As a freelancer, I often find interesting work opportunities that don’t pan out. I spent time in December applying for an editor gig that involved editing summaries of literature to provide students with educational support. I used to think these supports were “cheating,” using these kinds of guides, but now I know differently. Students with special needs deserve access to these stories. I recognize that every student has the right to learn, read great pieces of literature and access education, even if they struggle along the way. So, I dutifully filled out the form, sent off my CV and submitted an application. One application question irked me. “What’s your favourite piece of literature and why?”
Two things bothered me. One is that this response had a word limit on the form, so nobody could wax eloquent about whatever they chose. The second thing is that, as someone in mid-life who reads voraciously, I thought it was ridiculous to ask what someone’s all-time favourite was. I couldn’t possibly name only one, but I thought about it. I’ve been reading Talmud daily for about four years. I must like it. Further, it has helped me gain a lot of insight into the ancient world, and reflects further on ancient cultures, law systems and storytelling.
I tried to fit this into the form, but I had reservations. The organization had a big “We do not discriminate” statement on its page but, after Oct. 7, I wondered if I was risking something to say that the Babylonian Talmud was my current favourite. My concerns might have been warranted. On Dec. 25, in the morning, I received a vague form email telling me my application hadn’t been successful. My household laughed about the timing of the form letter. What were they indicating? That Jews should work as usual on Christmas, a North American statutory holiday? Or that my choice of literature was so egregious they couldn’t wait for a business day to reply? Perhaps something else about my qualifications didn’t meet their needs. It’s best not to work for a place that isn’t a good fit. Although this part-time gig had great potential, I wasn’t a contender. That’s OK.
This experience made me reflect on my lifelong relationship with reading. I’ve always loved to read. One of my undergraduate majors was in comparative literature. A favourite moment during my graduate work in English education came when the professor put different things on a table and asked us to list which things were “literature.” The professor included newspaper articles, fiction and nonfiction, plays and song lyrics, advertisements, and more. Her point was that we often couldn’t predict what piece of writing would stand the test of time. Further, all of us would have different answers to this question about how to define literature and its meaning. She was right.
Since Oct. 7, I’ve had a hard time focusing. For a long time, I couldn’t read a book. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been glued to the news and social media, reading many articles and much political analysis. I listened to completely “fluffy” fiction audio books as I cooked but, eventually, I had to stop renewing a book I’d checked out from the public library. It was nonfiction, a book about the US Great Migration called The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. It was well-written and engaging. I felt like apologizing to the author. I couldn’t focus enough to remember the various narrative threads or finish it.
Later, on Dec. 25, I managed to complete reading On the Way Home, the short diary of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which recounted her trip from South Dakota to her new home in Mansfield, Mo., in 1894. This brief chronicle transported me, giving me a window into travel during a period of US history that I could only imagine. Was it literature? Perhaps, because it worked the way literature should. I spent time in my imagination in a different place and time. It offered a brief respite. Perhaps it’s the start of being able to focus on reading again? I can only hope.
I wondered why I’d made it through this (admittedly short) volume I’d found at a neighbourhood Little Free Library. It made me reflect on what aspects of literature are valuable and what allows us to focus on it. Perhaps it’s about escape or the imagination. Maybe it helps us learn about relationships, history and culture.
Four years ago, I resolved to start Daf Yomi, reading a page of Talmud a day, on Jan. 5. It was my birthday and close enough to the start of the secular new year to be a “resolution” that truly stuck. After four years of reading a page a day, I am still immersed in this experience. Even though I read mostly in English, and barely skim the surface of each page, I’d argue this is a good read. I’ve learned a lot, but it has taken work and research to make meaning. Sometimes, I have to struggle with finding connections with the rabbis who lived 2,000 years ago. Even as the rabbis struggled with practical issues, I sometimes have to read commentaries and make a leap to figure out how the issues applied then as compared to today.
Great literature is about history and context, as well as mystery, and it’s all there, wrapped up for us like a big gift in Jewish literature. Religious texts like Torah and Talmud, as well as all the other Jewish stories that came afterwards, add meaning and depth to our lives. Surprisingly, I haven’t had trouble focusing on these narratives.
Here, too, is another lesson that literature is teaching me – we Jews are a small people but have incredibly rich literary and spiritual resources. As Israel struggles physically with war, these texts remind me what we’re fighting to maintain. Doing the work to understand these texts offers us so much history, context and tradition, I’m grateful to have the opportunity. It’s the least I can do when so much is at stake.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.