Legends to Live By
Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a book composer, typographer, and author of The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year.
December 15, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: “Custom” is an old-fashioned word and books perhaps a threatened commodity. But Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s work is an adventure in bringing books of liturgy and custom to life for modern people. To call him a book designer doesn’t quite do justice to his art. He is an inventive typographer, who also makes forays into photography, graphic arts, and music. I interviewed him in 2004 about his modern adaptation of a Venetian-Yiddish guide from the Middle Ages, The Book of Customs or Minhagim. It’s a compilation of stories and practical instructions, prayers to recite and illustrations to contemplate. For three centuries, medieval Jewish families used this book to navigate daily life and sacred time. But really, as Scott-Martin Kosofsky discovered from a secular starting point, it’s a handbook for leading a good life, as helpful in our time as in theirs. The sacredness of seasons, including Hanukkah and its winding backstory, was just one of his discoveries.
MR. SCOTT-MARTIN KOSOFSKY: When one thinks about scripture and about liturgy, inevitably, you know, you just wonder about the places God is and is not. Are we dealing with God or just the memory of God? Well, if the memory is all that we have, we need that memory very badly.
MS. TIPPETT: “Legends to Live By.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being from APM — American Public Media.
Like many postwar American Jews, Scott-Martin Kosofsky grew up in a nonobservant but deeply Jewish-identified, Yiddish-speaking family. The Holocaust was an almost constant point of reference in his childhood; religion was not a source of solace. He found solace, he says, in traditions that he picked up by osmosis through his love of music. He discovered a passion for the early musical literature of Europe. Later in life, he would found the Boston Early Music Festival. And from there, a Christian project led Scott-Martin Kosofsky into a new encounter with Judaism.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Like a lot of good Jewish stories, this one begins with Christmas, actually, and, uh, which I guess is sort of a Jewish story in its own right, if you interpret it that way. I worked on a book in the mid-1980s called The Christmas Revels Songbook. It was because of this book that I produced for them that I was asked later to work on my first Jewish project, which was The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And they came to me because they loved that songbook. They wanted something rather like it except, of course, Jewish. And this was how it began. And it’s a lovely songbook, it’s still in print, and it’s illustrated with wonderful woodcuts from the 16th and 17th centuries. And the sponsors at Harvard Hillel had hoped that perhaps there were Jewish equivalents of these things. So I went to the wonderful old Jewish Encyclopedia, which was the first great flowering of American Jewish scholarship. It’s a remarkable set of volumes. It was …
MS. TIPPETT: When was it written or published?
MR. KOSOFSKY: 1901 was the first volumes. And sure enough, what I found there was a wonderful woodcut of a woman lighting the Sabbath lamp. And I found that it had been published in a book. It said, “Sefer Minhagim, Amsterdam, 1645.” And at the time, I was such a fallen Jew that I only knew that the word sefer meant “book.” And the other word, though it was familiar, I had to go and look it up. And I found out that it, indeed, means “customs.” And what I had stumbled upon was The Book of Customs.
So, as chance would have it, I went to the Harvard libraries and found that, indeed, they had a number of books by that name and some very interesting ones on microfilm, including this Amsterdam 1645 example. And I was utterly charmed. This was, you know, love at first sight, because what I had in my hands was something I had never seen before, a compact guide to the Jewish year with over 40 illustrations of the main holidays and rituals. And I knew all this because, even though my Hebrew was rather faulty, I realized the book was written in Yiddish.
MS. TIPPETT: Which did take you back to your own roots also.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Indeed. And it was in Yiddish in a very strange kind of alphabet. But as a typographer, of course, I get used to odd alphabets rather easily. And beside the woodcuts that describe the principal holidays and rituals of the year, it also had 12 woodcuts showing the zodiac and the seasons of farm life. And I thought, well, maybe it served also as a kind of Jewish Farmer’s Almanac. That’s not exactly the case. But the reference it makes, of course, is to seasonal references to scriptural passages. And so it’s more related to the farm life of the Holy Land than it is to any place where Jews were living at the time.
