Old Dominion University
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College of Arts and Letters

Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding

A Jewish Book Club With A Difference

By Kevin Tabakin

In 2003, Dr. David Metzger, then the academic director of the Institute for Jewish Learning and Interfaith Understanding (IJIU), made an appeal to other university departments to find a way to support the newly established institute. Dr. Anita Clair Fellman, Chair of the Women’s Studies Department came up with the idea of creating a book club that reads and studies fiction by Jewish women writers.  She approached Farideh Goldin a member of the Board of Friends of Women’s Studies, as well as an author.  Farideh enthusiastically agreed that a Jewish writers’ book club could make a worthwhile contribution to the Institute. Together, they mapped out a vision for a book club in which university professors would lead discussions. From the start, the primary focus has been to discuss the books rather than to socialize.

Beginning with Farideh’s memoir Wedding Song, the book club has since read many great Jewish women authors including Cynthia Ozick, Allegra Goodman, Edeet Ravel, Grace Paley, Roya Hakakian, Tillie Olsen, Dara Horn, and Lucette Lagnado. The selection has included not only by American writers, but also work by writers from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. These authors use a variety of genres including novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, social studies, and even comedy to depict the richness and complexity of Jewish life in the Diaspora and in Israel. Book Club member Diana Ruchelman says, “The books are challenging, the discussion great, and I am always amazed at the number of thoughtful, talented Jewish writers to draw upon.”

Although the book club for many years read only Jewish female authors, two years ago it started to include male writers as well, broadening the scope of group discussions, adding layers of meaning by comparing the differences in what men and women authors write about, what distinguishes their writing styles, and whether these differences matter. The group has read A.B. Yehoshua, Moacyr Scliar, David Grossman, Nathan Englander, Amos Oz, and Rodger Kamenetz to name a few. 

Founding faculty members Dr. Anita Clair Fellman and Farideh Goldin have frequently selected the books and led the discussions.  Other professors who are experts in their fields of study have also added analyses and depth to our discussions.  For instance, Carolyn Rhodes, Professor Emerita of English and Women's Studies analyzed the use of literary devices in Allegra Goodman's novels: Kaaterskill Falls, Intuition, The Cookbook Collector.  Heidi Schlipphacke, PhD, Associate Professor of German and European Studies enhanced the group’s understanding of Paul Celan’s poem, “Death Fugue,” by giving the history of German Jewish writing after the Holocaust.  Idit Benmor, MA, Adjunct Instructor of Hebrew, Hebrew Linguistics, Medieval and Modern Hebrew Literature provided insights into contemporary Israeli society in discussing Apples from the Desert by Savyon Liebrecht. 

The book club has met with authors such as Marjorie Agosin, Joyce Antler, Helen Epstein, Dalia Sofer, and Merle Feld who came to ODU for literary events. The group will meet with the Israeli author, Sayvon Liebrecht, who will give a lecture at ODU in April as a part of the Helen and Daniel Sonenshine Lecture Series in Jewish Studies. 

The ODU Jewish Writers’ Book Club is part of the IJIU educational outreach to the local Jewish community.  The book club meets once a month, and welcomes visitors. If you are interested in joining the Jewish Writers’ Book Club, contact Farideh Goldin at fgoldin@odu.edu.

Kevin Tabakin is a member of Jewish Writers’ Book Club as well as the community advisory board of the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at ODU.  She is also a music teacher and a Jewish educator.

Farideh Goldin and Iranian writer, Dalia Sofer

Members of the book club with Savyon Liebrecht