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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Reading Writing

History and Literature: New Readings of Jewish Texts in Honor of Arnold M. Band
edited by William Cutter and David C. Jacobson.
Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies Series 334.

A Review Essay by Peter J. Haas

It is always hard to write a review of a collection of essays. This is especially true if the essays are not part of a conference or thematic colloquium, but a collection of essays written in honor of an individual scholar. This difficulty is compounded if the scholar being so honored is, like Arnold J. Band, not only himself a model of interdisciplinarity, but has produced a vast host of scholars, each of whom has gone on to pursue his or her own field of interest. What results is less a set of essays addressing a single topic than a variety of writings of diverse sorts and foci. Nonetheless, this diversity does not seem out of place. Maybe that is because Arnold Band himself was a personage of such broad interests that none of the essays seems to be completely beyond the pale of his own work. The collection, however, is eclectic, ranging from detailed analysis of individual poems and works, to much more theoretical discussions.

Arnold Band’s intellectual home was Hebrew literature. But he understood that Hebrew literature was not just and simply the produce of the Jewish nation narrowly considered. It was part of the larger literary output of the Jewish tradition in general, from rabbinic texts to Hassidic folktales to Yiddish literature and also part of world literature. It is for this reason that in his own career he pushed for the teaching of Yiddish on the UCLA campus, under the theory that one could simply not understand early modern Hebrew literature without knowing its Yiddish Vorlage. For this same reason, he spent time and energy founding the program in Comparative Literature. For Band, Hebrew literature had to be rooted both in its own past and in its cultural context. It is thus not surprising at all to find in the present volume a variety of perspectives and writing that covers virtually the range of Jewish literary creativity from a variety of angles.

In many ways, the first section of the collection, entitled “Classical Jewish Texts and Modern Interpreters” gets to the heart of the matter. This section contains six essays dealing with the question of text and interpretation from Talmudic times to the mid-20th century critic of interpretation, Simon Rawidowicz. There is a common thread that runs through all the essays here, or rather through all of the texts that are discussed, namely the relation of the Hebrew literary tradition to contemporary appropriations of it. David Gordis, for example, approaches this problem through the topic of the redaction of the Talmudic text. On the one hand, according to Gordis, this is a collection of older materials. On the other, it is much more than that. While it attempts to collect and preserve, it does so with the clear interest of making its own point. The emotional cost of this kind of operation, at least in the modern world, is wonderfully teased out by Alan Mintz in his essay on Bialik’s reaction to the publication of Sefer Ha’agadah. This too was a work of retrieval and preservation. But it also in the process created its own frame of reference, and in so doing took its diverse midrashic pericopes out of their original context and laid them out for us in general categories, like pictures on display in the various rooms of a museum. This raises the deeper question of how one can preserve the past at all, especially the rabbinic Jewish past in a post-rabbinic world. Is a piece of midrash really understandable when taken out of its original literary and social context and put to use in a modern anthology? This is a question understood and answered from a number of perspectives, as is clear from the remaining essays in this section: Ezra Spicehandler’s discussion of Bialik’s Scrolls of Fire, Joseph Dan’s discussion of Nahman of Bratslav’s The Seven Beggars, David Ellenson’s dissection of Yehiel Jacob Weinberg’s Seridei Esh and David Myer’s discussion of Rawidowicz. In each case the author struggles with how one can take the older literature and make it relevant for the future, especially the new Hebrew future of the Haskalah, the Yishuv and the State of Israel. It is of course precisely this problematic that animated Band in his own commitment to developing at UCLA a way of studying Hebrew literature that was diachronic (aware of its own past), synchronic (aware of its own context) and carried out in the idiom of the modern American university (aware of its present audience). While many of these essays make a specific reference to Arnold Band’s own biography, they all, in their own way, address his intellectual agenda.

After this general methodological survey, the rest of the Festschrift devotes itself to specific topics that were dear to the heart of Arnold Band. The second section, consisting of eight contributions, focuses on the work of S.Y. Agnon. Agnon was of course of interest to Band because Agnon himself was also caught up in the task of bridging two worlds. His use of language and of place look backwards, but he is already writing for the embryonic new Jewish state. (By the way, it is almost eerie reading Dan Almagor’s essay on Agnon’s From Foe to Friend in which Almagor cites a reference from the 1920s by Zeev Jabotinsky in which Jabotinsky claims the Arabs can be changed from foe to friend only through the creation of an “iron wall” that will separate the peoples and that the foe can not break! Jabotinsky was talking metaphorically, of course, but it is still good to be reminded from time to time that the shape of the Middle East conflict has persisted curiously in its present form for nearly a century.)

The remainder of the Festschrift, and its bulk, is much more loosely organized, representing possibly more the range of people who agreed to participate than any underlying thematic concern emerging from Arnold Band’s own work. Part III, for example, comprises nine submissions under the title “Diaspora.” What unites the essays here, it seems to me, is that fact that each deals with some literary voice from the diaspora, whether medieval Ladino folktales (as in Tamar Alexander’s study of The Wealthy Senor Miguel), German Jewish fiction (Michael Meyers’s look at Heinrich Heine’s Prinzessin Sabbath), or Modern American writings (such as Murray Baumgarten’s look at Philip Roth). Included in this section is a brief but thought-provoking essay by William Cutter on Berdyczewski’s qualified notion of the centrality of Hebrew. Also included in this section is a discussion of Bialik’s poem “Tsafririm” by Glenda Abramson. Part IV, “Zionism, Holocaust, and Israel” is a melange of 15 essays, covering, as the title of the section makes clear, a variety of topics. One gem in this section is a reminiscence of Agnon written in 1979 by Aharon Appelfeld (“The Kernel”). But a good deal of the material presented here deals with a variety of Israeli authors, including Abraham Sutzkever (who arrived in Eretz Yisrael on the infamous ship “Patria”), Dan Ben Amotz, Dan Pagis, Aharon Megged, A.B. Yehosua, Yehuda Amichai and Zeruya Shalev. Embedded in this section is an essay by Walter Ackerman entitled “What Learning is Most Worth?” addressing early statements on what the goals should be of Israeli public education. The Festschrift closes, of course, with a list of Arnold Band’s publications and a brief biography of each of the contributors.

In the end, this collection is a remarkable tribute to Arnold Band. In its own eclecticism, the book mirrors in some profound way the intellectual career of its honoree. This has its good points and its bad. On the one hand, there is something here for everyone, regardless of period or expertise. On the other, the book in its entirety is not helpful for any one field. Nonetheless the quality of most of the essays, and the range covered, make this collection a worthwhile addition to any library that claims to keep abreast of developments in the field of Jewish Studies, and Jewish literature more specifically.

Peter J. Haas holds the Abba Hillel Silver Chair of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is a contributing editor.

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