MS. TIPPETT: And how did people use it when this book was part of normal Jewish lives?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Well, it was quite typical that Jewish education at even the lowest level involved a great deal of memorization so that a young boy, and often girls to a rather significant degree, would be taught the principal prayers and blessings, and they would know these by memory. And many would learn a great deal of Bible by memory. But what they needed was some orderly way of doing the right thing. And these books, written in the vernacular as they were, enabled people to use them as a guide, which supplemented what they knew from the Bible and from the liturgy.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And tell me if this is right, that the first edition of this was written in the 14th century, published a little later, but written in a time of tragedy and loss, as you write, in the aftermath of the Black Death.
MR. KOSOFSKY: That’s right. In the era of the Black Death, in the mid-14th century, there were created a number of Jewish customs books, because it was believed that by writing down the customs of the community that somehow the community would survive. And this is very typical of Jewish history in which faith in the written word was so great that knowing that all might perish, somehow or other the written word would survive. And one of these customs books was written by a Hungarian rabbi, Eyzik Tyrnau. And it was this work of his that had circulated in manuscript, became the basis for the Yiddish customs books that followed in print in the end of the 16th century, in 1590. And it was written in Hebrew but, in fact, it was written in a way that laymen, if they knew any Hebrew, could understand it. It seemed to be not written for experts, which was so often the case with Jewish literature of this sort.
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me also — I mean, something that strikes me: Behind this entire work and the way people used it is such a fundamental tenet of Jewish faith and Jewish life. But it is particular to Judaism, and it is not necessarily something that people outside Judaism understand intuitively, and that is this equation of being Jewish as doing good. Then you have on the front cover or an advertisement for a Venetian edition of this in 1593, and one of the phrases is, “Laws explained well so you will know how to live like a good person.”
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes, that’s right. Live like a good person and do the right thing. And this is very important, because it is a basic tenet of Judaism, that what you believe follows only after what you do. So Judaism is very much about doing God’s commandments and doing the right thing rather than believing a specific credo. And, as you know, the credo of Judaism is a rather simple one. It’s “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is One.” This is it. Of course, there were scholars later on who developed credos of a more involved kind, but there’s nothing in Judaism that’s the equivalent, for example, of the credo of the Latin Mass.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being — conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Legends to Live By.” I’m with book composer and typographer Scott-Martin Kosofsky.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you understand — as you got into this, why did this custom book die out? Why did they stop being dated and printed and used? And when did that happen, how?
MR. KOSOFSKY: By the end of the 18th century the Ashkenazi Jewish world — that is the world for whom the vernacular language was Yiddish had splintered by this time and what one had was the rise of Hasidism in the early 18th century and a rather vehement reaction amongst the traditional orthodoxy. And these were people known as the Mitnagdim and this is the beginning of a rift, which in some ways never healed. It also was — drifted into the period of the European Enlightenment and with which came a Jewish enlightenment. And from which arose reformed Judaism in the beginning of the 19th century. And we see already by the end of the 18th century in the writings of Moses Mendelssohn all of the makings of this reform.
And as this went on it was really no longer possible to address all of the Ashkenaz as that title page of the 1593 Venice edition so enticingly advertises. But I wondered whether that was indeed true.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Because indeed there is much greater common ground in all Jewish denominations then there are differences. And if I were a rabbi, well ensconced in the particulars of my denomination, I might say, well indeed these things are gigantic; they’re irreconcilable. But as an onlooker, it appears not to be so big. Because after all, it’s not as if one group is reading the Torah and some one else is reading — another group reading The Lord of the Rings.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Indeed, it’s all based in the same thing. And I thought that the strategy that I would take in reviving this customs book is to not ignore the particularity of denominationalism, but to incorporate it.
