gained from Greek books alongside Jewish at a time when it was controversial to look outside the Jewish tradition for worthwhile ideas. I prefer the more expansive view, perhaps because study is such a core value within Judaism. Whenever I study, whatever I study, it seems to me to fulfill the obligation of Torah study.
My husband, an amateur musician like myself, reminds me to “practice every day.” I try to apply the same mantra to reading. My life is as busy as that of the next American. I have two jobs, a family to care for, and two books I’m trying to research and write somewhere other than in my head. When it’s hard to find time, I remind myself that reading can be a Shabbat-like respite in my day. Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Shabbat rest as a productive kind of rest that refreshes you and reorients your compass to what’s important after the distracting “thinginess” of a busy week, so that it might guide you into the next. Books do that for me. They ask of me a level of focus, attention, openness, and empathy that spills beyond my reading time to enrich the rest of my life. That is ultimately why I love books, and why life is better with time spent warm beneath my quilt.