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Talking about books binds us together as a community

A little more than a month ago, 20 people came over for dinner. Before we ate, we all sat around a big table and read a book together. Out loud. Meanwhile, Jews were doing the same thing in homes all over the world.

It was a Passover seder. When you think about it, it’s a little odd. How often do people gather and take turns reading out loud from a book?

Most of us think about reading as a solitary exercise, but there is nothing solitary about a Passover seder. We are commanded to engage with the Passover story as a community, retelling it to each other, processing, reacting, questioning, grappling and, yes, laughing together. Reading the book out loud together is baked into the holiday, no less than the matzah.

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Communal reading of Jewish texts is not limited to Passover. It occurs in many synagogues three times a week. In fact, Jews have been gathering to read a book together in public ever since they returned from Babylonian exile.

Those early public readings of the Torah were established for a practical reason — most Jews did not have access to a Torah scroll and not everyone was able to read. By having a public reading, everyone was empowered to fulfill the commandment to study Torah.

A public reading of Torah need not be simply a recitation. It can be a conversation, a reading of the weekly portion and then a discussion of what it means to us.

That conversation — more than race, language, even belief — has defined us as a people for 2,000 years. Our central texts, the discussions and additional texts those texts have spawned, and our ability to talk about them, grapple with them, interpret them, use them to illuminate our lives and, in turn, use our lives to illuminate those texts — that is what binds us. “Ours is not a bloodline, but a text line,” write Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger in “Jews and Words.”

Torah began the Jewish love affair with books. It did not end there.

One Bay One Book, a yearlong program with 48 local Jewish organizations participating, has itself been a community-wide literary conversation. In this inaugural year, we chose Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We   

Talk About Anne Frank”; hundreds read the book and gathered in large events and small groups to discuss it. In the coming days, we have a rare opportunity to gather again, along with the author, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Sunday, May 5 and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Monday, May 6.

Jewish LearningWorks initiated One Bay One Book to promote Jewish literacy, but more than that, we discovered that books, and talking about books, can build community.

Use of our Jewish Community Library continues to rise in the digital age. Thousands of patrons visit each year, circulating more than 10,000 books and materials, and more than 2,000 people come to the library to hear from authors, meet others with similar literary interests and talk about books. For many in our community, books are the way they connect with Jewish civilization, and with each other. It is that relationship that libraries nurture.

One Bay One Book was an experiment to extend Jewish literacy beyond the walls of the library and to engage our entire community. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is filled with stories that address core concerns in our community: What is Jewish identity? What connects us as Jews to one another? What is our relationship with the outside world, and with Israel? How does Jewish memory, how does our past inform our future?

For two millennia, books have been a platform for shared communal experience and meaning — conversations among Jews across space and time — cementing, far more than ethnicity, our sense of peoplehood.

Our experience with One Bay One Book has shown that Jewish literacy continues to serve as our way into Jewish life, a way to exchange ideas, explore meaning and values and, ultimately, connect with one another.

David Waksberg is the director of Jewish LearningWorks, formerly known as the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

David Waksberg
David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.