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For the Birds? Well, Why Not, Says Author

February 14, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Jonathan Rosen
At first glance, Jonathan Rosen's latest book, The Life of the Skies, subtitled Birding at the End of Nature, seems to be about, well, birds.

But The Life of the Skies is about more than that. While exploring history, religion and culture, as found in literature spanning thousands of years, Rosen shows his readers -- and, in fact, told them recently at a local talk -- that there is more to birds than meets the eye.

Rosen, an author of both fiction and nonfiction, explores the theme of the environment -- and humankind's impact on it -- in his newest book, released this month.

Birds are symbolic of many things, he said, including the frailty of nature, and of humanity itself.

"We are ourselves the natural world," explained Rosen -- who is editorial director of Nextbook, where he edits the Jewish Encounters series -- during a recent visit to the University of Pennsylvania campus to discuss the topics addressed in his book.

Writing about birds might seem like an odd choice for a city-dweller like Rosen, who lives in Manhattan. And Rosen himself admitted he wasn't always interested in feathered creatures. He started birdwatching about 15 years ago in Central Park, and in doing so, realized that they seemed to be his only connection to the wild.

Rosen has a litany of writing credentials. He was the first arts editor at the Forward, which he left in 2000, and is the award-winning author of three other books besides The Life of the Skies: the nonfiction The Talmud and the Internet, and two works of fiction, Eve's Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning. He noted that he has several creative works in the process, including two novels.

Rosen, 44, lives in Manhattan with his wife, Rabbi Mychal Springer, who is associate dean and director of field education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. They have two children.

'A Door to the Natural World'

His latest book draws on aspects of his own life -- to his own awakening to the natural world around him -- and what it means to be an urbanite waking up to have an interest in birdwatching, and the symbolism represented by the migrating creatures in the sky.

"Bird-watching, for me," he said, "opened a door to the natural world."

As the 2008 Silvers Visiting Scholar, his local visit was sponsored by the University's Jewish Studies Program and the Kelly Writers House.

About 30 students, faculty and members of the community attended his Feb. 7 presentation called "The Life of the Skies: Judaism, Evolution and the Natural World."

His lecture addressed a variety of topics associated with his book's theme, including interesting tidbits in American history (for instance, President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid birdwatcher), as well as made mention of the continuing debate among those who believe in evolution versus those who regard the Creation story mentioned in the Bible as the veritable truth.

He noted that a connection between Judaism and nature dates back to the time of the Torah, when God created birds on the fifth day of creation. This exists in the modern-day implications of human impact on the wilderness, both in the United States and in Israel, where he went bird-watching in 2000 and describes his adventure in detail in the later half of his book.

Rosen also addressed the state of the environment today.

"We live in an age of conservationism and the need to keep things alive," he remarked at the end of his lecture. A contemporary way of seeing the world for what it is, he noted, can happen through watching the birds.

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