A penchant for the esoteric

Book club

March 28, 2002

An interview with Ethel Brandt, founder of the CJC Book Club.

What does CJC stand for? Columbia Jewish Congregation, even though most of the members are not in the congregation. ... The book club meets in people's homes about once a month. ... I started the group in 1974 when I joined the congregation. ... We read fiction and nonfiction about Judaism.

How do you decide what books to read? The members of the group make suggestions. ... We always try for the esoteric ones, the ones with the heavier content. We tried Belva Plain, but then we thought her books were too light, so we lean toward heavier books. We generally don't read best-sellers. Well, I shouldn't say that. We did read The Red Tent, which is a best-seller, and we just read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and that was an amazing book, and it was a best-seller.

What did the group like about that book? Kavalier and Clay are two young cousins, and they decide that they want to make comic books, and this was the late '30s, early '40s when comic books were in their heyday. ... It's a mix of fiction and nonfiction. ... It's a history of comic books, but it's done with a Jewish theme. It has the Holocaust, World War II in it because the protagonist escaped from Prague, and you have this Jewish ancient folktale of the golem of Prague. ... Golem was a clay figure that a rabbi in Prague would conjure up with special incantations when the Jews were in trouble, when the Jews were persecuted, that would walk through the streets to make the streets safe for Jews. He would protect the Jews. ... [The two cousins] bring in the theme of anti-Nazism in the comic books. ... It's as if the comics are the golem and can save the Jews by its messages.

What book are members reading this month? Well, we're reading The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve.

Has your group had a favorite book over the years? Our all-time favorite book is the very first book we read back in 1974. It's called As a Driven Leaf, and we just re-read it. ... That book is kind of the search for the meaning of God, and it takes place in ancient Israel in 132 AD. And it's where the rabbis are ... essentially discussing whether they should consider reason, which is part of the heart of the Greek philosophy, as opposed to Judaism's reliance on fate.

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