Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What 2 Read Wednesday:
"She was expecting something empowering."
Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
stories by Nathan Englander

"Deb looks crestfallen.  
She was expecting something empowering.  
Some story with which to educate Trevor, 
to reconfirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms."

This book is a collection of eight short stories, of which I am usually not an interested reader.  I don't know if it is the stigma that, for me, developed from reading short stories throughout school, that it is "fake" reading, of minimal value, and that a real reader reads long works, novels and the like.  How could a writer create depth with so few words?  So I honestly have to disclose that I picked What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank up without realizing it was a book of short stories.  However, having a few plane trips on the schedule, I brought it along and found myself immersed in remarkably deep stories that forced me to think in ways I did not expect, and think about things that might seem unrelated to the story Englander is telling.

Going into the title story my knowledge of Judaism was limited to what I had learned in elementary school when reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, plus various television shows or movies and brief mentions of Jewish characters in books that were not really about those characters.  I thought I really understood the difference between Christians and Jews - I mean, Christians believe that Christ is the Messiah, Jews do not, and that is the end.  Right?  No, not really; it is so much more than that.  

In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," two Jewish couples, Deb and the narrator, Americans who live in Florida, and Mark and Lauren, American ex-pats who live in Jerusalem, spend an evening catching up with each other's lives and trying to determine whether the ex-pats have better lives because they are "more" Jewish having moved to Jerusalem, become Hassidic, and changed their names to less American ones (Yerucham and Shoshana) than the couple from Florida.  At one point they are arguing about what Judaism is and what it means to be really Jewish.  Deb argues that all that is needed is to live a life that is rich in Jewish culture, but Mark points out that the point of Judaism isn't to simply be part of a Jewish culture.  He says
"Not if it's supposed to be a Jewish life.  Judaism is a religion.  And with religion comes ritual.  Culture is nothing.  Culture is some construction of the modern world.  And because of that, it is not fixed; it is ever-changing and a weak way to bind generations.  It't like taking two pieces of metal, and instead of making a nice weld, you hold them together with glue."
In this statement, I realized that this is also the problem of modern Christianity in America.  It has merged with social customs and become a Christian culture that one can pick and choose what to participate in.  Christians can now go to a church that doesn't use offensive words like "Jesus," but tells them to be happy, have hope, and become a better "you."  Christians can pass by the homeless scornfully, broadcasting an intimate knowledge that the men/women/children on the street would all be better if they got jobs and gave up the drugs and alcohol, while choosing to spend their hard earned money to material comforts of their own lives because they deserve it.  Most of us are living in a Christian culture, not living Christian lives.

With Mark's statement the difference between Judaism and Christianity also made a lot more sense to me,.  Jews are still bound by the Old Covenant, while for Christians there is only Jesus.  Jews have the ritual Mark spoke of because they still do not believe the Messiah has come, so the only way to seek God's forgiveness is to follow the rituals.  So Mark and Lauren really believe that changing their names, their style of dress and their homeland makes them more Jewish, because to them, it is all they can do, and when they look at Deb and the narrator in their Floridian home, barely going through the motions of required Jewish customs, they feel that they can scorn them.  

For Christians, none of this outward show matters.  It really doesn't matter how deep into the ritual of Christianity one delves, because God's gift of Jesus paid for the sins of the world.  In Galatians 2, Paul explains to Cephas that it is not by following the laws of the Old Covenant, but by faith in Christ that saves sinners.  However, living a Christian life does matter.  Galatians 2:20 says "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me."  Christians are a changed people.

The other seven stories in this book are just as engrossing and thought-provoking as the title story, and I would heartily recommend it for adults.   

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