Unscrolled for a new generation

Adam Mansbach is a bestselling novelist,

critic and hip-hop poet. He never would have thought to add “Torah scholar” to his resume.

Until now.

The Berkeley writer is one of 54 writers and artists (including several from the Bay Area) to contribute to “Unscrolled,” a new book from Reboot, the national Jewish nonprofit responsible for the National Day of Unplugging and the Sukkah City contest in 2010.

Released Sept. 24 — with a San Francisco launch party scheduled for next week — “Unscrolled” is a 375-page Torah commentary for people who either never cracked open a Bible or have read so many analyses that they believed there was nothing new to say.

Apparently there is. In “Unscrolled,” those commentaries may take the shape of a graphic novel, a Hollywood script, a mock Google search of boils, lice and locusts — or, in Mansbach’s case, a comically profane analysis of Parashat Vayetzei, the Jacob and Leah story from Genesis.

Which isn’t much of a surprise coming from the guy who wrote the for-adults-only children’s book  “Go the F*** to Sleep.”

“I felt out of my depth,” Mansbach said of diving into the Bible for the first time in his life. “I figured I would fall back on being funny. My thought was to use my ignorance to my advantage in any way I could.”

That would explain this portion of his commentary on Genesis 29:16: “Yo, I gotta say I lost a little respect for my man Jacob right here. Dude fell for the okey-doke real hard.”

Mansbach got the assignment from Reboot founder Roger Bennett, who served as editor of “Unscrolled” and also wrote a summary of every Torah portion.

Bennett, who lives in New York, said the idea for “Unscrolled” took shape at a Reboot retreat three years ago. Participants, most of them artists and writers, confessed they had not studied much Torah, or at least not in years, and it was high time this creative group of young Jews gave the thing a close reading.

“We decided why not do it for every single parashah,” Bennett recalled, “and try to engage an audience of their peers in reconsidering what they know and don’t know about the Torah.”

Bennett gave contributors nearly limitless freedom to explore their portions in any way they chose. The writers run the gamut, from writer-director Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under”) to Time magazine columnist Joel Stein (a Stanford graduate) to Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Auburn (“Proof”) to “Save the Deli” author David Sax.

Bay Area contributors include Mansbach, Caitlin Roper and Shoshana Berger of Wired magazine and other projects, novelist and TED Books editor Michelle Quint, visual designer and former pop singer Rebecca Bortman, music producer and Jewish community stalwart David Katznelson and app creator–author Eli Horowitz.

Many of them will be involved in the free San Francisco launch party, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2 at Broadway Studios, with an after-party from 9 to 11 p.m.

The San Francisco party — which, incidentally, will beat the L.A. launch party by more than three weeks — will be quite an affair, with some 50 members of the public and a handful of local rabbis participating in an unscrolling of a Torah from Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Many agencies will be represented, including: the JCC of San Francisco (creative content producer Dan Wolf), Kevah (Rabbi David Kasher), Lehrhaus Judaica (Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan), Congregation Emanu-El (Rabbi Carla Fenves) and Congregation Ner Shalom of Cotati (Reb Irwin Keller).

During the unscrolling, the proceedings will be halted once during each of the five books, and a local rabbi will give a one-minute synopsis of that particular parashah, plus a tweet version in 140 characters or fewer. Each of those synopses will be followed by “Unscrolled” authors giving

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their analysis or explaining the thought process behind their unique interpretations.

It’s those unique interpretations that Reboot was after, Bennett said. Noting that the book doesn’t include any established Torah scholars, he added, “We wanted a diversity of voices, opinions, backgrounds — and that’s what we got.”

For example, there’s Horowitz’s commentary on Parashah Bamidbar, which probes the census of the Israelite tribes, down to the last Ephraim and Manasseh. The portion is fairly tedious reading, an observation not lost on the author, editor and publisher who lives in San Francisco.

“All our days are counted — even the dull ones,” he writes in “Unscrolled.”

His entry reads much like a traditional Torah commentary, even though he said he had next to no Jewish religious exposure growing up. That facility, he theorizes, is “in my bones.”

“Even though I didn’t have that background, I come out of a [Jewish] tradition and worldview that I’m sure affected me throughout my life,” Horowitz said. “It felt that even if I’m totally ignorant and out of my depth, I’m sort of programmed as a Torah scholar.”

Mansbach felt similarly as he wrestled with the God of Genesis. He said the idea of situating himself “in the Jewish literary tradition … of inquiry, argument and debate” was “very appealing to me.”

Bennett, meanwhile, is hoping “Unscrolled” (on sale now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum store) will become a fixture on bookshelves, while perpetuating the eternal debate over the Torah.

“I hadn’t read the Torah cover to cover [before this project],” he says, “but I encourage everyone to do it. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to read and really study the text. It changed the way I think about life, and reaffirmed [Reboot’s] bigger mission: to engage younger audiences.” n

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah,” edited by Roger Bennett (375 pages, Workman Publishing Company, $18)

pine-dan
Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.