This month Steven Nadler, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the new Jewish Lives biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam, will answer 4 questions about the Jewish experience.
1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?
If the question is “What does it mean to be Jewish today?”, I would have to say that it is a matter of seeing oneself as belonging a particular (and particularly extended) “family", of identifying with a certain religious (but not necessarily observant), political, moral, literary and social history. On the other hand, if the question is “What most clearly characterizes Jewish life today?”, I’m afraid my answer — at least from my perspective within Jewish life — would be “division”: between different branches of Judaism (especially orthodox and non-orthodox), between political camps (especially with regard to Israel), between Jews in the diaspora and those in Israel, and between generations.
2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?
For non-fiction, there is Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, which I find endlessly perplexing, and Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (yes, it is a Jewish book!), because it basically gets it all right. Under fiction, stories by Sholem Aleichem, S. Y. Abramovitsh and I. B. Singer, Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (in fact, anything by Richler), Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (one of the great American novels of the last 50 years), and anything by Shalom Auslander.
3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?
Unless we find a way to heal the current divisions, Jewish life in 100 years will not be a pretty picture; there may not even be something that can be identified in the singular as “Jewish life” (and maybe there isn’t such a thing now).
4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?
Spinoza. There’s a couple of things I’d like him to clear up.