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. Read the rest of this entry →