Two Jews, 2,939 opinions. Other Jews’ opinions. Sandee Brawarsky and Deborah Mark, voracious readers and old friends from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, have collaborated on a book of quotations — 22 pounds of them — that more properly belongs with history tomes than with works of literature.
“Two Jews, Three Opinions: A Collection of Twentieth-Century American Jewish Quotations” (Perigee Books, 575 pps.) documents the first 98 years of this century through the eyes and mouths of American Jews (the known and the largely unknown) and a handful of non-Jews with noteworthy comments on Jewish life (e.g., Barry Goldwater on assimilation).
Books of Jewish quotes already exist. “Two Jews, Three Opinions” is the first one intentionally limited to one century, one nation.
“The focus is on the Jewish experience — what it felt like, what it sounded like to be in the community,” says Mark, an attorney, and public policy director at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The history books will tell you the dates.”
Although superficially about Jewish life, “Two Jews, Three Opinions” is a lens through which to view wider American society, which has experienced wars and assassinations, social movements and political controversies since 1900. They’re all in the book.
“If you looked at the Jewish community in 1899 and the you look at it in 1999, it’s fair to say this was the Jewish century in American history,” Mark says. “American life had an enormous impact on American Jewry. American Jewry had an enormous impact on American life. The book sets out to document the impact each had on each other.”
Quotes on such issues as anti-Semitism and interfaith relations show that some things, and some opinions, barely change. “We have been struck,” the introduction states, “by how discussions about Jewish identity and assimilation seem fresh, whether the quotes are from 1930 or 1990, while many of the comments about women seem hopelessly dated.”’
“Two Jews, Three Opinions” is an A-Z treatment of its subject — abortion to Zionism. Views that contradict each other often follow each other. Woody Allen is in the same chapter, “Faith,” as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the previous Satmar rebbe, staunchly anti-Zionistic, shares space with David Ben-Gurion in “Zionism.”
There are also the words of Red Auerbach and Samuel Gompers, Norman Mailer and William Shatner.
“We were bringing together,” Mark says, “people who probably wouldn’t enter the same room. As much as we could, we wanted to create the illusion of a conversation — an opening for conversation.”
What the book, essentially a compendium of sound bites on paper, sacrifices in depth it compensates for in breadth. “Since quotes represent only a flash of a person’s point of view, we hope the book inspires readers to familiarize themselves with the speakers’ work in full,” the authors write in the introduction.
Examples range from the very silly — Abe Lebewohl, late owner of the Second Avenue Deli, on cold cuts: “Without fat a pastrami sandwich is a worthless commodity. Extra lean annoys me.” To the very serious — Author Naomi Wolf on feminism: “To me, a strong woman is… a woman who isn’t afraid of the power that comes from being a winner.”
Brawarsky, a book critic whose words usually fill this page, and Mark share a passion for collecting and sharing of quotes. “There’s an underground of many people who do this,” Mark says.
Three years ago, “over a long cup of coffee,” their joint book was born. Extant books of Jewish quotations, they felt, had too few women’s voices, too few contemporary writers. Says Mark, “They didn’t tell a story.”
“I’ve learned,” says Brawarsky, a former publishing executive, “that when you can’t find the book you want, you write it — or in this case, you edit it.”
To research their book, the friends perused hundreds of books and newspaper and magazines, play scripts and speeches, sermons and letters. They obtained access to private archives, and asked specific people for contributions. “We’re proud of unearthing things that by and large had never appeared in print,” Mark says.
And they collected out-of-town Jewish community records. “We were very conscious of not being too New York-focused,” Mark says.
Meeting frequently with their individual printouts, they whittled more than computerized 5,000 entries down to the final choice of nearly 3,000.
“The criteria for inclusion,” the pair write in the introduction, “ was that they had something significant to contribute to the conversation.”
“In the whole process,” Brawarsky says, “we had one quote overlap.” That was one of five quotes by the late actor Zero Mostel.
“We never sat down and carved it out,” Mark says. “It almost didn’t require a discussion.”
She and Brawarsky will appear at a book signing Sunday, Dec. 12, noon-2:30 p.m., at Ratner’s Restaurant, 138 Delancey St. on the Lower East Side.
Although their book is out, the authors’ work, and the century their book documents, goes on. Friends still send them quotes for a sequel.
“It’s not over,” Brawarsky says.