Drawing on storytelling skills hone over his many years as a New York Times journalist, Steve Weisman has written one of the best books in years about the Jewish experience in the United States.The Chosen Wars essentially recounts how Judaism in America was transformed from Old World religious traditions into the modern-day Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches. This history was nothing if not fractious. But one of the strengths of the book is how Weisman connects the religious transformation of Judaism to the history of America, portraying the Jewish evolution here as a distinctly American phenomenon. What makes the book not only important but entertaining is the presence in it of many illuminating anecdotes and vivid profiles of key rabbis, activists, and other Jewish figures.
In this deceptively simple meditation on silence, Kagge constructs a graceful mosaic of definitions, statements, and paradoxes. What exactly is silence? He has a “primal need for” it, Kagge states, and it’s a “practical method” for understanding yourself, a state of mind that lets you tune out the world while being drawn into it more deeply, While it’s “the new luxury“ in this noisy world, silence isn’t the absence or the opposite of sound, since “to speak is precisely what the silence should do.” Kagge’s children think it’s “nothing”; if so, Kagge would have it be the “full emptiness” Marina Abramovic strives for, rather than the empty emptiness of distraction. Though it’s found most readily inside, Kagge, an explorer, traveled to Japan to look for it in meditation and yoga. He walked to Antarctica in search of it, spending fifty days alone—a trek that ended in the shock of hearing voices again. But silence does not depend on place or techniques. “You just create your own silence,“Kagge says, and it’s as unique as your soul and as conducive to joy and wonder as “the visual silence” of stars. Made up of thirty-three brief sections (perhaps an homage of sorts to Cage’s 4’33”) and ending in a blank page, Kagge’s spare essay leaves plenty of room for the silent reader’s own reflections, demonstrating the kind of active engagement Kagge believes silence invites.
In his remarkable tracing of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W.W. Norton, $27.95), Stephen Greenblatt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Swerve, presents a history of the central creation story of Western culture and pays tribute to the power of story itself in shaping what it means to be human. Intended to explain the origins of life, the nature of good and evil, punishment, shame, gender roles, moral responsibility, and much else, Adam and Eve from the first have raised as many question as they’ve answered. St. Augustine struggled for decades to make a coherent orthodoxy out of a Biblical text riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, but refused to relinquish his faith in the material’s literal truth. Milton also had an “obsession” with the first couple, but understood them in a new way. Focusing on their relationship as domestic partners he wrote Paradise Lost as an investigation of marriage and companionship. Like Dürer, he made Adam and Eve real people, not symbols. For Greenblatt, whose chapters on these two artists are as beautiful and heartfelt as they are scholarly, the Renaissance marked the pinnacle of Adam and Eve’s cultural life. With the Age of Exploration new geological and ethnographic information began to surface that was “incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve,” until Darwin’s theories finally replaced Genesis as the pre-eminent creation story. Yet Greenblatt and many others continue to find a “peculiar satisfaction” in the 6th century BCE myth. As Greenblatt notes, “it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller,” and it’s storytellers—and critics—that keep him going.