The Detail of a David Grossman Inscription

I sat enthralled today – listening to the “lecture” by the brilliantly human, jet-lagged David Grossman (a co-presentation of Nextbook at the Washington DCJCC and American University’s Center for Israel Studies program).  In my opinion, Grossman is the resonating moral center of the universe – the model of public introspection.  So he starts with a story about a short, elderly character in a novel of his and the “interiority” of a writer struggling to inhabit and be inhabited by characters who are totally different from his own experience and persona. David was sitting on a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus six years after he wrote about this character and suddenly heard a section he wrote about her read aloud on the radio news “culture corner” that the driver was playing.  A particular detail of an extra wooden pedal he’d given the character for her Singer sewing machine struck his creative memory – at just the moment that the driver changed the station to the delight of his fellow passengers.  Grossman absorbed the insult to his book and to himself – and then jumped back into looking at what he had written about this short woman’s need for the booster pedal, as the kind of detail that is a link in a chain of writer’s attentions to human needs that make up the human texture of a story.  He was then off onto a tour de force exploration of the interior journeys he experiences moving between small character detail and the enormities of parents and children, the Shoah, and the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement, among other topics and passions

There is joy and despair and disappointment in every life, in every world drama.  Grossman writes and talks brilliantly about the joy and despair – the human challenge of it all.  He is never a disappointment.  So I purchased his novel The Smile of the Lamb, to have it signed – and exchanged a few sentences with him about the kind of dialogues we do here at the 16th Street J.  He said, oh, I will sign it and write something. After he signed, I asked him a bit more about how the detail of characters and the world situations come to him and influence each other.  (It happens as it happens.  It’s not planned).  Then a quick L’hitraot and I snuck away to read this inscription:

“To Stephen: For every thing you are doing to bring the two people to listen to each other. Thank You! David Grossman”

Thanked by David Grossman for maybe a glint in my eyes – a quick expression of yearning and purpose!  I’ll read the novel, pay attention to character detail and the big picture – and cherish those words of encouragement always.

Stephen Stern is the Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs at the Washington DCJCC.

Rapid Responsa: An Invitation to Meet on 3/27 and Talk About Obama’s Philadelphia Speech on Race and Resentment

This Thursday, March 27, the 16th Street J invites you to join us at 7:30 pm in the bricks and mortar world for a discussion about race, resentment and the cultural moment signified by Barack Obama’s speech on race. We will use Obama’s speech as a “source text” and an opportunity to move beyond political advocacy or opposition to share our individual reactions, how it applies to our communities, adjacent and related communities and what we might have to say to one another. This is an attempt to step outside the predominant conversation of how Obama’s speech affects the campaign horse-race, and rather respond to how the content of Obama’s speech reverberates–or falls short–with each other.

Initiating our discussion will be special guests, Jonetta Rose Barras, political commentator for WAMU-88.5 FM and Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and Research Director of the Solomon Project.

This program is free and open to all members of the Washington community.

Rapid Responsa is a new program of the 16th Street J. It seeks to periodically provide a forum, as public events warrant, to shape a quick, civil discussion on ideas that have immediate cultural relevancy and about which average citizens ought to be able to speak with one another. Responsa have a long history in Judaism, and concern themselves not only with religious matters, but increasingly with contemporary issues, beginning as early as the 14th Century. What we are embracing with this title is not the stamp of authority that a responsa from a learned rabbi brings with it; rather we are embracing the dialectical approach which characterizes a great many of them. In these cases there is a willingness to discuss thesis and antithesis, a participatory Socratic method, and while we expect we will raise more questions than we answer, our hope is that something can be learned.

RSVP to join the conversation.

Read the text of Senator Obama’s speech.

Read Jonetta Rose Barras’ article, “He’s Preaching to A Choir I’ve Left” from the Outlook Section of the Sunday, March 23 Washington Post.

In Case You Missed It: What Makes An Army Jewish? A Dialogue.

IDF and Jewish Ethics 2Stephen Stern, the 16th Street J’s Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs sends an account of this past week’s riveting dialogue.

Thursday night, February 14, a ruach of intense dialogue pervaded the Center’s Ina and Jack Kay Community Hall, as nearly fifty participants remained riveted for a two hour plus exploration, “What Makes a Jewish Army? Ethics and Tradition: The IDF in an Age of Checkpoints, Village Sweeps and Targeted Killings”. Two passionate IDF veterans recounted their experiences and their starkly different conclusions, listened deeply and challenged each other, responded to fifteen varied and vibrant interrogations from the audience, and spoke to modern dilemmas in light of traditional Jewish questioning framed by our sublime colleague, Jewish educator Avi West of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

This is my brief introductory account and an invitation to continue this dialogue. I seek responses to this blog from our panelists, that night’s audience, and those out there who want more of this.

Yehuda Shaul, a young orthodox Israeli, is founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of veterans who give visual, oral, and written witness on the meaning of their service in the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada. Yehuda illustrated, speaking in front of a panoramic projection of a large Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron, his group’s call for the Israeli civil society “owner of the IDF” to look deeply at and weigh the costs of military control over large civilian populations. Continue reading

This Week at the 16th Street J

A selection of program highlights from the coming week…

Monday, February 11

• Theater J’s Incubator Series presents Brownie Points by Janece Shafer – A vivid, utterly candid look at race relations between young mothers in Atlanta who take their children on a Girl Scout overnight. These high achieving, highly insecure, well-intentioned, or just plain old aggressive women, both black and white, negotiate relationships with their daughters and themselves. (also Tuesday)

Tuesday, February 12

• Nextbook presents James Kugel and How To Read The Bible – Join the winner of the 2007 National Jewish Book Award James Kugel as he explores different readings of the Bible, trying to find a place for himself as both a modern scholar and an observant Jew.

Wednesday, February 13

Young Professional Reading Between The Lines with Rabbi Tzvi Teitelbaum – A study of the Torah portion of the week followed by a talk on the challenge of Jewish ethics and values in the 21st Century with the informative and charismatic Rabbi Teitelbaum.

• Judy Gold continues in 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother (Wed-Sun)

Thursday, February 14

• Dialogues and Public Affairs presents What Makes an Army Jewish? Ethics and Tradition: the IDF in an Age of Checkpoints, Village Sweeps and Targeted Killings – A dialogue between Yehuda Shaul, a young orthodox Israeli whose experience as a soldier in Hebron led to the 2002 founding of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF veterans who give public witness to the impact of their service in the West Bank and Gaza; and Adam Harmon, author of The Lonely Soldier, and an American-Israeli who has served with elite IDF units for over 13 years and has helped capture leading organizers of terror and prevented suicide attacks. Adam believes that ongoing IDF operations must continue as long as the Palestinian leadership remains unable to fulfill its basic security commitments under Oslo and the Road Map. Avi West will moderate.

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