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Adam Kirsch Read the Classics of Jewish Literature So You Don’t Have To

Here are some fun facts from Adam Kirsch’s “The People and the Books: 18 classics of Jewish Literature.”

The name Esther is actually a Persian form of Istar, a Middle Eastern goddess of fertility, love and war — an unusual mix, even for a higher being.

Before he decided to go with his concept of a Jewish state, Theodor Herzl had another solution to anti-Semitism: mass conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Also, it turns out Jews are just a people of the book, not the people of the book. It is a phrase used in the Koran to designate Jews and Christians who have their own holy scriptures.

Adam Kirsch. Image by Remy Kirsch

Kirsch, director of the masters program in Jewish studies at Columbia University and a columnist for Tablet Magazine, spoke to Curt Schleier about his new book.

The Forward: You come off like a Torah scholar in this book. Is that what you are?

Adam Kirsch: I grew up in Los Angeles. We attended a conservative synagogue and I went to Hebrew school. The subjects I cover are all things I didn’t learn about there. They are not part of the standard Jewish educational curriculum in Hebrew school and even in orthodox school you’re not likely to reach about Philo [of Alexandria], who attempted to reconcile the Torah’s Jewish aspects with secular thought. These are all things I’ve explored since then to get a better understanding of what Judaism is and has been.

How did you make your selections?

I picked works where I felt the general reader wouldn’t know what was in them even if they knew the names of the writers.

What did you learn while researching your book?

One thing is the way certain themes or ideas keep coming back in new ways. So today, American Jews think a lot about their relationship to God and the Torah and the Jewish people are asking the same questions as Greek Jews living in the time of the Roman Empire and Spanish Jews in the Middle Ages.

How do you reconcile the Bible and modern science?

That’s another one of those big themes that keeps coming back. How do you make sense of the bible, which is not rational, not scientific. There have been different views. Writers like Maimonides said you can’t read it literally, it should be read as a metaphor. Spinoza said the bible was nothing more than a book of stories and choosing between science and Judaism he chose science.

Is anything in the Bible real?

That’s beyond my competence to say. There are different theories about that. The only part of the Torah that I write about is Deuteronomy, and one thing you can say is that there is no external support that these things happened and those people actually existed. You have to take it on faith.

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