Meetings of very sharp minds

Meetings of very sharp minds

Larry Krule, retiring Jewish Book Council president, talks about literature and Davar

Larry Krule laughs with writer Michael Kramer.

To learn more about the Jewish community in the late 1960s, you could just read “The Chosen” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel was sharply drawn, sociologically on point, and deeply moving. Phillip Roth’s 1969 novel was brash, irreverent, shocking, and controversial.

Both were central to mid-20th-century urban Jewish self-understanding (it’s tempting to say they were seminal, but given the specifics of Portnoy’s complaint, that might not be the best choice of words).

Those two books, among others, had such a strong influence on Lawrence Krule, who read them when they were new and he was young, that eventually they led him to a ten-year presidency of the Jewish Book Council. His term is now ending; he and the council’s president, Carolyn Hessel, are retiring, and both will be honored at a gala dinner on November 18.

Mr. Krule lives in Teaneck now, but he grew up in suburban Chicago; he said that those of us who grew up in the Northeast who have seen the Coen brother’s 2009 movie, “A Serious Man,” can get some idea of the general look and sound of his childhood.

There was a strong intellectual component to his informal education.

“My uncle was a very charismatic, extroverted personality,” Mr. Krule said. “He brought me, early on, to a lecture series in Highland Park” – that’s the one in Illinois, not here. It was at the shul headed by Rabbi Samuel Dresner, who was one of the classic Conservative rabbis, “and the series included lectures by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel.”

Another feature of midwestern midcentury Jewish life was a porousness in the boundaries between the religious streams. The rabbi of Mr. Krule’s Conservative shul was Jay Karzen, who was ordained by Yeshiva University. “I became sort of a protégé of his,” Mr. Krule said. Rabbi Karzen’s influence combined with Chaim Potoks’s to move Mr. Krule first to Chicago’s premiere modern Orthodox yeshiva high school, the Ida Crown Academy, and from there to a year of study in Israel and to the modern Orthodox life he still lives today.

“I loved Ida Crown,” Mr. Krule said. “I made good friends – people I’m still friends with now. We were very intellectually precocious. We read Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud.” Many of those writers since have gone out of style, but they were instrumental in shaping the ethos of a generation.

Out of all of those literary influences, “The Chosen” might have been the most potent.

“It is a great sort of contextualizing of Torah and modernity,” Mr. Krule said. “Its blend of traditional religion and modernity, and its use of baseball as a conduit for it, was just right for someone growing up in suburban Chicago.”

Mr. Krule earned his bachelor’s degree in business at Roosevelt University in Chicago and his M.B.A. at the University of Chicago. Thus armed, he moved east.

Mr. Krule works at restructuring troubled companies. “Most recently, I led a group that bought a hospital on the south side of Chicago that was very depressed.” The hospital, once called St. Francis but now renamed as Metro South Medical Center, is now successful. “The theme in my work is analyzing, investing in, and managing troubled companies, and fixing them,” he said. “We are not investing in them to dissolve and liquidate them, but to fix them. The hospital is the best example of that – we sold it to the largest public hospital chain in the country, and it’s successful.

“We offered employment to everyone in the hospital. We didn’t make money through cutting staff. We wanted to do it as positively as possible.

But, he added, that does not mean that he never lays off employees at companies he has acquired as he works to turn them around. Life is never so simple. Still, as much as possible, “we do well by doing good,” he said.

Mr. Krule specializes in turning around hospitals in trouble; “now it is a specialty for which there is a special need,” he said, but he didn’t know that at the outset.

The skill that seems to help him most in his work, Mr. Krule said, is managing relationships. It is that skill that led him to the Jewish Book Council. “I manage the board, and work with Carolyn to allow her to do the great things that she does,” he said.

As for him, “it is a great opportunity to participate in the encouragement of Jewish literature in America,” he said.

And what exactly is Jewish literature? “Defining it is always a challenge,” he said. “We try to have the biggest tent possible.” The council gives out awards every year. The books it chooses “either have a Jewish theme, even without a Jewish author, or have a Jewish author and have some relevant Jewish meaning or context.” The awards are meant to encourage new Jewish authors. There is a group of young or young-ish writers whose flourishing careers are due in no small part to “Carolyn Hessel’s keen eye,” Mr. Krule said. Those authors include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, Nathan Englander, Mattie Friedman, and Dara Horn.

Just as Mr. Krule’s work at the Jewish Book Council grew out of his passion for the words of smart people using words to form and share ideas, so too did his other brainchild, Davar, the minyan that has met at his house every few weeks, give or take, since 2000.

Davar – which means both “word” and “thing” and therefore is a perfect name for the amorphous, wordy, beloved but hard-to-describe prayer and discussion group – is not a synagogue. It does not meet regularly, does not offer membership or charge dues, does not sell tickets for its high holiday services, does not have clergy, a board, or any other formal structure.

What it does have is very smart visiting scholars discussing ideas after davening together on Shabbat mornings.

It’s for people who “want to be intellectually challenged; people who are intellectually sophisticated and share a common textual foundation, although they are not necessarily at the same stage at their religious observance,” Mr. Krule said.

The prayer service is Orthodox, but the scholars’ backgrounds range more widely. “I don’t discriminate when I invite scholars on the basis of their religious expressions, but on the sincerity of their convictions, the standards of their scholarship, and their general Jewish scholarly gravitas,” Mr. Krule said. When a speaker accepts his invitation, it is with the understanding that the group he or she has engaged to address includes many people with postgraduate education, “doctors and lawyers and businesspeople who have a high degree of Jewish learning.” They are told not to dumb anything down. This is not a group that wants to be spoon-fed.

Mr. Krule invites both men and women as visiting scholars. “I do not want to appear as if I’m pursuing affirmative action, but I do want to provide an opportunity for female scholars, who do not have the opportunity to speak at regular synagogues but have to wait until the tallis is off,” he said.

Each speaker gives three talks. The first is on Friday night. The second is on Shabbat morning. “I have restructured the sequence so that after the Torah reading we break for a full kiddush,” Mr. Krule said. “Then we reassemble, and the scholar is invited to speak for an hour.

“It’s much longer than a drasha, it’s never about the parsha, it’s almost always text-based, with handouts, and there is always a question-and-answer period afterward.

“After the talk, we have Musaf, and we try to finish by noon.” (In order to do that, the davening starts at 8:15. The time has to come from somewhere.)

The last talk is in the afternoon, after Mincha and seuda slishit.

“The idea is to deliver the scholars a crowd that is there solely to hear them, that is fed and so not on edge, but not so sated that they fall asleep,” Mr. Krule said.

Davar’s scholars in residence have included such well known writers, rabbis, and thinkers as Judy Klitsner, David Hartman, Moshe Halbertal, Tamar Ross, Adin Steinzaltz, Yehuda Mirsky, Tova Hartman, Judith Hauptman, and David Ellenson; their affiliations range across much of the Jewish world but their scholarship is on a very high level.

Davar is very much Mr. Krule’s baby. Because he does not charge membership fees, he hopes that people who come frequently, thus making clear that they like what they experience, will contribute to it. “I rely not on the kindness of strangers but on the kindness of friends,” he said. This week, Dr. James Kugel will be scholar-in-residence. Dr. Kugel, who is now retired, taught Bible, midrash, and Second Temple literature first at Harvard and then at Bar Ilan universities. He is the author of many books, including – and this is how we go full circle here – “How to Read the Bible,” which won the National Jewish Book Award as the best book of 2007.

To learn more about Davar, including where to go to hear Dr. Kugel, go to

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