Ear­li­er this week, Josh Lam­bert wrote about the impor­tance of expos­ing teenagers to great Jew­ish books. His most recent book is Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscen­i­ty, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

In my last post, I men­tioned that Philip Roth’s Good­bye, Colum­bus changed my life when I picked it up off a dusty shelf in the base­ment of my par­ents’ house when I was about 17. If not for that book, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have spent so much time think­ing about mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture since then. 

Roth’s first book res­onat­ed with me because it’s fun­ny and acid­ly obser­vant of a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that wasn’t too dif­fer­ent from the one I grew up in, in Toron­to, and because its title novel­la is pow­er­ful­ly evoca­tive of a young man’s growth into matu­ri­ty. But what was most stun­ning to me was that I had found the book on my own, rather than being hand­ed it by my par­ents or teachers. 

At the time, I was a stu­dent at a Jew­ish day school, from which I would go on to grad­u­ate after twelfth grade. Through­out high school, I spent hours each day in class­es on Tanakh, Tal­mud, and Jew­ish ethics. In Eng­lish class, though, we read exact­ly what would be read in any pub­lic school: Shake­speare, George Orwell, and, when it came to more con­tem­po­rary fic­tion, pop­u­lar non-Jew­ish writ­ers like Bar­bara King­solver. It wasn’t until I arrived at col­lege—a cen­turies-old, non­sec­tar­i­an insti­tu­tion named for a Puri­tan min­is­ter—that I learned the names Sholem Ale­ichem, Isaac Babel, and Cyn­thia Ozick.

What’s strange about this is that these authors’ works have such deep tex­tu­al rela­tion­ships to the clas­si­cal Jew­ish texts I was study­ing in high school. And, even more impor­tant, they direct­ly address the cen­tral ques­tion that my com­mu­ni­ty Jew­ish day school seemed to want me and my class­mates to be think­ing about: what does it mean to be a Jew today, in a cos­mopoli­tan culture? 

I real­ize, of course, why in ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions a book like Roth’s might not have been thought appro­pri­ate for a Jew­ish day school. Even in the 1990s, there might have been teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors at my school who would have wor­ried that Roth’s sto­ry The Con­ver­sion of the Jews,” about a kid in a Jew­ish sup­ple­men­tary school class who asks the most loaded the­o­log­i­cal ques­tion and then threat­ens to jump off the roof, might have giv­en us some bad ideas. Lit­er­a­ture is sub­ver­sive; S. Y. Abramovitch, who became known as Mendele Mocher Sforim and as the grand­fa­ther of mod­ern Hebrew and Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture, was once lit­er­al­ly run out of town because his satires were so biting. 

But does that mean these texts have no place in Jew­ish edu­ca­tion? I hope not. 

I hope, on the con­trary, that Jew­ish day school teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors real­ize that lit­er­a­ture that asks dif­fi­cult ques­tions about Jew­ish­ness and forces us to con­front the con­flicts and ten­sions with­in Jew­ish life can be one of the best ways to reach teenagers, and that it can help them to think about who they are, where they come from, and what choic­es they want to make. 

That’s why I’m delight­ed to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lead the first Great Jew­ish Books Teacher Work­shop, this sum­mer at the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter. Edu­ca­tors from across North Amer­i­ca will come togeth­er to read and dis­cuss some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing mod­ern Jew­ish texts and to devel­op new ways of intro­duc­ing that lit­er­a­ture into the cur­ricu­lum, in Eng­lish and lan­guage arts, Jew­ish his­to­ry, social stud­ies. Then we’ll work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly all year to inte­grate these ideas into classrooms. 

Will expos­ing more teenagers to mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture solve all the prob­lems fac­ing the Amer­i­can Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion? Of course not. But will it help to cre­ate a gen­er­a­tion that is more thought­ful, more com­mit­ted, and more will­ing to face the chal­lenges head-on? I think it will. 

Josh Lam­bert is the Aca­d­e­m­ic Direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter and a Vis­it­ing Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Amherst. Read more about the Great Jew­ish Books pro­gram at the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter here.

Relat­ed Content:

Josh Lam­bert (web/twit­ter) is the Sophia Moses Robi­son Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Eng­lish, and Direc­tor of the Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram, at Welles­ley Col­lege. His books include Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), and The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (2022).