Krista's Journal: Keeping the Memory Alive

December 29, 2005

Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an afficianado of early music. Like many post-war American Jews, he grew up "nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified," surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe's horrors. He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.

Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history for illustrations, he chanced upon a handbook of images and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he had discovered was a Book of Customs — a Minhogimbukh — that helped ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life. For three hundred years, books of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered The Book of Customs in the late 20th century, he did so not as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed still to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate a Book of Customs, in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility, but participating in its power.

Here is a passage from the introduction to his The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:

I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b'Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation between myself and God, a sense of community for better or worse, an appreciation of God's greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.

In his very own, very different way, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is, as Karen Armstrong described herself in a previous program, an "amateur theologian." In adulthood, and by way of self-directed study, he has become a lover of the rituals of his Jewish identity, the intellectual and spiritual content of his faith.

This isn't strictly a Hanukkah program, but it comes as the season of Hanukkah begins. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this "minor" and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple, after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.

Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch, almost hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself, "Was God still in that desecrated Temple? Why would he leave his House in the first place?" He concludes that if all we celebrate in such rituals is the "memory of God," it is still very important to keep that memory alive.

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is a book composer, typographer, and author of The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year.