MS. TIPPETT: What is it that you say? You address this in the book early on, that this is a cafeteria religion.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. The approach of including many different aspects of denominations is often referred to quite disparagingly as “cafeteria religion.” And I said, well, if it is a cafeteria, it’s at least a cafeteria that serves all the traditional main courses and, in fact, old and new side dishes as well. So if I could be forgiven the metaphor, there is, in fact, the sense that the particularity of denominationalism is not as greatly different as is sometimes made out. What is different, however, is the sociology of different groups, the political and economic and outlook of groups. These are the ways society breaks down, of course, in general.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. But you’re saying that for you the differences are more pronounced sociologically than in terms of the customs and this tradition of the customs book, which you were recreating for the 21st century.
MR. KOSOFSKY: I suppose one could say that. And, in fact, some of the things that I found most touching and remarkable about the traditional sphere of Jewish observance were in the very things that the liberal denominations had left behind over the years. But I must say, in their defense, that they have recently rediscovered. A very good example of this is the most tragic and somber day of the Jewish year, Tishah b’Av. And this is the day on which the temple was destroyed, Solomon’s Temple. It’s also the day by tradition that Herod’s Temple, the second temple, was destroyed. The liturgy of this day is one of the deepest tragedy. It’s when the book of Lamentations is read.
[Sound bite of music]
READER: “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow; the princess among states is become a thrall. Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends, all her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes. Judah has gone into exile, because of misery and harsh oppression. When she settled among the nations, she found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places.” From Lamentations, Chapter 1, Verses 1 through 3.
[Sound bite of music]
MR. KOSOFSKY: And as if that weren’t enough, there’s a lot of other prophetic works read around that time. And the nine days leading up to Tishah b’Av are nine very dark days in which the traditional custom is not to wash or shave or anything. It’s a terrible time. This had been abandoned by early Reform Judaism. It just — it had been let go as being anachronistic. The claim being, “We’re no longer interested in the rebuilding of the temple. That’s past. The temple is within us.” But a very noble and laudable thought. But, indeed, what is missing in that is the sense that in the liturgies regarding the destruction of the temple, the first temple, that this is about our own misdoings. This is the great fire and brimstone liturgy. When one is missing this, one is missing a liturgy of one’s own sinfulness and the opportunity of repentance and of acknowledgment. So a bit of a balance is lost.
MS. TIPPETT: And it sounds to me like, perhaps for you, that this was an observance that you personally rediscovered in the process of putting this book together. Is that right?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. I thought that this, for me, was a very moving experience. I never thought I would think that it would mean much to me. In fact, knowing that I would have to confront it gave me a bit of pause. I thought, “Oh, goodness, how could I, of all people, a liberal like me, how could I find meaning in this?” Sure enough, I thought, “You know, I’m as capable of misdeed as the next person.” And for that reason, this look within, I thought, was very, very valuable.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’m also hearing something that I also believe is just fundamental in Jewish tradition and quite mysterious, and that is the importance of remembrance, which is also an act of reliving. But you’re sort of saying that in taking the memory more seriously, in observing it more seriously, you’re also drawing out the deepest meaning of that event?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. You know, there are times in which we are commanded — I believe it’s six times in the Torah that we’re commanded to remember. It’s the word zahor. We’re commanded by God to remember this. And amongst the things we remember in that way are the Passover. The Passover is, you know, the absolute basis of remembrance.
MS. TIPPETT: That you were once a slave in Egypt.
MR. KOSOFSKY: That’s exactly right: We were once slaves. This is made a personal thing. But remembrance is a curious thing, and I found that commandment to remember is a wonderful way of dealing with what you might call the difficult texts of the Bible. There are episodes in which one finds rather ghastly things that you don’t know what to do with. And, in fact, in many books about Judaism, they are kind of either brushed under the rug, gotten through as quickly as possible, or simply ignored. A good example of it is a portion of the Torah from the book of Numbers called Matot, which means “tribes.” And it’s the story of the wilderness, and it’s the formation, really, of the faith. Whereas in Exodus, you know, we have the miracle that brings about the survival of the tribe; in Numbers, we really have the establishment of a people in a way that we don’t elsewhere.
[Sound bite of music]
READER: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.’ Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.’ The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled and their encampments. They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast, and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.” From Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 1 through 4 and 9 through 12.
