Arts & Culture

And Now I Must Be Going

And so we come to the end of a week of blogging. I hope those of you who have been reading along with me have enjoyed the ride. I’ve enjoyed being here. And I’ve liked having the chance to introduce … Read More

By / November 21, 2008

And so we come to the end of a week of blogging. I hope those of you who have been reading along with me have enjoyed the ride. I’ve enjoyed being here. And I’ve liked having the chance to introduce Jewcy readers to my new book and to talk a bit about myself as a writer and as a rabbi. It was Goethe who wrote that all writing constitutes crumbs of that author’s "great confession." I suppose that that’s true, but exactly what I mean by that has evolved over the years. When I first started writing fiction, for example, I found the possibility of using my characters’ lives as opportunities for revisiting bits and pieces of my own life almost irresistible. The question I was asked the most often ("Which of the characters in your novel is really you?"), I’d answer with a shrug and then try to change the topic. The answer, the real answer sounded so self-important, so self-referential so as almost to border on the solipsistic that I could hardly imagine myself answering honestly. But the truth is that they were all me… especially in my first two novels.  I’ve published four novels so far – and I’m at work on a fifth – but I finally got things into perspective. In my last two novels, only one of the characters has really been me: Michael Prager in The Sword of Goliath and Saul Jacobson in Heads You Lose. My insight in this last little while has been that Goethe’s truth, widely and easily applied to fiction, also applies to non-fiction.

My new Aviv Press book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is a good example. On the one hand, it’s not "about" me. It’s not "about" anyone. It’s about being a rabbi, about studying Mishnah, about what I’ve managed to learn over all these years of devoting myself day and night to the study of the text. It’s about Jewish law and Jewish values. It’s about a lot of things. But I now realize it really also is about me. Each of the stories I tell – finding stories in the Mishnah where most have found only brief, one- or two-sentence illustrative examples of legal principle has become my specialty – brings into existence a personality that, in some overt or covert way, mirrors who I am, who I have made myself into.  Like all great literature, rabbinic literature has the capacity to serve as a mirror any reader can hold up and peer into, and in which anyone can find him or herself ably reflected: if the light is strong enough, if you can look deeply into the glass without flinching or turning away, if you can bring yourself to stare deeply into your own eyes. No one sees it that way. Works that have analyzed rabbinic literature, and especially the Mishnah, as literary works are very few and far between. None of them has found fiction where I have, I don’t believe. And, as a result, no one, I also don’t believe, has found the merit, the power, or the potential to inspire in the portraits I wrote my book to bring to the attention of the reading public.

It’s an odd book in many ways. Even I think that! But it’s also been a true labor of love, a sincere effort to bring together all the lanes I have serially travelled on my own spiritual journey-the path of fiction and of poetry, the path of the lifelong student of Mishnah, the path of a working congregational rabbi, the path of the husband and father and son, the path of self-discovery through prayerful, ruminative introspection and to make of them one wide highway that others so inclined can travel along with me. That, after all, is what it means to write a book: not just to fill up page after page with words, but to invite others into one’s private universe of discourse, to admit others to the seraglio, to the archive, to the vault that is…my life, my memories, my perception of the world around me, my sense of who and what I am in this world, and what I am doing and hope to do. Like I said the other day, the sign of great books is the way that they start out as a sheaf of pages, but then morph into a road, then a gate, then a door…and how they beckon readers along, inviting them to share the journey, to follow the path, to open the gate, to knock on the door…and then, together with the author (or the author’s ghost) to step over the threshold into another’s private universe, into the beating heart of another human being. It is in this sense that literature is transformational, why it matters…to me, and to so many, even after a lifetime spent reading.

And so I bid you all farewell. My fifteen minutes are up! I step back now to allow some other author the opportunity to step forward and introduce himself to the reading public. I hope all my readers here find their way to my new book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox. I hope it satisfies, that it beckons, that it suggests ably why I think it matters, why I devoted all that time to trying to get it write, to set it down, to make it sing. Whether I was successful…that’s another story. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough! But the point was not merely to bring out another book. It was, with this one possibly more than any other of my books, to invite others into my universe, into my sphere of being, into my space. Why I find that an appealing prospect…well, that’s a different question, one I’ll have to think about carefully before answering. If any of my readers here do read the book and you’d like to comment directly to me, feel free! (You can reach me through my synagogue’s website: www.srjc.org.)  I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, spent the past week guest blogging on Jewcy. This is his parting post. Want more? Buy the book!