One Book, many themes, and many readers

One Book, many themes, and many readers

'By Fire, By Water' author will speak to One Community in Ridgewood

The One Book, One Community project, now in its third year, continues to grow, attracting increasing numbers of enthusiastic readers from around the county.

“We choose something different every year,” said Nancy Perlman, coordinator of the project and manager of community outreach and engagement activities for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative.

Ms. Perlman noted that selecting books is not as easy as it seems.

In fact, “it’s really difficult,” she said, describing the challenges faced by her committee, composed of community volunteers. “It can’t just be a book we like to read. We have to feel it will spark the interest of as wide a range of people as possible, even those who don’t feel included in community right now. It can’t be too ‘girly,’ and it has to have enough to talk about and spark conversation.”

Mitchell James Kaplan

Also, she said, it can’t be too close in nature to the books the project already has highlighted. And – because the culminating event of the community project is to bring readers together with the author – the committee has to ensure that this meeting actually will be possible.

This year’s book – “By Fire, By Water” by Mitchell James Kaplan – is a work of historical fiction, set in 15th-century Spain, that centers on the historical figure of Luis de Santángel. Themes include the Inquisition, the attempt to unify the kingdoms of Spain under Christian rule, and the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Last year, community groups were invited to read “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” by Diane Ackerman; the year before, the book was “My Father’s Paradise” by Ariel Sabar.

The One Book project “came as an outgrowth of conversations with community members and leaders who wanted a way to bring the community together across denominations, geography, and background,” Ms. Perlman said. The project’s founders reasoned that since Jews are considered the People of the Book, “what better way to bring people together? Each book we talk about has identity woven in among other themes.”

This year, more than 20 synagogues and other community groups offered programs under the One Book umbrella. “It’s available for any group that wants to participate,” Ms. Perlman said, noting that the only condition is that the program – which should be “roughly related to some theme or idea in the book” – be open to the community.

Activities have varied. Many synagogues have sponsored book discussions. Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom held a One Book, One Community Shabbat in December, weaving Sephardic music into the Shabbat service, inviting a guest speaker raised in Spain to discuss her experiences, and offering a Sephardic oneg afterward. Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley screened a film relating to the themes of the book; while at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, attendees were invited to “taste the spice route,” learning about – and sampling – some of the spices Spain sought between the 14th and 16th centuries.

On April 3, Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center will host the culminating event, where all readers will have a chance to hear from, and ask questions of, the author. Ms. Perlman said the event, which includes dessert, typically draws hundreds of people.

“What excites us, besides the fun, is that we love seeing people get more engaged and getting to know each other across the divides in the community,” she said. “We love the fact that we can be a part of what brings people together.”

If identity is one of the themes in each book that is chosen, it is a major theme in this year’s selection, author Mitchell James Kaplan said.

“My intention in writing is always to explore history and try to come to terms with an understanding of it,” he said. “The subject of [the book] is identity – all about a man torn between different identities.”

His protagonist, Luis de Santángel , is Christian by birth, the grandson of conversos, and beholden to the royal court, but “there’s something else inside him that he wants to honor: the identity of grandparents who were forced to convert.”

Calling de Santángel the prototype of modern man, Mr. Kaplan said that his character is “conflicted and torn in different directions in terms of how he defines himself in relation to the cultures around him.”

Those cultures were in conflict, he said, tearing Spain apart. Indeed, “it was an impossible situation for these cultures to inhabit the same land.”

In America today, “we want to find a way for cultures to get along and inhabit the same space,” but Spain – despite what we may have heard – “was not a beautiful garden of interfaith harmony,” Mr. Kaplan said. “There was nothing but strife,” except for a certain level of mutual respect among the highest scholars of each community, Maimonides, for example.

To Mr. Kaplan, the main question is “How can one person – like me, for example, an American Jew – relate to the world as both?” In some ways, these identities harmonize; in others, they conflict. “Juggling and harmonizing – that is the essence of what this is about.”

The genesis of his book is equally complicated.

“I wrote a draft a long time ago and put it away,” he said, explaining that while doing “web surfing, but with books,” he followed one idea to the next, and became fascinated by the apparent confluence of several facts – specifically, “that Christopher Columbus set sail around the time of the expulsion edict and that the emirate of Granada was conquered by Christians at the same time. It was weird. I hadn’t seen the discovery of the new world placed in this context.”

The man at the center of this, the most central figure, was Columbus’s patron, an adviser to the crown, who was accused of complicity in the murder of Inquisitor Pedro Arbués in Zaragoza. “It was a story that had to be told,” Mr. Kaplan said.

Mr. Kaplan pointed out that while some might characterize Ferdinand and Isabella’s religious intolerance as backward thinking, at the time “it was seen as a good thing. It set up the foundation for unification. What we think of as forward and backward changes over time – how people see progress. In the Middle Ages, Christians saw progress [in terms of] conquering the world.”

He tries to put himself in that period’s point of view and to be faithful to that period. “Today, we think of progress as freedom of religion, pluralism,” he said. “They would have seen that as a foreign, bizarre, and reprehensible way of thinking.”

Mr. Kaplan said that in his book, the discovery of the new world symbolizes the future – “a different world with different answers” to questions of identity, ethnic and religious strife, and how to make the world a better place.”

Mr. Kaplan, who met his wife while living in France, worked in the film industry for many years, “hanging with film stars” while raising a family. “I rode with it while I could, but I knew that this is not what I set out to do. I wanted to be a novelist.”

Returning to the manuscript, he spent six years rewriting the book.

“We sold the house, moved to Pittsburgh, changed our life,” he said, adding that his family was very supportive. He noted that while he was very much interested in Sephardic history before he met his wife – who is Sephardic – her knowledge of folklore, together with her mother’s memories, have been very helpful.

Mr. Kaplan has been invited to speak throughout the country and in Mexico, and his book won an award in Italy.

“I had no idea” it would generate such a reaction, he said, noting that invitations started to pour in even before the book was published formally.

He said he wanted to express his appreciation to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey “for what they’re doing – promoting Jewish dialogue and exploration of Jewish identity by promoting literature and creating a forum in which people can discuss literature considered to be relevant to Jewish identity.”

On April 3 he will talk about the experience of writing his book, answer questions from the audience, and show slides of his visits to Spain.

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