MR. KOSOFSKY: So what do we make of it? Is this not some form of ethnic cleansing that’s being commanded? Well, it may well be, but I think that what we have to do is read it and confront it and remember it. And this, to me, was, you know, these things were just remarkable. I was, I think, forever changed by the fact that the regular confrontation with these things is a very powerful thing.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to talk about this season we are in and this observance of Hanukkah, which I think maybe is better known superficially or some of the trappings of Hanukkah are more in the American popular imagination than many other Jewish observances. But …
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: … I’d love to know what you — how you think differently about Hanukkah the meaning of it, the observance through this project, through getting into this book of customs.
MR. KOSOFSKY: I was surprised by Hanukkah because, of course, it was the name of the holiday that I probably knew first in my life and with all of the promises of wonderful gifts and so on. But I later, as a cynical teenager, came to think of it as not much more than Christmas envy. I thought that the holiday had been so adapted to the commercial season of Christmas that it was pretty far from its original meaning. But having to write this and describe the customs of Hanukkah, I realized something interesting. I realized that in the old customs books, even going back to Rabbi Eyzik Tyrnau in the late 14th century, and certainly in the first early printed customs books from Venice in the 1590s, that Hanukkah was a big deal.
MS. TIPPETT: So it’s not something just that modern Americans had taken out of context?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Even though it should be remembered that it is considered religiously a minor holiday. It’s a minor festival. But nonetheless, it borders on the major leagues. And it does so in a number of liturgical ways that are interesting, which is the great psalms of praise, the Hallel, from which we get the word “hallelujah,” of course. And these are said in their entirety during Hanukkah. And one doesn’t do that in minor holidays altogether, but Hanukkah has that. And I imagined how important Hanukkah was for Jews over the centuries, Jews who had very little to show for but the occasional success and great failings and failures and troubles and persecutions. But Hanukkah was the story of a victory, and a rather — one that lasted for a long time.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell that story. Tell the story of the Maccabees.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Well, at the end of the Greek rule, and the year is about 165 B.C., or B.C.E., as Jews prefer to say, Before the Common Era, there was a split of the Greek dynasty, and what we had was the Syrian government of the Seleucid dynasty had taken over. And they were very, very strong on assimilation.
So Antiochus, the king, had insisted that the Jews give up all of their ways, including the Covenant, the circumcision. And many had gone along with this. But the rule became harsher and harsher nonetheless. So one of the priests, Mattathias, from a group called the Hasmoneans, had revolted against this. And his son, Judah, who was called Maccabee, which is from the Hebrew word macaba — that is, “hammer” — became a brilliant soldier and defeated the Antiochus. And for the next years, until, in fact, Israel fell to the Romans in 63 B.C., this dynasty of the Hasmoneans, the Jewish dynasty of Hasmoneans, had ruled. And it was a rather great and prosperous period. So it’s a time that people point back to as a moment of great pride.
[Sound bite of music]
MR. KOSOFSKY: Hanukkah commemorates an event not in the book of Maccabees but one rather explained in the Talmud, written some hundreds of years later. And what it is is a story of how — when the temple was reclaimed. The temple had been greatly defiled by Antiochus. And that it had been turned into a pagan shrine. And in repurifying, rededicating the temple, and, indeed, in this word “dedication,” we have the definition of Hanukkah. Hanukkah means “dedication.” And as the temple is rededicated, they look for light, for oil, for the lamp that must be in front of the Holy of Holies, the same lamp of course that is in front of the scrolls of Torah and in front of the arch in every synagogue, the eternal light. And they found a vial of purified oil, pure olive oil that would last only for a day. And, according to the Talmudic story, the oil lasts for eight days. And this is the story behind the eight days of Hanukkah. So the story of Hanukkah is semi-biblical you might say. And it was only a matter of time before — of course it would become part of the winter solstice celebration that it would be a transfer to that time of year and over the years it’s taken on somewhat different meanings.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s edition of The Book of Customs includes exquisite prints of woodcuts dating back to late-16th-century Venice. On our website, there’s an audio slide show of these woodcuts and their portrayal of Jewish life and customs — including Hanukkah lighting rituals. And while you’re there, subscribe to our free podcast and email newsletter, where I write a weekly journal with my reflection on each week’s conversation and topics. Find all of this and more at onbeing.org.
