Why did you feel a new translation of The Way of Humanity was needed?
The first English translator of Der Weg des Menschen is unknown. That translation is overly literal and made little attempt to reshape the long, nested German sentences of the original for the English reader. We felt this literary gem deserved a translation which considered the sensibilities of English readers.
What was the research and translation process like for this book?
The research for the book centered mainly on the Martin Buber Archive of the Hebrew National Library, located at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We were able to read correspondence relating to Buber’s work. Most importantly, we discovered a series of radio talks that Buber gave in the autumn of 1945, in Hebrew, for Kol Yerushalim, the British Mandate radio service. These enhanced our work greatly.
The epilogue presents a unique discovery that you and Dr. Padawer made while working on this translation. How does this discovery change how we think about this work’s origins?
When we found the Hebrew radio talks he delivered, and a handwritten outline by Buber of the content in both Hebrew and English, we learned that Buber was already thinking about The Way of Humanity as early as 1945 and perhaps earlier. His invitation to speak at a gathering of a Dutch Protestant religious and socialist workers organization, the Woodbrookers in Bentveld, the Netherlands in 1947, became the setting in which Buber presented his “lectures.”
What can contemporary readers learn from The Way of Humanity?
This book is filled with wisdom told with a rhythm and melody created by Martin Buber. It has an urgency cloaked in the world of Chasidic storytelling that begs the reader to probe the meaning of life on multiple levels. It urges the human reader to affirm the world and the self. It is at once a specific and a universal call to be present and affirm life.
Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, senior scholar at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts, teaches midrash and homiletics at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Formerly, he was Distinguished Lecturer in Judaics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Along with Dr. Gabriel E. Padawer,z”l, Rabbi Mehlman translated the new English edition of Martin Buber’s The Way of Humanity, now available from CCAR Press.
What inspired the creation of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories? Each of the stories in the book has a unique origin and source of inspiration, but the collection as a whole was inspired by all the short story anthologies I’ve loved. The first such collection I was given was when I turned eight, Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sanburg. From there, I remember the terrifying Yellow Fairy Book keeping me up at night with its spells and blood puddings, and as I got older, such collections as Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and Occult by Joachim Neugroschel, A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz, Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories by Sandra Bark, Rachel the Clever by Josepha Sherman, Collected Stories by Cynthia Ozick, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander all captivated me. And each week, preparing to teach Torah by reading countless commentaries and divrei Torah is itself a lifelong study of powerful short stories!
Can you share a bit about your writing process? For me, the smallest part of the writing process is the act of typing out the words. A large part of the process is research, and an even larger part is staring into space while the thoughts churn. Behind every story is a thick file of notes, musings, articles, essays and ideas. I spend a lot of time in the research stage, studying and collecting details. To write “The Magic Word” I listened to dozens of linguistics podcast episodes. I study and research until the characters start to create themselves. I have trouble doing what many writers do, which is finding an hour or two a day to write. I need six to eight hours to fully immerse into each new world. So I write on my day off, or when there is a quiet weekend, when I can nest up and delve.
This book is structured in three parts. What can readers expect from each section? The eight stories in the first part, Candle, are anchored in Jewish text and tradition. Some take place during Biblical times and others are reminiscent of fanciful Chasidic stories. The eight stories in the second part, Feather, take place in the modern world. The characters may remind you of people you know or of yourself. These stories wrestle with relevant issues, many through adventure and quest. The six stories in the last part, Wooden Spoon, each take us on a deeper more mystical journey, presenting inklings of new theologies. But I do encourage readers to skip around and bounce from section to section in whatever order you like!
You are also the artist behind the book’s illustrations. What role do they play in the reading experience? Each illustration brings to life a detail of a story, but none of them are of the protagonists. For example, the half-melted snowman illustration for the title story is just a tiny detail in that story. But when the details of a story feel dimensional and alive, hopefully, the rest follows. The characters become fleshed out in readers’ imaginations. The playful drawings give that imagination a little tickle.
How does Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon differ from your previous books? Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon, as a collection of short stories, is vastly different from Drawing in the Dust, a novel. Short stories are an economy of words, and so there isn’t the luxury that a novel has of long descriptive passages and thoroughly explored internal monologues. Rather, a lighter brushstroke is necessary to convey a sense of place. Plot twists and character arcs need to have a smaller turning radius while still feeling natural.
