Book Psychic

Or: “Why Is It That Every Idea I Have Is Already Taken?”

A month ago or so, I read an article in the marvelous publication The Jewish Review of Books by philosophy professor Carlos Fraenkel about an “underground” philosophy club he wound up teaching to the Hasidim of Brooklyn.  A little taste (you can read the whole thing here):

“‘How could the medieval thinkers get away with interpreting the Torah according to Aristotle or the Sufis?’ Jacob wonders.

‘Well,’ I say, ‘they thought that if Judaism is true, it must agree with every true insight, even if it came from a Greek or a Muslim. The Haredim, on the other hand, think that they have to shelter true Judaism from any supposedly corrupting outside influence.’

This leads us to discuss whether the Haredi fight against cultural contamination is a lost cause from the start. I point to an interesting passage in Toledot Yaakov Yosef, the first published Hasidic book, by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, a disciple of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. R. Yaakov Yosef draws a contrast between a “small” and a “great” struggle; the former refers to a battle with weapons, the latter to the moral wrestling of the soul with the ‘evil inclination’ (yetzer ha-ra). The source of the metaphor is actually a famous hadith frequently cited by Sufi mystics. In this tradition, the Prophet Muhammad tells a group of soldiers that after returning from the ‘smaller jihad’ — the jihad of the sword — they now must take up the ‘greater jihad’ — the jihad of the soul against pleasure. Of course, the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples didn’t study the Sufi masters. But they did study Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, which was translated from Arabic to Hebrew in the 12th century and became a classic of Jewish thought. Bahya’s account of the soul’s ascent to God was strongly influenced by Sufism and includes a version of the hadith in question, without, of course, the reference to the Prophet Muhammad. As Isaac points out, excitedly, the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, was also a devoted student of Bahya’s Duties of the Heart!”

I was so taken with the article that I quickly emailed the author, as I am wont to do these days (every day I’m hustlin’) the following:

Dear Dr. Fraenkel,

I read with great with pleasure your article “Spinoza in Shtreimels” in the latest issue of The Jewish Review of Books, which is a fantastic publication I am always glad to get the chance to peruse.  Part of my interest in your piece was my light philosophical education –– I went to This University, which has strict Western Philosophy requirements, nearly all of which I’ve guiltily forgotten save the buzz phrase “categorical imperative” –– and part of it was because I am also a writer who has sort of inexplicably found herself covering a number of stories in the haredi community (upcoming pieces in Tablet and The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk blog.)

The main reason that I’m writing is that in addition to being a freelance writer, I’m also working for a publishing company called xxx, which is located in New York City and run by the venerable PM.  Something about your piece made me feel like there was may be a short book that could come out of it –– perhaps it was the idea of an underground club akin to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran or some unavoidable titular association with Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (The Lubavitchers’ Philosophy Club?) –– and I’m writing to see if you thought there is an opportunity here to expand the piece into a book.  Of course, you are the author of the article and also the man with the experience, so you’ll know best whether or not the material you amassed was exhausted in the article, but just perhaps it wasn’t.  If in fact it was, or you are busy working on other projects, I still want you to know that the article was wonderful, entertaining, and pretty damn funny at times.

Let me know if you have any thoughts on this, or you just want me to continue to compliment your writing style and ability to get haredim to warm to you.  I’m good for that, too.

Best,

ID

And his response:

Dear ID,

Thank you very much for your kind words about my essay (and my apologies for the late reply; I just relocated for a month to Berlin with my family and was without internet for over a week–a strange state to be in…).

 

There will indeed be a somewhat longer version of the essay which will, however, become part of a collection of essays titled Teaching Plato in Palestine (the title really does recall Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; so your instinct was right). The book will be published by Princeton University Press; I’m not sure if publishing it with an academic press is a wise decision since the book aims to reach an audience beyond academic specialists; on the other hand, I also want the larger project animating these essays to be noticed in academic circles, so I’ll probably stick with Princeton with this.

 

I do, of course, greatly admire PM’s work, and may well come up with something in the future that might be a fit as my writing moves further away from academia. So thanks for your inquiry!

All the best,

Carlos Fraenkel

My, that Fraenkel is a nice man!  And finally, my somewhat cheeky reply to him:

 

Dear Carlos,

Woah… so… what you’re saying is basically I’m psychic re: book titles/themes?  I think that is what you’re saying.  I’ve got to add this new skill to my resume.

Anyway, your new move and the new book sound very exciting indeed!  I’ll be keeping an eye out for its release (unless you want to save me some trouble and tell me know when it’s coming off press?) and for future pieces in JRB and other places.  Please do keep me and X Publishing in mind for future work!  We actually do a lot of stuff that has an academic bent but is aimed for a lay readership, so we may just be the perfect place for your next project.

Hope to speak again some day!

 

The moral of the story is: even if an idea you have has been “taken,” it feels better than it being flat out rejected, so awkwardly email away!

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