In most cases, when a good book is written and published it is read, reviewed and then critiqued, assigned to a library shelf and often soon after forgotten. The Finkler Question, by British author Howard Jacobson, started out the same way but has since sharply veered off the beaten path and found for itself a position of prominence in the arena of public discourse, specifically on matters relating to Jews and Israel.
The book was awarded the highly prestigious Man Booker Prize and has received many reviews, the vast majority of which were overwhelmingly positive. Whilst I certainly agree that Jacobson is a highly talented wordsmith and his book is a masterpiece, I am by no means a literary critic and therefore, instead of reviewing the book, I would like to bring attention to some of the Jewish issues that it highlights.
Through his primary characters, Julian Treslove, a middle-aged non-Jew who is somewhat obsessed with Jews and his Jewish friends Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, Jacobson cleverly presents a multitude of arguments and counter arguments on the Arab-Israel conflict. Libor is an older widower who seems ready to bury his head in the sand when it comes to addressing Jewish causes, and Finkler heads a group called ASHamed Jews who are actively embarrassed by "the way Israel conducts itself."
The Finkler Question also cleverly explores various expressions of Jewish identity and the struggle of many modern Jews to find the contemporary relevance in their heritage, providing a vivid illustration of the challenges that they are faced with.
One such issue that arises on multiple occasions throughout the narrative is the relationship between being Jewish and identifying with Israel. There are many Jews who are of the opinion that the two don't necessarily go hand in hand, that what the Israelis are up to in Israel has no bearing on how Jews are identified in Europe, Africa or South America. This is the case of Sam Finklers' group in the novel, who claim that it is possible to accuse Israel of war crimes and yet remain proudly Jewish.
But what they fail to realize, as the author keenly illustrates, is that haters and bigots rarely compartmentalize, and more often than not, in their eyes, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish are wholly interchangeable. Israel is the Jewish State, the homeland of the Jewish people and association with Israel is an inherent part of being Jewish whether one admits it or not.
There is also another bigger and thoroughly disturbing malady highlighted by Jacobson that faces Jewish communities around the globe: namely, that very few Jews are actually aware of what Judaism is really about. For the story's characters, being Jewish at times means being smart, at times it means belonging to a group, at times it is ritualistic, guilt ridden or family-centric. But most of all, throughout the book, the characters' Judaism is defined by their victimhood. In truth, this may be one of the greatest Jewish challenges of our time.
About a year and a half ago, Britain's Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told me the following:
"The challenge to a new generation of Jewish leaders is to think differently about the Jewish future, to stop thinking of ourselves as victims, stop thinking of ourselves as the people that dwell alone and start thinking about Judaism as a way of life, as a faith and as an approach to the world. I offer my one line definition of Judaism: 'Judaism is the voice of hope in the condescension of humankind.' Nowadays when you read about Jews, it's about anti-semitism, the Holocaust, boycotts, Israel, 50 percent out-marriage rates. But that is not who we are, these are the problems."
He then continued to say, "Where do I read in the news about Judaism having a message of hope for humankind, yet when I lecture in America at various institutions, they are hungry for a Jewish message and they certainly don't want a Jewish message which says, 'the world hates Jews.' We are the world's oldest and most persistent victims, I don't think anyone wants that message. If you tell a young generation of Jewish teenagers, we want you to know about Jewish history come to Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and Treblinka and you'll know what it is to be a Jew, then they will have two or 10 thoughts before marrying another Jew and having Jewish children. Who wants to confer the status of victimhood onto their children and grandchildren?"
He concluded: "I'm afraid we have been walking in precisely the wrong direction by focusing on all the negatives of recent Jewish history and the Jewish present and have failed to connect with the spirit. We have failed to connect with the positives and we have failed to connect with the message of Jews to humankind: 'through you will all the families of the earth be blessed.' When you give over this message, everyone responds, Jew and Non-Jew alike. So I challenge the next generation of Jewish leaders and the generation after to think about Judaism in a completely new way."
The Finkler Question portrays this Jewish struggle in a comprehensive and intimate fashion: the sad fact that most Jews today simply don't know what being Jewish means. Perhaps the Finkler answer comes with a shift in focus; the new generation must direct all of its resources in striving to convey the authentic Jewish message of positivity, hope and belief in a better future.