[Sound bite of music]
Coming up, the backstory of Hanukkah as it has evolved in the modern U.S., in part as a response to Christmas cards. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: “Legends to Live By.” I’m speaking with Scott-Martin Kosofsky — he’s a book designer and master typographer. A once “fallen” Jew, as he puts it, he was captivated by a discovery of ancient Jewish books of customs and liturgy. He recently designed a new Conservative prayer book for the High Holidays, Mahzor Lev Shelem. Right now, he’s at work on a new mahzor for the Reform Movement and also on the Oxford Hebrew Bible. I spoke with him in 2004 about his award-winning foray into liturgy and legend, The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year.
Scott-Martin Kosofsky has been retelling the “semi-biblical” story behind this season’s holiday of Hanukkah. He’s found it rich in spiritual meaning that changes over time. Though the rise of Hanukkah in America is another kind of history altogether.
MR. KOSOFSKY: By the 1840s, you have in England the tradition of Christmas cards begins, and this is followed in America in a big way. And, in fact, the great Boston lithographer — he was a man named Louis Prang, who was Jewish — had cultivated the commercial Christmas card. The growing Jewish population of the time was certainly not to be left out of this, and they began following all of these Christmas events with Hanukkah events. And I have, in fact, in front of me an advertisement from a newspaper. This is advertising an event called “Grand Revival of the Jewish national holiday of Hanukkah at the Academy of Music in New York, Tuesday, December 16th, 1879.” And it’s sponsored by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the YMHA, which exists to this day in New York.
But it’s interesting: As things were becoming Americanized, there was interesting competition between Hanukkah and Christmas. Kaufmann Kohler, one of the two greatest figures of Reform Judaism in the 19th century, wrote in 1890 saying, “How can the Jew, without losing self-respect, partake in the joy and festive mirth of Christmas? Can he without self-surrender, without entailing insult and disgrace upon his faith and race, plant the Christmas tree in his household?” And then he adds, “How humble and insignificant does one appear by the side of the other,” referring to Hanukkah compared to Christmas. And, indeed, there has always been this sense of Hanukkah being, in truth, still and all, notable though it is and touching though it is, a minor holiday, and certainly not a holiday of the exact standing of Christmas. Nonetheless, it’s not without something.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I once spoke with a — I have this very vivid memory of a conversation I had with a nine-year-old Jewish girl who said to me quite matter-of-factly that Hanukkah gets so much attention, because it’s compared to Christmas and it’s sort of competing with Christmas.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, she experienced that and was able to articulate it. And she said it should not get as much attention and that she made the point that other holidays are much more significant and felt that they should be emphasized more somewhere externally.
MR. KOSOFSKY: There’s something in Hanukkah after all. But, indeed, there’s not as much in Hanukkah as there are in the days that are, perhaps, less well-known. There’s, of course, Tishah b’Av, that I mentioned before, which, you know, is the only full fast day beside Yom Kippur. And the delightful holiday of Simchat Torah, at which the full cycle of readings comes to an end, the scrolls are rolled back, and the readings begin again with, “In the beginning.” Then there is Shavuot, which is Pentecost, another day that I must say is somewhere difficult for modern Jews to find much meaning in. And, you know, Judaism is a religion that changed dramatically. And, you know, with the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70 came the end of the temple sacrifices. Judaism was already turning, little by little, into a liturgical religion in which the observance of God’s commandments was done through liturgy rather than through sacrifice. One did this as individuals rather than as temple priests doing this on behalf of all the people.
