Just ten days after watching my first Open Yale Courses lecture, I was talking with Zachary after services and found out that he had studied with Professor Christine Hayes from the Introduction to the Hebrew Bible videos. He invited me to a weekly Talmud study group to talk about whether or not chicken parm is kosher. I didn’t go.
A few months later, after watching all the Hebrew Bible and Don Quixote lectures in parallel, I met Zachary for coffee. Following my independent research, I suggested a discussion about Don Quixote’s Jewish themes. He told me that reading the Quixote would be a hard sell for his study group.
Zachary then told me the story of one of his teachers who had become enamored of Dante’s Divine Comedy and overly enamored of Christianity. A cautionary tale of one who strayed.
But it was too late for me.
As a graduate student at Harvard Extension School, I had already become enamored of the reading list for a class in European Culture in the Middle Ages: Dante’s Inferno, Augustine’s Confessions, The Song of Roland, Bernard of Clairvaux, Boethius, Chrétien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Abelard and Heloise, for which I wrote a “shelf talker” for Mercer Street Books.
These works are a core part of the literary legacy of humanity, a foundation of the capital-H (for “Harvard”) Humanities and I’m supposed to stay away? Nope.
I read through the Christian shelf and kept going with Arabic fiction, Russian literature, Czech literature, and yes, one wonderful class on three modern Jewish writers — Isaac Babel, Bruno Schulz, and Franz Kafka.
It’s all good.
And isn’t it a good idea to learn about how other people think, especially when they may think bizarre and unusual things about you?
If not for a broad liberal education for the sake of the Humanities, how about Survival? Understanding? Peace?
One of Dad’s jokes: Abe and Jake walk by a church where there’s a sign on the door: “CONVERT AND WE’LL GIVE YOU $100” Jake goes inside, comes out 10 minutes later, Abe is waiting. Abe asks: “Did you get the $100?” Jake replies: “You Jews, all you care about is money.”
We Jewish scholars, is Jewish literature and culture all we care about?
The Book says that bad things happen to us when we worship foreign gods or embrace foreign cultures. Dire warnings noted.
But I’m already well on my way with the extended reading list, so if you don’t mind (and even if you do), I’ll keep going.
So I read a few books, what’s the worst that can happen?
* not his name