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'People of the Book' Sit, Stew, Sound Off

February 15, 2007 By:
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J.T. Waldman

Watch out, Oprah!

There's a new book club in town, and it seeks to revolutionize the reading community in Philadelphia.

According to Kehillah of Center City coordinator Catherine Fischer, "People of the Book" -- as the club is called -- aims to provide a citywide venue for the reading and discussion of books of Jewish interest.

To do so, Fischer said that organizers, which also include the Jewish Publication Society and the Barnes & Noble bookstore, will enlist the help of Philly synagogues, which in turn will encourage their congregants to participate. Fischer said that she'd like to see meetings, slated to take place at the Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square, held several times a year.

JPS publicist Arielle Levites added her hope that, in addition to drumming up readers for citywide events, the professional staff at local synagogues will themselves become engaged in the experience. She suggested that, for example, rabbis could work in themes from the latest selection into their sermons, or facilitate communal discussions around some of the topics.

Levites said that the idea for a book club, which was generated last spring, is to allow residents to take advantage of JPS as a resource.

"We're sort of a small gem right here in Philly," said Levites. "We've been here since 1888, but a lot of people don't know who we are."

She also said that, through the club, JPS can introduce residents to some of the Jewish authors and literature it publishes.

"Our mission is to cultivate Jewish literacy -- not just to put out Jewish books," confirmed Levites. "We're trying to do more programming."

Fischer said that the club also seeks to meet the goals of the Kehillah, which aims to strengthen the Jewish community in Center City.

She said that a Jewish book group is a natural fit, since Jews "tend to read and discuss, and share ideas."

"That's kind of how we come together in community," said Fischer. "It's like what we do on Shabbat."

Still, she admitted, the idea is brand-new and evolving. Fischer said that she hopes for grass-roots participation in determining what books to read, and how the get-togethers should work.

"I dream a lot about what I'd like to see in Center City," said Fischer. "But I don't come in with an agenda. I try to hear what the community wants to do."

The club's first session, held Feb. 8 in a cozy nook at Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square, featured an intriguing choice: a Jewish comic book called Megillat Esther, as well as its author J.T. Waldman.

During an hourlong presentation, Waldman, a native of Lafayette Hill, described how and why he decided to make a comic version of the book of Esther.

Waldman not only spoke of his forays into biblical interpretation, but also about themes that arise in the Megillat and the challenges of comic-book artistry.

Levites said that Waldman's book was chosen to begin the series because it was "meaty," and because it would attract a wide range of participants (biblical scholars, artists, pop-culture enthusiasts). She noted that the second selection is a work called Inventing Jewish Ritual by the religion scholar Vanessa Ochs.

Struck a Chord
Center City resident David Wundohl, who attended the first event, said he heard about the book club through a flyer -- and that it immediately struck a chord with him.

"I'm just an inveterate reader of Jewish and historical things," he practically gushed. "I've been a part of a number of different Jewish reading groups."

Wundohl said that he hoped the book club would combine classic and newly published titles, and that it would meet at least a couple of times a year.

He also hoped that members would take the club seriously enough to not only read the book beforehand, but that they would come ready to engage in a robust conversation on Jewish topics. 

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