A Jewish book club with a difference

by | Feb 8, 2013 | Other News

A little known fact is that Old Dominion University (ODU) sponsors a Jewish book club. What makes this Jewish Writers’ Book Club unique is that it is often facilitated by ODU professors, focuses largely on writings by women authors, and at times meets with the authors. With a diverse group of eager readers and meetings held in the warm atmosphere of its members’ homes, this is a special book club.

In 2003, Dr. David Metzger, then the academic director of the Institute for Jewish Learning and Interfaith Understanding, IJIU made an appeal to other university departments to find a way to support the newly established institute. Dr. Anita Clair Fellman, chair of the Women’s Studies department suggested creating a book club that reads and studies fiction by Jewish women writers. She approached Farideh Goldin a member of the board of Friends of Women’s Studies and an author who enthusiastically agreed that a Jewish writers’ book club could make a worthwhile contribution to the Institute. Together, they mapped out a vision for a club in which university professors would lead discussions.

Beginning with Goldin’s memoir Wedding Song, the book club has read many great Jewish women authors including Cynthia Ozick, Allegra Goodman, Edeet Ravel, Grace Paley, Roya Hakakian, Tillie Olsen, Dara Horn, and Lucette Lagnado. The group tries to study books by American writers, as well as by writers from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. These authors use a variety of genres including novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, social studies, and even comedy to depict the richness and complexity of Jewish life in the Diaspora and in Israel.

Diana Ruchelman, a book club member says, “The books are challenging, the discussion great, and I am always amazed at the number of thoughtful, talented Jewish writers to draw upon.”

Although the club for many years read only Jewish female authors, two years ago it began including male writers, looking for more layers of meaning by comparing the differences in what men and women authors write about, what distinguishes their writing styles, and whether these differences matter. The group has read A.B. Yehoshua, Moacyr Scliar, David Grossman, Nathan Englander, Amos Oz, and Rodger Kamenetz to name a few.

Founding faculty members Fellman and Goldin have frequently selected the books and led the discussions. Other professors have also added analyses and depth to discussions. For instance, Carolyn Rhodes, professor emeritus of English and Women’s Studies, analyzed the use of literary devices in Allegra Goodman’s novels: Katerskill Falls, Intuition, The Cookbook Collector. Heidi Schlipphacke, PhD, associate professor of German and European Studies, enhanced understanding of Paul Celan’s poem, Death Fugue, by giving the history of German Jewish writing after the Holocaust. Idit Benmor, MA, adjunct instructor of Hebrew, Hebrew Linguistics, Medieval and Modern Hebrew Literature provided insights into contemporary Israeli society in the club’s discussion of Apples from the Desert by Savyon Liebrecht.

The club has met with authors such as Marjorie Agosin, Joyce Antler, Helen Epstein, Dalia Sofer, and Merle Feld who came to ODU for literary events. Israeli author Sayvon Liebrecht, who will be at ODU in April as part of the Helen and Daniel Sonenshine Lecture Series in Jewish Studies, plans to hold a special meeting with the club.

The ODU Jewish Writers’ Book Club is part of the IJIU educational outreach to the local Jewish community, meets monthly and welcomes visitors. Currently, most members are Jewish women, but men are encouraged to join. The only requirement for joining is to read the entire book before the meeting and be prepared for a lively discussion.

For more information or to join the Jewish Writers’ Book Club, contact Farideh Goldin at fgoldin@odu.edu.

Kevin Tabakin is a member of Jewish Writers’ Book Club, as well as the community advisory board of the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at ODU. She is also a music teacher and a Jewish educator.

by Kevin Tabakin