MS. TIPPETT: And how is that meaningful for you, as a 21st-century person? Or how do you incorporate that into your identity, your religious identity?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Well, do you mean the sacrifices or …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And also this transition that you described and what it has meant to be Jewish and to worship, in fact.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Well, I think for me the end of the sacrifices is certainly a definitive way in which I say, “We have changed.” There’s a thing called the Avodah, which is, you know, a prayer for the return of the sacrifices and the rebuilding of the temple. But what does it mean to me? Well, I believe, as classical Reform Judaism does, personally, this is something that happens within. We rebuild our temple within. Our sacrifices take forms that are symbolic, not of burning animal fat on the fire. And it would be very difficult to lead a Jewish life if one didn’t interpret these laws and weren’t able to turn, for example, animal sacrifices into prayers.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being — conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Legends to Live By.” I’m with book composer and typographer Scott-Martin Kosofsky. He gives new life to ancient handbooks and liturgies. We’re talking especially about his modern adaptation of an illustrated “book of customs,” or Minhagim, by which Jewish families of the Middle Ages navigated daily life and sacred time.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: Picking up your book, The Book of Customs, it’s not a prayer book, right? It’s not like the book of …
MR. KOSOFSKY: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: But you — but at the same time you almost get an overwhelming sense of prayer upon prayer upon prayer, right, in a Jewish life?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: That is presented and, uh, and there’s something in that that I — it’s hard to square that with a modern idea of daily life. And it, you know, I just wonder has this changed the way you structure your days and your time, and your weeks and months?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Well, for me it’s rather difficult because all of my work as a book designer and book producer has revolved around Jewish life in one — or Jewish history in one form of another over many years. So I would say that if there are three prayer services everyday, I probably do six, only because I’m surrounded by it, you know, very much all the time. And my work is really about this. So, um, I’m not — I’m not altogether sure that I’m a good exemplar of this.
MS. TIPPETT: But did you — did you incorporate prayer in different way, uh, in the process of creating this particular book and in this project?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. I had to believe that it was worthy.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. KOSOFSKY: You know, that this was the structure of the old customs books. That even though, as you say, this is not a prayer book, it is a kind of digest of a prayer book just as it’s also a digest of actions of custom and also things that are part of Jewish law and things that are digests of the readings from the Bible. So, yes, it’s a lot of prayer. It’s a great deal of prayer, and there are prayers for everything. And this is, of course, what happens with a religion which is many millennia old now. So there’s a great pileup of this material. And that’s what Judaism is really all about. It’s about moments, these times of the day that are taken out that are given over to God in which one says these things.
And I’ll tell you a funny story. I was last week in New York, and I had a meeting at Sotheby’s, the great auction house. And the meeting was to follow a Judaica auction, an auction of manuscripts. And most of the people at this auction were Hasidic Jews, men dressed in black with hats and beards and sidelocks and so on. But at the end of the auction came time for afternoon prayers. And so they all went to the eastern corner of the room and began their recitation of the afternoon prayers, which, if you read even in digest form in my book, it seems to go on for a little while. But I can assure you the speed with which these guys got through all their prayers was like lightning. It was six minutes, tops. And so, you know, to read in longhand all of this stuff is one thing, and to live this as it’s lived on the ground is sometimes another. Though, you know, even at any observant synagogue in which the entire Sabbath morning service is said, it’s a very long thing. I mean, it can go on for the better part of four hours. And there’s a Yiddish expression that Jews say among themselves, often with a certain amount of chuckle, and it’s Shver tzu zein a Yid, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” And, indeed, in that respect, it certainly is.
MS. TIPPETT: This burden of prayer is heavy.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. And you do, as you said, also in The Book of Customs, you talk about the Biblical passages, the Torah portions that are used and reflected on in the various seasons of Jewish life. And I wanted to ask you, I did not know actually that the readings of the Torah for the Hanukkah season are the generations of Isaac and all the stories around Isaac. Is that right?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Well, I should explain that in order to present — give people a feeling for the customs of the Jewish year, I had to do something which — it was sort of a radical step, and that was I created a model year in which I placed all of the readings in specific months according to a calendar. I warned the reader, and I warn the listeners, the reading schedule varies somewhat every year, and the Jewish life occurs over a 19-year cycle. How much does it vary? Well, it’s not gigantic. So, in fact, even though, as you say, that during Hanukkah that there are these readings regard Isaac in this, those might actually get shoved into the next month in some years.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. KOSOFSKY: But it’s not going to be off by more than a few weeks. You see, there are supernumerary years, years in which a 13th month is added. So it’s a very complicated business. And this is how the Jewish calendar sort of jives with the solar calendar. It’s often said that the calendar of Judaism is a lunar calendar. That’s not true. It’s an adjusted lunar calendar. It’s a kind of a lunisolar calendar.
