Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The story behind Joseph Skibell’s 'Six Memos from the Last Millennium'

Joseph Skibell is renowned as a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist, the author of such genre-defying works as A Blessing on the Moon and A Curable Romantic. Critics have called him “a major talent” (Publishers Weekly) whose “gifted, committed imagination” (New York Times) has produced works that are “always a joy to read” (Jerusalem Report). His new book is nothing short, while also a bit of a departure. Entitled Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud, it’s an elegantly written literary investigation into
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the tales of the Talmud – the great repository of ancient wisdom that is the foundation text, along with the Bible, of Rabbinic Judaism. (The Talmud’s composition dates roughly from between 200 and 500 CE.) This new work is no less genre-defying. Part fiction, part exegesis, part speculative theology, the book is, above all, a love letter to art of storytelling. And in its pages, Skibell looks at these old stories from the vantage of a modern novelist in order to find their relevance for readers today.

A Childlike Love of Stories, the Essence of Human Life

The story behind Joseph Skibell’s Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud

Can you tell us a little about the history of this project?

Well, that’s a great question. As I explain in the book’s introduction, some years ago, I was taking a Talmud class at an Orthodox synagogue. I was raised in a Reform community, so the Talmud was like a vast, unmapped world for me. About 4/5th of the Talmud is dedicated to – let’s call them – the theo-legal discussions of the Sages. Rabbinic Judaism is a religion of laws – what’s permitted, what’s forbidden – and the Talmudic Sages devote a kind of scientific rigor to deciphering the will of the Creator as it has been revealed in the pages of the Torah.

The other fifth of the Talmud, though, is the legendary parts: the stories of the Sages’ lives, tall tales, myths, legends. As a fiction writer, I was drawn to these stories, of course, but my teachers tended to skip over them or hurry past them, and they were given none of the time and attention, the almost scientific dissection, the legal parts of the Talmud were given. And so I decided to study them on my own, in a kind of openhearted, open-minded way, taking them at face value and seeing what they were really all about.

And what did you discover?

Well, first of all, I discovered that there’s a genius afoot in the Talmud, a dramatist with a kind of Shakespearean scope. This, I should say, is just my way of talking about these things. Originally, the Talmud was an oral law, and one spanning many generations. So it’s the work of many tongues and many hands – you can’t literally speak of an author – but the little stories and tales in it are all, curiously enough, dramatic in form.


Meaning that, like scenes in a play, they all take place in “real time.” They’re made out of dialogue and action. With very few exceptions, there’s no interiority in these stories, so if people in these tales want to think, they have to speak aloud, just like characters in a play. The narrative descriptions are mostly simple, physical actions, not unlike a playwright’s stage direction. I started by gathering all the stories and story fragments that had to do with the same figures or constellations of figures, and what I found is that each piece sort of illuminated the other pieces, and if you brought them all together, they formed a larger narrative or a more complete drama. And then I realized that you could approach these “scenes” as an actor or a director or a writer might, asking questions like, “What’s this person’s motivation?” or “Why would he say this?” or “Why would he do this?” or “What is he thinking here?”

It’s a different way of thinking about sacred text, and in my experience, it was a very fruitful approach. 

And did you do this on your own?

Actually, no. I founded a little study group of friends, and we met for about three years every other week at my house. After that, I started teaching the stories in classes at Emory and the University of Texas and in various synagogues. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much I love these stories. As I said, they’re written with a kind of Shakespearean or Sophoclean brilliance that allows you to discuss character and motivation and theme for miles and miles and miles, until you get to a very deep place. These discussions were always amazing, with my friends and later my students bringing in insights from so many different perspectives. It was an amazing process and it really brought these stories to life.

Juden beim Talmudstudium Paris 19-20Jh
Jews studying Talmud, París, c. 1880-1905
By Anonymous – illegibly signed (Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus) Public domain

Reading the book, which is beautifully written by the way, the most surprising thing is that most of these dramas turn out to be tragedies. The people in them – the Sages, the Talmudic rabbis – destroy themselves, they destroy each other, they destroy the institutions they love.

Yeah, and, to me, that’s one of the glories of this wild and strange literature: in addition to their crazy humor and their brilliant dramatic flair, these stories are absolutely honest about the difficulties of living a holy life. Rabbi Akiva, in his terrible martyrdom, seems able to reconcile the extremes between the heavenly and the profane, as does Rabbi Yochanan’s sister, through her beautiful wisdom. These are the two heroes, male and female, of the Talmud, in my opinion. But the other figures that I discuss in the book – Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, his sons, Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer, Rabban Gamliel, ben Zoma, ben Azzai, the Acher – are all pretty much, despite their extreme holiness, tragically flawed people, not unlike the people in the Bible, and I think it’s pretty amazing to find a sacred literature that doesn’t white-wash the truth about the difficulties of living a life centered around the concept of holiness.

Can you say a few words about the title?

Well, the title alludes to that sweet little book by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino’s “memos” were or were intended to be his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1985, but unfortunately he died before he could deliver the lectures and he only finished five of the six he’d planned. Calvino’s playful erudition has always been a beacon for me. I’ve always admired writers who write more than just fiction. And my Six Memos, as an homage to Calvino, also has only five chapters, and I like to think that the memos in question here were written for our time by these Talmudic writers of the last millennium.

And what are your hopes for the book?

Well, I’m hoping that the Six Memos will be a kind of Talmudic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or a My Dinner with Andre. Do you know what I mean? I hope it’s the kind of book that speaks quietly and gently to our most profound concerns. The Talmudic tales are a deeply strange and extraordinarily beautiful literature, and I’d be grateful if this book helped to bring these stories to a larger audience. It makes sense, I think, for a novelist to do that, because these stories are basically fictions, although they’re fictions in the most profound sense of the word.

And what do you mean by that exactly?

I mean, you know, that’s the way profound fiction works: by delighting us through our childlike love of stories, profound fiction attempts to express something essential about human life. My hope is that the Six Memos, in presenting these wild, strange, ancient, beautiful stories to a modern reader, will do much the same thing. Childlike love, essential meaning – I mean, who could ask for more than that?

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