26 February 2009

What Israel Means to Me, Apparently

A funny thing happened to me about a year and a half ago. My dad gave me a package that had arrived at his house, where I had lived until my senior year in college, addressed to me from Jewish Lights. Inside was the book A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them, ed. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2007). There was also a letter which read (and by the way, the creative use of bold-faced type is theirs):

October 3, 2007

Dear Contributor to A Dream of Zion:

Enclosed please find your complimentary copy of A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them. On behalf of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and Jewish Lights Publishing, thank you for your contribution to this valuable resource.

If you would like to obtain additional copies for family, friends or colleagues, we will extend to you a special contributor’s discount through November 15, 2007. The retail price is $24.99. Your cost will be at a 50% discount: $12.50 per copy, plus shipping and handling. An order form is enclosed with this letter for your convenience. You may mail it to Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091 or fax it to us at 802-457-4004. Or if you prefer, you can call us with your order at 800-962-4544 or visit our website at http://www.jewishlights.com/.

We hope you’ll help us spread the word about A Dream of Zion by mentioning the book to colleagues and friends.

Very truly yours,
Stuart M. Matlins
Publisher and President

Now, I didn’t recall contributing to such a book, and since I’m not a Jew (though I am an American) I would be surprised if anything I had written had been included. So at first I thought they had simply put the wrong label on the package or something.

But upon closer inspection, the mistake went deeper. The book is an anthology of very personal reflections, grouped according to the thrust of the contributor’s view (to summarise: Ancestral Home, Refuge from Anti-Semitism, Part of My Faith, Light Unto the Nations, Historical Perspective). They are not titled, but simply headed by the name and a brief bio of the individual contributor, all except those in the final section being names that were previously unfamiliar to me (saving only Arthur Kurzweil). But on p. 160, in the ‘Light Unto the Nations’ section, I found the following contributor:

Aaron Press Taylor is a student at Brandeis University where he transferred after three semesters at Yeshiva University. He is an alumnus of the Reform youth movement and its various leadership programs, and has spent significant time in Israel.

It occurred to me that JL either has two Aaron Taylors in their database, or they only have one—me. The only reason they have me in there is that at some point during my freshman year in college, I bought a copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s A Passion for Truth (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1995) at a now sadly defunct local bookshop. I never did read the book (which I believe sadly perished in a 2000 mould tragedy), but I did fill out a postcard with my name, address, and interests and received at least one catalogue. Apparently what had happened was that when they looked for Aaron Press Taylor’s address in their database in order to print out a label, they saw ‘Aaron Taylor’ and thought they had found their man.

Well, I realised that if I did nothing, the real Aaron Taylor may be left wondering where his complimentary contributor’s copy was (as I myself wondered on another occasion when I discovered a book had been published containing a paper I’d written). I called the number on the letter and explained everything to the nice, presumably Jewish girl on the other line. I was told that the real Mr Taylor would be sent his copy and that I could keep mine, despite being neither Jewish nor a contributor.

Although the premise of the book strikes me as something like a high school essay assignment—‘What Israel Means to Me’—I read a few of the pieces, and they certainly are thought-provoking. Mr Taylor’s essay, largely focusing on his sense of being spiritually drawn to Israel despite being ‘usually rational, sometimes even agnostic’ (p. 161), ends with the suggestion that he will help ‘to fulfill the Jewish hope that Israel will ultimately stand as a beacon, just and upright in its values among the nations’ (p. 162). But then, of course, Arthur Green among others feels that despite Israel’s successes, its ‘stand as a beacon’ has been marred by ‘the essential moral failing of Israel—its inability to deal fairly with the rights and even the full humanity of the other people with whom it shares a homeland’ (p. 153). Finally, Ariel Beery’s essay highlighted for me one of the essential differences between Jews and Christians, who have ‘no continuing city’ on earth (Heb. 13:14). Beery is firmly convinced, ‘We Jews are not just a spiritual community—we are a people, one that will only fulfill its collective potential with a state in which we can hammer out the details’ (p. 173). This seems to me to be hitching one’s wagon to a falling star. But no one asked what Israel means to me.

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