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Saturday, July 12, 2014

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Hope for the new year

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 Time Magazine called it the Decade from Hell. This past 10 years, that is.
 
 So as a new decade beckons, and with the U.S. still mired in a grim economy and war on two fronts, there's a need for at least a glimmer of hope to dispel the gloom. And who better than Mitch Albom of heartwarming, heart-rending "Tuesdays with Morrie" fame to cast a warm glow on the new year. "Have a Little Faith: A True Story" (Hyperion, $23.99 hardcover) is the feel-good choice to greet 2010.

 The little book, as deceptive in its simplicity as its size, is a rumination on life, faith and hope. It's also testimony to Albom's consummate skill as a writer, as he artfully weaves together two stories, one of his childhood rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis of Haddon Heights, N.J., and the other of a Christian preacher, Henry Covington, who heads a mission church in Detroit, the city Albom now calls home, and uses them as a crafty literary device to tell his own. 

 The book opens with Albom explaining to readers how the "Reb," as Lewis is known, asked him to give his eulogy.
 
 That request sparked the renewal of their relationship, as Albom, ostensibly compelled to learn more about the man he had been asked to remember, uses the opportunity not only to learn about Lewis but to learn about himself. Their conversations span eight years, with Albom shuttling to Lewis' south Jersey home every few months for freewheeling conversations that ultimately delve into life's big questions - purpose, meaning, happiness.
 
 As the rabbi ages, Albom matures, examining his own perceptions of accomplishment and success, religious belief and practice. He looks at his lapsed Judaism, his intermarriage, his difficulty in dealing with God and faith. His experiences meeting Covington, a former drug addict and felon who turned his life around and dedicated it to God, further prod his reflection.
 
 Toward the end of the book, shortly before Lewis passes away and Albom delivers the promised address, he writes, "I used to think I knew everything. I was a 'smart person' who 'got things done,' and because of that, the higher I climbed, the more I could look down and scoff at what seemed silly or simple, even religion. But I realized ... that I am neither better nor smarter; only luckier. And I should be ashamed of thinking I knew everything, because you can know the whole world and still feel lost in it. So many people are in pain - no matter how smart or accomplished - they cry, they yearn, they hurt. But instead of looking down on things, they look up, which is where I should have been looking too. Because when the world quiets to the sound of your own breathing, we all want the same things: comfort, love and a peaceful heart."
 
 Searching for comfort, love and peace is a universal quest. While Albom infuses it with yiddische tam, David Gelernter suffuses it with Jewish substance, writing a very different book for a very different audience.
 
 Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale and a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, examines Judaism's philosophical bases in his "Judaism: A Way of Being" (Yale University Press, $26 harcover). Raised in a Reform community but conversant in both Reform and Orthodox text and tradition, he writes from an observant perspective offering a Judaism he describes as "full-strength, straight-up; no soda, aged in oak for 3,000 years."
 
 Starting from the premise that Judaism is a way of life, with four distinct themes, Gelernter shows how it can provide answers to life's most pressing questions. He looks at the role of Jewish law, of God, of gender and family and how Judaism reconciles good and evil. Along the way, he makes a compelling argument not only for faith and hope,  la Albom, but for serious Jewish practice. While lamenting the diminution of Jewish believers, he suggests that Judaism today is seen as "strange and forbidding, or obsolete and pointless or so vague and bland that its basic ethical teachings seem like mere truisms." Understanding Judaism as a whole, as a "grand scheme," posits Gelernter, illumines its appeal and can unleash its power.
 
 A third choice that promises hope in a better world - and a means to access it - is Robert Alter's beautiful new English translation of the book of Psalms, "The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary" (W.W. Norton and Co., $20 paperback).
 
 Alter, the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an acclaimed biblical scholar, gives new resonance to the age-old tehillim, a source of comfort for generations of Jews, with his carefully honed translation, replete with indelible images that reinforce the innate lyricism of the work.
 
 A scholarly introduction provides context for the translation, delving into the book's history, structure and the challenges of translation. Alter, in the introduction, calls the book of Psalms "the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of its readers ... Untold numbers have repeatedly turned to Psalms for encouragement and comfort in moments of crisis and despair."
 
 Its value, especially now, endures.
 
 Vicki Cabot reviews books for Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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