Which of the stories are especially meaningful to you? This is such a hard question! I feel like my answer would be different depending on the time of day, the weather, and the zeitgeist of the moment. But if I had to answer at this particular moment, I would say “Shalom Bayit” is especially meaningful. I don’t feel as if I wrote that story. Isaac and Mateo, the main characters, don’t feel fictional. In fact, when I read it I feel grateful to them for coming to me. Their story seems so real that I can picture them stepping off the page and changing the world. “JEW” is also deeply meaningful to me, as I’ve always been fascinated by the word “Jew,” how it’s been maligned throughout history, and how it is redeemed. I love “Lace Theory” for how it presents a new metaphor for our interconnectedness. “The Flying Insect Café” is so dang fun. “Shades and the Rock on the Grave” is a favorite of mine. And I have this little love affair with “The Goat Keeper” story, which I have been writing and returning to for decades.
Rabbi Klein is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Rabbi Zoë Klein has served Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California, since 2000. She pursued the rabbinate out of a passion for ancient texts, mythology, liturgy, and poetry. Rabbi Klein is the author of the novel Drawing in the Dust; the children’s story The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah; The Scroll of Anatiya; and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon(CCAR Press, 2023).
What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices? There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.
What do you want readers to take away from the book? I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.
What inspired the creation of Because My Soul Longs for You?
Rabbi Zecher: In the 1990s, in preparation for the development of Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, the CCAR embarked on a study of what today’s liturgy should look like. One of the findings was the need to include a diversity of theological expression in the experience of prayer. As we considered what might be possible, our colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman—editor of the new prayer book—presented the idea of a two-page spread to the editorial committee, allowing for a multivocal presentation of each prayer. As a result, many images of the Divine could be offered. We called it an “integrated theology” because the experience of the Divine is expressed in many ways and yet they are interconnected. Several years later, Mishkan HaNefesh: A Machzor for the Days of Awe carried this concept forward. As we reflected on the idea, we wanted to offer pathways to understand what it could mean through the experiences of our lives. Instead of viewing it as a specific theology, we regard integrated theology as what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called a depth theology, the actual experience of the Divine. We are inspired by the way we can share the story of our lives and the way the sacred becomes foundational to how we understand who we are.
What was the most challenging part of editing this book?
Rabbi Goldberg: The most challenging part was defining the nature of the project. Originally we planned to present more intellectual views of God, all part of the normative Jewish spectrum of theology. The notion was not working, however, since we are not classically educated theologians. Once the concept of integrated theology became the focus of the book, everything fell in place. After that, the challenge was finding writers who could evoke the Divine in their lives in a way that was not too reductionist. We did not want a report of someone finding God in music, for instance; we wanted a record of a spiritual experience that involved music. It sounds the same, but it is not. One is a report, the other an experience. We were fortunate to succeed in finding the right people who lived their experiences and could share them so well.
What is something new you personally learned while working on Because My Soul Longs for You? Did any of your own perspectives change?
Rabbi Goldberg: I was astonished to learn about experiences that my colleagues had undergone of which I had no idea. There is so much trauma in people’s lives, and it is easy to forget this because we hide it so well. I like to say that spirituality is a dedication to reality at all costs. When editing this book, I saw people’s struggles, as well as their blessings, in a new light. This insight also helped me put my relatively minor challenges into a better perspective. Especially in this pandemic, the book affirms that we need each other, and we need God in our lives. And we really need God with others in our lives. I have missed that group experience of shared spirituality so much.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Rabbi Zecher: This book is a jumping off point for each of us to contemplate where we might not have considered God’s role in our lives, or our understanding of the sacred as implicit or explicit to what we believe to be true. The beauty of the storytelling offered within these pages is that it helps us identify something similar—or even different—but that may have been there all along. We also hope that it will help the individuals we work with and pastor every day in their own journey of discovery. If reading, studying, and considering their lives awakens their understanding of the Divine in a new way, then putting together the book has been a holy endeavor.
What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.
What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.
Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change? I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.
Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices? For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.
How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.
Why was the app created?
We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.
What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?
The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.
Who helped with the app’s creation?
Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.
How can people best use the app?
I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.