The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.
Eighty years from now, an international, pluralistic cabal of Jewish spiritual leaders gather in Brooklyn to compose a new Talmud. Their compendium of law, narrative, poetry, prayer and more would speak to a time of rising waters and falling population. But it is never completed.
Eighty years after that, a laptop is recovered from the fallout-ridden ruins of Brooklyn by a group of Edenic Jews from the East Bay. Its drive contains a few precious fragments of the legendary, incomplete Brooklyn Talmud.
This is the premise of Andrew Ramer’s new book, “Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud,” a singular work of fiction masquerading as an academic work from the future. It is a collection of the recovered fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud, presented like a volume of texts from the Cairo Genizah, complete with an imagined introduction providing “historical” context.
It is full of sly, even whimsical references to the world of the future. For example, here is a reference-dense bit from the introduction: “One of our hopes … was that we would recover a text called The Five Books of Mona, written by Rabbi Lydia Nakamura Ramer, which was mentioned in z-mails as one of the works that might be included in the Talmud. A retelling of the Torah, we know that the flood story was told through Hurricane Katrina … Rabbi Nakamura Ramer’s son Max, a dancer living in Paris, said in an interview with the Jewish Nightly Forward, that for Moses’s mysterious death and unknown grave his mother has Mona walking on Mount Shasta in Northern California when she was carried off in a space ship …”
Ramer, an ordained maggid and author of several previous books including “Torah Told Different: Stories for a Pan/Poly/Post-Denominational Era,” lives in Oakland, hence the several appearances of Northern California in the book, and its seeming conviction that the East Bay is the home of the future of Judaism. This book presents a future of diaspora. The State of Israel, we are told, is long gone. So sure, why not Oakland?
The image of the Jewish future Ramer paints is a tantalizing bonanza of belief and practice, one that relies heavily on our present of liberal denominations and non-denominations, from Conservative and Reform to the Earth-based Judaism of Wilderness Torah. Ramer also invents a stream of Judaism: Edenic Judaism. (“That path was called Deconstructionist Judaism by its detractors and Edenic Judaism by its founder,” he writes. Founded, of course, by a Brooklyn rabbi named Moshe-Leah m’beit Goldberg.) One gets the sense that this is Ramer’s ideal future denomination, though its exact form is open to our imagination.
The names of the authors of the fragments alone build out a Jewish world I am desperate to visit: The Brooklyn Talmud conclave was convened by a Rabbi Sara-Rosa ibn Nuriel; a commentary on the first chapter of Pirkei Avot is by Rabbah Salma Presti of the Temple of the Vineyard in Mexico City; a story of the lesser-known biblical character Huldah is by Rachel Kaur Kahan, chief maggid of India; and there is poetry by Naftali ben Tsuris of the Bangkok campus of Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school currently located in New York. As these names (among a long list of others) suggest, “Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud” centers the experiences and leadership of women and queer people. This creates a future Jewish community that is unquestionably feminist and led by women at least as much as it is by men. It is also a relentlessly global vision, filled with names that don’t read as stereotypically Jewish and locales we don’t associate with Jewish community.
The texts concern questions of “how to best plant, tend, and harvest in a degraded world … and how to dream and cultivate and nurture possibilities;” beliefs about God, Shabbat and so forth; identities of men, women, and all the genders and sexualities of today (and the future); the nature of the Jewish communities of the future; and more.
Some fragments engage in mind-expanding world-building, while others are poems and midrash and prayers ready to be consumed and used by the Jews of today. As every day brings more news of climate destruction and other horrors, the book is a welcome vision of some light on the other side of the ruination to come.
“Fragments” fits into the ethos of solarpunk, an emerging sci-fi subgenre that subverts dystopian narratives. Solarpunk takes as a given that the world is headed for disaster, but rather than present a relentlessly dark and gritty vision of the future, solarpunk asks how we can make the best of the cataclysms to come. How will we survive climate change, famine and war, and build a livable, improved world from the ashes? Place that in a Jewish context, and it becomes a messianic question. “Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud” provides a kaleidoscope of answers and does what science fiction does best: It expands our sense of what is possible here and now by showing us a vision of the future that is just plausible enough to swallow.