People of the Book

The Jewish Review of Books has been launched. Scott McLemee gets all verklempt.

March 3, 2010

Not so long ago, word that Jewish intellectuals were starting a cultural magazine would have been slightly more newsworthy than another Tex-Mex restaurant opening in San Antonio. Connoisseurs would appreciate the update, of course. But in ordinary circumstances, it would just seem in the nature of things.

The first issue of The Jewish Review of Books, a quarterly, has now been sent, by mail, to some 29,000 readers whose names have been culled from the mailing lists of other publications as well as some academic associations. It contains about 50 pages of reviews and essays, as well as a page of comics written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Tara Seibel. And this is, in fact, news; for, given the economy, these are not ordinary circumstances. For that matter, the world of book reviewing was in crisis well before the financial turbulence hit.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a librarian to search Nexis (a digital database covering numerous major newspapers and magazines) for reviews of some books published last year by large trade presses. This yielded results that proved awfully thin, both in page-count and substance. The librarian told me that at first she had restricted the search to pieces that were at least 800 words long. This yielded so few of them that it was necessary to try again -- now accepting anything that came back.

Many of the reviews were one or two paragraphs long. The ability to condense critical insight into a format resembling haiku is rare. For the most part, these “reviews” were glorified press releases. A great deal of the discussion of books now takes place in online forums, of course -- but seldom with the benefit of editing. Then again, books themselves are often not edited, so perhaps this is appropriate.

The notion of that readers might benefit from an infrastructure of assessment now begins to look anachronistic. Writing is disintermediated. From this point on, it’s every mind for itself.

“This is," writes Abraham Socher, the editor of JRB, in his inaugural editorial, "an especially good time to launch a Jewish magazine of ideas and criticism." My tiny smattering of Yiddish includes the word chutzpah, but this may require a Greek prefix: meta-chutzpah.

“Perhaps,” he continues, “it has always been a good time: the history of Jewish thought over the last two hundred years could be charted through a dozen periodicals in half a dozen languages. But we live at a moment in which more Jewish books, and books of particular Jewish interest, are being published than ever before. Of the making of such books, it seems, there is no end. But of real criticism, considered judgment, rendered in graceful, accessible prose, there is something of a scarcity.”

Well, that’s more like it. It was King Solomon, or at least his ghost writer, who first complained about the struggle to keep up with all the new titles coming out. And in the 20th century, it was Jewish critics (Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe) who set the standard for reviewing as something like a minor literary form in itself, at least in the United States. It is difficult to feel optimistic about this tradition reviving -- but all the more reason to welcome any sign that it might.

I got in touch with Socher, who is a professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin -- in part to express appreciation for the effort, but also to ask whether it was not problematic. While reviewing a book on modern Jewish philosophy, Socher himself had once pointed out that each of those terms tended to create problems of definition. So what did the word “Jewish” in the title of his journal designate: Religion? Ethnicity? An accident of the author’s, or reviewer’s, or reader’s birth? All of the above?

And isn’t the Review entering what still seems, even in these times, a crowded niche? After all, The New Republic, Commentary, and Tikkun all cover Judaica pretty thoroughly.

“The primary identity of the magazines you mention is really political,” Slocher told me. “We will address politics on occasion but you will never find us proclaiming the ‘Jewish position’ on, say, health care. We’re betting that Jewish literature, history, thought, and cultures are interesting in and of themselves.”

As for how to define his journal’s mandate, he joked: “Well, I have identified the essence of Judaism in my historical laboratory and... No, really, I think Wittgenstein’s talk of ‘family resemblance’ concepts is useful here. If you saw the articles and asked what kind of magazine they all appeared in, you’d probably say that it was a Jewish one. The magazine expresses a set of interests and sensibilities that are recognizably Jewish. That’s enough.”

The first issue had a print run of 32,000 copies, most of them sent out in mid-February to potential subscribers. As of the start of the new month, Socher told me, they had about 500 subscriptions, and the Web site had attracted more than 21,000 distinct visitors after being up for just over a week. Planning for the journal began about two years ago, with support from The Tikvah Fund, which has made a five year commitment to the journal; the fund also sponsors projects in Jewish studies at Princeton, NYU, and the University of Toronto.

Socher has been released from all but a very few duties at Oberlin for the present academic year, and will mostly be concentrating on the journal next year as well. I asked if he expected to remain at the helm for the long term, or if instead he anticipated handing it over to another editor once it had been established. The question seemed to surprise him. "I have no idea," he said. "I love teaching and don't want to give that up, but honestly haven't had time to think that through."

But he indicated that his introduction to the debut issue would be his first and last editorial. The opportunity to hold forth does not appeal to him. By e-mail and in conversation, I tried to determine whether Socher might have some polemical instincts there, under the surface. But while it seems a fair guess that members of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network won't be contributing very many reviews, I didn't get the sense that he has any aspiration to be the next Norman Podhoretz, either. (A good thing, too. One is more than enough.)

"I want to insist," he said, "that most of what we'll have in the Review -- religion broadly defined, theology narrowly defined, philosophy, history -- isn't reducible to political positions. There is already a fair amount of that kind of argument taking place in the Jewish intellectual world. And I have to say that I find the drafting of premodern religious traditions into modern political projects to be profoundly uninteresting."

Which is not to say that the journal is going for dull. As a longtime devotee of Isaac Rosenfeld, I found Dara Horn's discussion of him in the first issue to be deeply irritating. Jon Levenson's essay "The Idea of Abrahamic Religions" is an instructive look at why the patriarch claimed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims is not necessarily a figure able to bring the monotheisms together on common ground. Ron Rosenbaum considers the enigmatic question of just how Jewish Bob Dylan really is. (His meditation benefits from being uncharacteristically non-digressive.)

Having Harvey Pekar review, in comic format, his longtime collaborator Robert Crumb's illustrated edition of the book of Genesis was an inspired idea. And Michael Weingrad's reflections on the relative lack of Jewish fantasy literature -- the dearth of hobbits keeping kosher, if you will -- has certainly proven provocative.

It's an auspicious start, at a time when endings are much more common.


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