As Shavuot approaches, I have been reflecting on the many ways the Torah echoes throughout the world, in literature, the visual arts, music, politics and in the fight for justice. A book, a painting, a sermon, stand in stark contrast to humanity’s capacity for smallness. During these times, art is a reminder that human beings have the capacity for transcendent greatness.
Thomas Mann considered Joseph And His Brothers to be his masterpiece. The four volume, 1,500-page work was written over the course of sixteen years after Mann had already received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and during a time of war when Mann was stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis. He lived in exile in Switzerland, when he wrote the first volume, “The Stories of Jacob ” and completed the final volume while living in California. Despite exile and the trauma of living through the Nazi takeover of his native Germany, Thomas Mann gave the world a gift.
In his introduction Mann describes the work as having been “my refuge, my comfort, my homeland … the guarantee of my own steadfastness amid a storm of change”. Across barriers of time, language, nationality and religions, Mann turned chapters 27-50 in Bereshit into a work that became a refuge and comfort for me during the pandemic, when I had the time, space and motivation to read the classic.
I was lucky to be home with my husband and daughter, but I was nevertheless in a state of shock, like everyone else, that the routines structuring my life had stopped suddenly. I missed the office and most of all I missed my spiritual community. Most Shabbat mornings before the pandemic, I arrived at synagogue at 8:30 climbed the stairs to the Gallery to sit with a small group of congregants to discuss the weekly parashah. