Novelist Debra Borden has participated in scores of book groups, "four in the past 10 days," she said. But, added Borden, who lives in Upper Saddle River, she is usually invited as a guest speaker.
Now, however, Borden has taken on the role of moderator, leading a book club that embraces women "on both sides of the ocean."
Women B’Yachad with parallel groups in Bergen County and Nahariya is a project of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership ‘000, which "builds living bridges" among global communities, according to its coordinator, Machla Shaffer.
She pointed out that the book club’s name is a deliberate mix of Hebrew and English, reflecting the intercommunal, bilingual flavor of the enterprise.
"I wanted to involve more UJA lay leaders in Partnership ‘000 so they would understand what it does and support the program," said Shaffer. She added that the idea for the book club "popped into my head" as she and her Israeli counterpart, Noa Epstein, walked by the office of Jodi Heimler, director of Women’s Division, during Epstein’s last visit to the United States.
"Women are all about connecting," she said, adding that the goal of the partnership launched in 1994 by the Jewish Agency’s Israel Department together with United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod/UIA is "building relationships between the two communities via the exchange of ideas and joint cooperation and participation in different projects."
The Bergen-based club has met twice so far, one group in the morning, one in the evening, to discuss Meir Shalev’s "A Pigeon and a Boy." The book was selected because of its sensitive portrayal of three strong women, said Shaffer, noting that the plan for the first year was to select books fitting the theme "the feminine voice." So far, some 18 women have attended the meetings.
The Nahariya group, which started during the fall, has met five times, taking a somewhat different approach. Led by literature professor Moshe Bar Dayan, the group will tackle the book in four sessions and spend another four studying women in the Bible.
Israeli members read the book in Hebrew, while American readers use an English translation, said Schaffer, pointing out that even if the American members know Hebrew, they’re likely to miss the nuances of the text if they read it in that language.
Only books that exist in both languages will be selected, she said, "and we’ll take turns choosing Israeli and American novels. Culturally they’re quite different." The next book slated for the two groups is "Four Mothers," by Shifra Horn.
According to Shaffer, a Website will be established for the book group and will be linked to the UJA-NNJ home page.
"Book club members will be able to sign in and take part in conversations about the books that they all have read," she said. "We hope this will lead to the women on each side of the ocean getting to know one another better." She added that "the ultimate dream will be to take the American members of the club to Nahariya next summer, where they will be hosted by the women in Nahariya and together attend a two-day seminar on women and literature."
Borden said that her training as a clinical social worker, particularly in group therapy, has helped her in leading the book group. "You remove yourself and your biases and let it have a life of its own," she said. "You benefit from a lot of different viewpoints."
The two groups "are very different clubs," she said. "Many more people enjoyed the book in one club [while] the others really disliked it." Borden also noted that members who have closer ties to Israel are able to help explain parts of the book to other participants.
Borden, who said she approached translator Evan Fallenberg now up for a PEN award to gain a better understanding of the Shalev book, noted that it is "filled with linguistic nuances" that may be difficult for those outside of Israel to understand.
"There’s definitely a disconnect" between the two cultures, she said. "Anything that can bridge, enhance, or cement the relationship is what we’re working for."
Borden, the author of "Lucky Me" and "A Little Bit Married," said that connecting through a book group is a good idea because "it’s intellectual but not intense, casual but still interesting."
In addition, unlike a two-continent cooking class, "it can be done."