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KELLNER: If humor defines Jewishness, ‘Unscrolled’ fits the bill

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The release this week of a major new survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center revealed several intriguing points, but the one that caught my eye was that 42 percent of those polled assert that having a good sense of humor is essential to their Jewish identity.

If that's the case, the young Jewish artisans — writers, musicians, photographers, graphic artists and the like — who compiled the just-release "Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah" (Workman Publishing) have certified their status, with buckets to spare. These people clearly have a sense of humor; how "good" you might find it could be subject to interpretation.

Some background: Jewish practice divides the Torah — the first five books of the Bible — into 54 weekly portions that traditionally are read over the course of a year. Called a "parasha," the weekly portion is a "theme" from which a rabbi or other congregational leader can derive a homily.

Well, the homilies here are most assuredly not your grandfather's parashot (which is the plural), unless, perhaps, your grandfather was Ken Kesey or R. Crumb. But more on that in a moment.

The book is designed, contributor A.J. Jacobs said, to be edgy. Mr. Jacobs is a contributing editor at Esquire and author of "The Year of Living Biblically," in which he tried to do just that, following every "jot and tittle" of the Old Testament.

Speaking by phone from a New York City park while watching his son play in a baseball game, Mr. Jacobs quoted late-night band leader Paul Shaffer: "If there is a God, then God is the ultimate being and He has the ultimate sense of humor."

Said Mr. Jacobs, "Hopefully, God will see ["Unscrolled'] as it is meant to be — reverent and irreverent at the same time."

I'm not sure how much reverence would attend to Damon Lindelof's casting of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac as evidence of "cycloid psychosis" requiring the twice-daily administration of Olanzapine, an antipsychotic drug. Or, for that matter, to the "graphic novel" style write-up of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments as told by Zipporah, his wife. This illustrated essay reminded this writer more of Robert Crumb, the famed hippie-era cartoonist who, oddly enough, recently published his own artistic take on the "Book of Genesis."

While the earthiness of "Unscrolled" might seem unsettling for a book based on the Torah, Mr. Jacobs asserts that such candor is in keeping with the sacred text itself: "I will say the Bible is not a G-rated book. Sometimes it's taught that way, [but] I'd say PG-13, even R, a bit of sex and violence, [and] certainly a lot of drinking."

He expressed high hopes for the book, saying, "I actually hope it has a wide audience, because I do think it engages the Bible. Every generation has to wrestle with the Bible through their lens and with their issues."

But do they? Have there not been — and are there not now — generations which actually accept the Bible's words at face value? The Pew Research Center survey didn't address this topic, other than to report that Orthodox Jews are the most religiously oriented segment of the American Jewish community, "whose level of religious commitment matches or exceeds most other religious groups in the population." How such readers might react to "Unscrolled" is anyone's guess, but Mr. Jacobs believes such an audience might appreciate the humor "as long as you're not going in with an ax to grind, or being intentionally snarky."

There isn't a lot of snark in "Unscrolled," but the reinterpretations do stretch things quite a bit. In order to wrap one's mind around it, the "willing suspension of disbelief," popularized by the Greeks in their evolution of theater, might not only be required, but would also come as an asset.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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