MS. TIPPETT: All right, well, you’ve completely lost me.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Whereas the Islamic calendar, that really is a lunar calendar.
MS. TIPPETT: Is a lunar. All right.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. And that’s why Ramadan moves over the course of the …
MS. TIPPETT: Quite significantly.
MR. KOSOFSKY: … cycle. Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: All right, so the Isaac stories are not necessarily connected to Hanukkah. They may always have some proximity to Hanukkah?
MR. KOSOFSKY: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, I’d love to talk to you about them anyway just as an example of how you get into the meaning of scripture and the workings of scripture in your sort of overview examination of Jewish custom. Because, as you point out, the stories — I mean, this is Isaac and his sons Jacob and Esau, which is this great rivalry. And, in fact, that whole extended family is, as you point out, just full of — you call them “ambiguous characters.” You know, they’re all connivers, including Jacob, who is the great ancestor of Israel. Did you discover stories like that in a different way, as you got into them, in the context of worship and custom?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. In fact, it’s the part of the book that I most loved working on. And, yes, they are remarkably — they’re real people. You know, they’re utterly ambiguous …
MS. TIPPETT: Three-dimensional, flawed.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Well, Jacob, you know, is, indeed, an incredible conniver, and he tricks his brother for his birthright. He tricks his blind father for his blessing, and dressing in goatskin no less or some kind of skin to convince his father that he, the smooth Jacob, is, in fact, the hairy Esau.
What was also remarkable to me was that how in the cycle of — as the Bible developed — that Esau, from being a dolt in the book of Genesis, you know, a kind of just a hunter. You know, he’s an outdoorsman. He’s a guy with no time for subtleties or for meaning, in fact, and he will sell his birthright for a gulp of soup. And he thinks that his being famished from being out in the field is, you know, that if he keeps on being famished, he thinks he’ll die. I think what’s interesting in this story of Isaac and his sons is that Esau, whose people become known as the Edomites, the red people, the red ones, and the Edomites become one of the several biblical epitomes of evil, and that Esau goes from being this dolt, and a harmless dolt, from him come out all of the symbols of evil in the Bible.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, you have this sentence, this concluding very haunting sentence: “In the old books, the bloodlines of good and evil are the same, as they are always.”
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Of course. Exactly. They are brethren, aren’t they?
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: To me, that’s such a wonderful example of the kind of observation about human nature and sort of the largest questions of our world that can come out of reading these stories, which, on first glance, are very strange and full of flawed characters.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Full of flawed characters. There’s nothing strange about them at all, in a way. I mean, they’re the most familiar stories that we have and — because they’re about us and all of us. And so approaching this entire project as sort of a literary approach and trying to understand, “What does this stuff say?” Because this is what I was after, I tried to keep some critical faculty alive while reading it, that it wasn’t just about devotion, but it was also about knowing what it said. Because the only real devotion that I could find is by knowing those things and by having a feeling for this, and that things are not just a world of good people and evildoers. And it’s not that simple. And it’s amazing to me how many people who take it upon themselves to quote a lot of Bible seem to think that the Bible is all black and white. And what I see in front of me is a great deal of — yes, there is some black and white, but there’s, in fact, more gray than anything else.
MS. TIPPETT: You wrote early in the book, you said, “What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things?” And I wonder what you mean when you use that adjective post-Freudian. And you just said to me that you tried to keep a critical edge and at the same time to be looking for meaning, to approach the texts with some of the devotion that they sort of require. I mean, did you find that a struggle in fact?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Less so than I thought. And what I mean by post-Freudian is, in fact, someone who believes in latter-day strategies of psychoanalysis but, in fact, taking into account that this sort of self-examination has become forevermore part of the Western world. But the post-Freudian way is, of course, not to look at dreams as symbols of actions, but to actually look at meaning for what it is. And I thought that that, in fact, would prevent me …
MS. TIPPETT: That it would get in the way.
