Jewish Book Month: Jewish readers increase their knowledge, swap notes…and find common ground in B

Throughout America, book groups are proliferating, and Jewish book groups are no exception.

"Everyone is into Jewish books today," says Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council in New York. "It's different now than when I started here even four years ago. People are definitely interested in intensifying their Jewish knowledge through the informal book-group setting.

"Though most of the Jewish book groups are made up of professional women in urban areas, I get calls from retired men and women from Florida and from young mothers' groups in the Midwest who want book suggestions," Hessel says.

"What I like is that no two groups are the same. One group may want to read `Jewish-lite' such as Belva Plain's `Evergreen,' while a more academic group will want something like Talia Fishman's `Shaking the Pillars,' or Steinsaltz's commentary on the Talmud. The variety is amazing."

In the Bay Area, one of the oldest Jewish book groups evolved out of a major l988 writers conference in Berkeley, sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The NFJC is also convening the upcoming conference titled "Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation" in the Bay Area from Feb. 1 to 3.

Conference events will be held on the U.C. Berkeley campus, in San Francisco, on the Stanford campus and in Palo Alto. Day and evening programs will be held each day.

"It was after that Israeli-American conference nine years ago that our group got started," says Rosanne Levitt, director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Interfaith Connection. "All these wonderful writers, especially unfamiliar authors like Nessa Rapoport and Hillel Halkin, had spoken. We thought we ought to read their works.

"That planted the seed. We started out with 20 participants. In the last nine years, we've read over l00 books, some by Jewish authors, others are books with Jewish themes. It has opened up worlds to me that I might not have experienced on my own."

Fellow member Dr. Gerson Jacobs, a Marin cardiologist, is equally enthusiastic. "I've discovered books I wouldn't otherwise have known about. For example, early 20th-century works like Henry Roth's `Call it Sleep' or Abraham Cohen's `The Rise of David Lewinsky.'

"Our best approach is to focus on a particular community during a particular time — say Vienna around the turn of the century or 20th-century Italians. In the former case, we read some Freud and Carl Schorske's `Fin de Siecle Vienna.' In the latter, we read Primo Levi and Carlo Levi. That's been particularly fascinating."

Jacobs' pre-conference book group meets monthly in participants' homes. The host leads the discussion, doing homework in preparation. "Often the leader will have done research on the Internet to get information on the author and to find critical reviews," says Jacobs. "These materials enrich the discussion. One of our best practices is to read a particularly literary passage out loud. It's a springboard for discussion."

While many book groups are organized through Jewish community centers, others are linked to various Bay Area Jewish organizations. The Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library has a Jewish poetry discussion group. A South Peninsula book group with 50 or so members is affiliated with the department of Jewish studies at Stanford University. It meets in a member's home, but is led by a different Stanford professor each month. Still other Jewish book groups are congregation-based, like Congregation Rodef Sholom's in San Rafael. It, too, is well-established.

"We've been meeting for seven years," says its organizer, Marian Blanton, a retired community college English teacher. "We try to read a variety of books each year — one by an Israeli author, one a diaspora book, one a Holocaust book, one which is non-fiction, etc. We have strict rules. You must have read the book to attend. And we don't permit corollary discussion, like what my bubbe did when I was 10 years old.

"We approach the book talmudic-style, around the table. When you read for the book group, you read with a different eye," says Blanton. "You're more conscious, more attentive, more critical."

What is fueling this book group phenomenon? Rachel Jacobsohn, director of the Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders, headquartered in Highland Park, Ill., produces a newsletter which reaches 800 book groups worldwide. "The proliferation of book groups is partly due to the explosion in continuing education. Once you graduate from college and leave the world of academia, you don't want your education to stop.

"Book groups are a non-graded, nonjudgmental way of continuing to find intellectual stimulation," says Jacobsohn. "But I believe another reason has to do with late-20th-century angst. Book groups speak to the desire to make more valuable, meaningful connections."

Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, which advises more than 50 groups, agrees. "There's something important about book groups in this world where we are all so scattered. Many people come into a book group not knowing a soul. But after a while they share common ground. They know and understand where each person is coming from. This generally leads to good, deep friendships."

Jacobs couldn't agree more.

"The people who want to read and discuss literary works have quite a bit of depth and intellectual interest. We've had wonderful times. Our monthly discussion is something like the Sabbath, in that it is different from what you think about the rest of the week. If we had our book group only on the Sabbath, it would be extremely appropriate."