A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend who is in two book groups, one of which is based at her synagogue, and the other comosed of old friends. When I asked how she made time to attend both groups, she said, "I only go to the second one. But everyone needs a book group they don’t show up at."
My friend was paraphrasing the old joke about the Jew, stranded on a desert island, who builds two synagogues: one he attends, and one he would never step foot in. And her answer was more than partly tongue-in-cheek. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that her transformation of the joke, replacing the synagogue with a book club, was highly suggestive about the influence of book groups in Jewish life today.
Taking my friend’s lead, I would like to propose the following argument: Jewish book clubs are today’s havurot, attracting people not because of the intensity of a ritual-based community, but because of the fluidity of a culture-based one.
Thirty years ago, the havurah movement helped redefine Jewish life by offering a model of Jewish engagement that emphasized the intimate over the remote, the democratic over the hierarchical, the organic over the directed, and the active over the passive. Women and men had equal roles in this new community unit, and intellectual learning proceeded according to the interests and educational levels of the participants.
This sounds a lot like your average Jewish book group, a kind of "cultural havurah" that is often self-generated, self-motivated, small in scale and sensitive to the changing needs of its members. A generation ago, havurot drew in Jews unhappy with the increasingly large-scale post-war Jewish synagogues. Many, if not most, of these people had some Jewish background, and wanted to be part of an ongoing Jewish association that reflected the values of both the counter-culture and a small, traditional community of learning.
Today, Jewish book groups attract not just traditionally affiliated Jews, including those who grew up with havurot, but those Jews for whom a book club (and by extension Jewish culture) is the only expression of Jewish life they are comfortable with.
We live in a cultural world today. Whether it is the pervasive influence of the mass media, or the way politics has become mostly performance art, we increasingly look to the language and symbols of culture to structure our lives. The New York Times’ Frank Rich may be our most important social and political critic because he understands that culture is the key to understanding American society.
This is true for the American Jewish community as well. Study after study suggests that most Jews consider themselves to be "cultural" rather than "religious" Jews, and that they are more likely to attend a Jewish film or book group than a synagogue service.
So it’s natural, perhaps, that our communities, traditionally defined by religious institution, neighborhood, or guild, have become more cultural as well. And these new cultural communities (whether evanescent like a concert, or somewhat more stable like a long-standing book group) offer both a gateway into Jewish life, as well as a challenge to traditional ideas of transmitting Jewish identity.
The communal bonds of a book group, whether held at a Jewish institution or a private home, are relatively weak. This is probably one of the factors that draws otherwise unaffiliated Jews to it. Book club members meet episodically; their spiritual, social and familial concerns are filtered through a piece of literature; they are not financially bound to the group; they are not reliant on it for life cycle events; and they can leave any time with a minimum of disruption to their lives. This is not quite the "virtual" community made popular by the web and the anonymity it offers, but it is a kind of middle ground between that and more traditional communities.
The challenge is in transforming this new cultural institution into something that can influence the next generation, without losing the ambivalent feeling of semi-belonging that draws so many people to it in the first place.
The answer will come in a generation, when Jewish book groups have the potential to become multi-generational, bloom into something new, or fold up, a transitory phenomenon as Judaism marches further into the 21st century.
Dan Schifrin, director of literary programs at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, is also a book group facilitator and novelist.