MR. KOSOFSKY: … from getting close — it would get in the way. It would prevent me from getting close to the meaning of it. And, in fact, it did the opposite. You know, it’s the old case that science can bring you closer to God, not the other way around. And, you know, one is always dazzled by the wonder of it all, and the fact that it exists and the fact that we have these exchanges and the fact that we’re not altogether this or that, but we’re lots of things. And it feels real to me.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, then also, I think, when you define it that way, as part of your post-Freudian sensibility is thinking about self-examination. You spoke earlier about how that is the deepest sense that you found in even some of the violent texts of the Hebrew Bible.
MR. KOSOFSKY: Yes. Well, you know, there’s this character of God, you know, who’s this sometimes really kind of the bad boy with a short temper and about to throw in the towel and just destroy all of them. And, you know, Moses holds him back time after time, and it’s a really remarkable thing. And then you realize that without Moses, it’s sort of between us and God to hold back these bad tendencies. One of the messages of the Torah is that there is no mediator anymore; it’s between us and God and us and ourselves. And so without this self-examination, this post-Freudian self-examination, it’s very difficult to see in these stories very much meaning, I think.
MS. TIPPETT: What — in the season of Hanukkah that’s coming up, what is the character of God that you’re reflecting on then? Because I think those stories are more about the Jewish people, as you said, about the temple. But what is the character of God that is at the forefront of the traditions and the rituals of Hanukkah?
MR. KOSOFSKY: Oh, boy, is that a good question! And I wish I had a good answer for it. You see, I have come to sort of think about things of the places where God might not be anymore. And so I’m — oh, you don’t want to broadcast that. It’s just …
MS. TIPPETT: I’d really be interested. If you wouldn’t mind sharing it, I …
MR. KOSOFSKY: I wonder, in this act of rededicating the temple in all of this, if — one wonders if that end of that period when the Romans under Titus had carted out all of the temple implements. And, in fact, in Rome to this very day, you see on the Arch of Titus that incredible scene of the spoils of war. And the spoils of war were the temple menorah and all of these things that were ostensibly remade by the Hasmoneans under Judah Maccabee and some of the originals having been destroyed. And you wondered, in a way, in all of that if — oh, I wonder whether God was still in that place anymore. And I don’t like thinking about God as the person who let his house just be destroyed like all that.
And one thinks of these thoughts of abandonment and being left on one’s own to make one’s own decision and in a way appreciating all the more these stories of God and of these people because of that. And I sound somewhat superstitious in saying this, but it’s something I actually think about from time to time. And I think that when one thinks about scripture and about liturgy that, inevitably, you know, you just wonder about the places God is and is not. And, of course, you know, by definition, God is everywhere, but are we dealing with God or just the memory of God? Well, if the memory is all that we have, we need that memory very badly. But who can know?
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s books include The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year. He helped design the Mahzor Lev Shalem, a new Conservative prayer book for the High Holidays. This features a typeface he created called “Milon,” after his son, Milo. “Milon” also means “dictionary” in Hebrew.
[Sound bite of music]
To download or listen again to this show or to hear my unedited conversation with Scott-Martin Kosofsky, go to our website, that’s onbeing.org. In the weeks ahead, as the sacred seasons of this time of year continue to unfold and the new year begins, we’re bringing some wonderful voices to the air — from the Dalai Lama to Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, from Walter Brueggemann to Rosanne Cash. And as you’re traveling and celebrating over the holidays, visit us at onbeing.org to find video of all these conversations in their entirety — before you hear them on the radio or by podcast. And, as always, find us at facebook.com/onbeing or follow us on Twitter @Beingtweets.
MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, for Christmas, Walter Brueggemann — he’s one of the world’s greatest living voices on “prophetic imagination” and its meaning for people in our time. Please join us.
This is APM, American Public Media.