I recently interviewed author, journalist, and academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Josh Lambert. Lambert is a pioneer of The Great Jewish Books Summer Program, a week-long exploration of literature & culture for high school students. Lambert is a father of one son and currently resides in Connecticut with his wife.
I spoke with Lambert about the exciting student literary program, what Jewish books he prefers to read with his students, and the five Jewish books that all parents should read.
1. What three books do you always make sure to teach at the Yiddish Book Center?
Well, despite the name, we don’t teach many whole books in Great Jewish Books–because students are only with us for a week, and there’s only so much they can read every day. But I always tend to start the course with Kafka’s Before the Law–to get us talking about what is and what isn’t Jewish literature, and the history of interpretation in Jewish culture, from the haggadah and midrash to literary modernism. I can’t imagine not teaching Philip Roth’s story “Defender of the Faith” or Avrom Sutzkever’s geto lider (ghetto poems)–these are startling, perfect literary pieces that get at some of the biggest themes treated by Jewish literature: community, continuity, and response to adversity.
2. How have kids reacted to Portnoy’s Complaint and other Roth books that are wrought with awkward sexual confessions?
I’ve never given Portnoy to the Great Jewish Books participants. Not because I don’t think they can handle it, but because (again) there’s not enough time. But in general I’ve found that 16-year-olds are able to handle challenging material with aplomb. I’ve noticed that when the Great Jewish Books students pick examples of literature to read at the reading/talent show we have at the end of the program, they often choose very intense and fascinating work–I recall one very memorable reading of Eve Ensler’s poetry, for example, that wasn’t exactly G-rated. These are people growing up in a world of almost limitless access to so-called adult materials. The ones I meet are thoughtful about what’s appropriate or not for various situations and what they can learn from the difficult stuff.
3. Jewish teens of all denominations are encouraged to apply. Are you hoping that these students will have a different relationship or connection to Judaism after the summer program?
Yes, we’re absolutely trying to broaden and complicate the ways that our participants think about Jewishness–but we don’t have a narrow agenda. We’re not pushing one particular thing. We’re certainly not expecting that everybody who comes to Great Jewish Books is going to go on to learn Yiddish, or study literature in college, or become a writer (although some certainly will; some of our alumni already have). We want them to appreciate the diversity and richness of modern Jewish culture and contemporary Jewish life. Part of what’s so rewarding about these groups is that kids from Orthodox backgrounds and secular humanist backgrounds (and everything else you can think of) come together in the program and see one another not just as equals, but as opportunities to learn.
4. What book or topic has surprised you the most, in terms of what the majority of high school students today are most interested in?
It’s difficult to generalize. One of our groups had a few participants obsessed with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, and that made sense to me—but also one from that same group bought Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic, a scholarly book about the role of traditional Jewish ideas in the development of modern political thought, and tore through it in a day or two. So who knows? Teenagers are just like us: you can’t predict their tastes.
5. What are five Jewish books that all Jewish parents should read?
There’s plenty of nonfiction, and also plenty of rabbinic literature, that addresses the challenges and joys of parenting. But I’m going to stick to the modern literature I love and teach.
Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman. A novel that’s ultimately about whether we can accept our children’s choices.
Henry Roth, Call It Sleep. Roth lets us see anew what the world—the new, frightening, city—looks like to a child.
Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field. A heartbreaking story of modern family and loss.
Philip Roth, American Pastoral. If you think your kid is difficult, you haven’t met Merry Levov.
Grace Paley, Collected Stories. Paley captures better than anyone the rhythms, the sweetness, and the challenge of being someone’s parent, someone’s child.
6. You have a young son. Do you read Jewish books with him? What are some of your go-to’s?
I read Jewish books with my 3.5-year-old all the time. He has strange tastes—he has a thing for a somewhat lame Passover picture book from the 1980s, which he pulled off a shelf at my in-laws’. He also likes us to read him cookbooks, so Einat Admony’s Balaboosta has lately entered the rotation. But lately, he especially likes to be told and to act out Torah stories. Especially Jonah.
7. What’s it really like to spend a week with high school kids today? What sticks out to you?
Compared to the college students I’m used to, the high school students are supernovas of energy. They’re self-selected, of course—it’s not every 16- or 17-year-old who wants to spend a summer week reading literature on a college campus—and so they’re deep, thoughtful readers who have as yet been exposed to modern literature in a haphazard way, in most cases. So they’re just now discovering the greatest works. (To watch a true lover of literature encounter Babel or Paley for the first time is a real privilege.) It’s also clear they’re under a lot of pressure: when we ask them, at the end of the program, what they’ve appreciated most about the week, they often say that it’s the unusual chance to spend a week talking about something they love—literature—without any grades. I love that part of it, too.
You can learn more about the Great Jewish Books program by watching the video below. Applications for the next program in August are due by March 15th: