438: The story of a doll, the Bible — and opening new themes in Jewish dialogue

Rebecca the Jewish American Girl “Finally!!!
    That 1-word-3-exclamation-point comment was posted on the “sisterhood” Web page sponsored by the venerable Jewish-American newspaper, The Forward. At issue? News leaked that American Girl is releasing its first Jewish character, Rebecca Rubin, as part of its popular permanent collection of dolls and books (some dolls are featured for only one year).
    To read The Forward’s response, here’s the sisterhood page.
    Also weighing in is Cathy Lynn Grossman, one of a handful of veteran newspaper religion writers still on the beat these days. Here’s Cathy’s take on the story for USA Today.
    Then, the New York Times trotted over to see Abe
Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League about this new doll and series of books. The Times reporter
probably was hoping for a little controversy—and discovered, instead,
that Foxman really likes this new doll and her immigrant narrative. Here’s the Times story.

    Clearly there’s glee in many Jewish homes over this news.

 Dr Lawrence Schiffman JPS Bible scholar     TODAY, though, I’m wondering if we’ll also hear gleeful cries of “Finally!!!” when Dr. Lawrence Schiffman and his team complete their vast undertaking for the Jewish Publication Society—a 2,000-page, 2-volume Bible-study book that will contain new translations and Jewish commentaries on a hosts of religious literature produced in the Second Temple period. To place the era for Christian readers—Jesus lived in part of this period. Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70.
    How important is this project?
    When completed, it will be a cultural treasure for all of us—so significant that our National Endowment for the Humanities just awarded another $90,000 to its completion. Recently, the Jewish Publication Society announced that award and explained that this is “a ground-breaking anthology of writings from the period of the Second Temple … A prior NEH grant in the amount of $100,000 had been awarded to the nonprofit publisher in 2006 for this ambitious project. Edited by world-renowned scholars Louis Feldman, James Kugel and Lawrence Schiffman … (the two-volume book) is an endeavor to restore Second Temple literature to its original Jewish character and context, illuminating the history of both Judaism and Christianity. Once dismissed as marginal to Judaism, many of these texts are now believed to have formed the core of ancient Jewish religious culture.

    I talked with Dr. Schiffman by telephone from his office at the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.
    I asked him to help me take this esoteric-sounding project and bring it into sharp focus for everyday readers.

    “I’ll give you the most shocking headline about this project,” he said. “Right now, every Catholic has in their Bible the book of Maccabees, which tells our story of Hanukkah. But that’s not a book in the Hebrew Bible. I would say that the number of Jews who have actually read the book of Maccabees is very small. That’s shocking to me—Catholics are walking around with our story in their Bibles, but most Jews have never read the book that tells the story we celebrate every year.”
    Why these books were left out of the Hebrew Bible is part of the intriguing story readers will find in the new book, when its two thick paperback volumes finally go on sale in what Schiffman estimates is “about three years.”

004_rebecca_rubin     And here’s where the new doll meets the new Bible-study book: Both are opportunities to explore Jewish culture in eras rarely discussed by non-Jews. Of course, the Jewish Publication Society is aiming mainly at a Jewish audience—but I’m predicting that many Christian study groups will dig into these pages, as well.
    Dr. Schiffman, who has appeared in many TV documentaries, envisions the same diverse interest. He said, “One thing I’ve learned from my experiences in TV is that our country has a really amazing interest among general readers in early Judaism. It’s not an interest simply in picking up details relevant to Christianity. Americans really are interested in exploring this part of the world and this part of history.
    “With these works we’re going to be providing, we can paint that world for readers in a much more vivid way.”

    So, what do you think?
    Are you interested in the doll? Interested in the JPS project?

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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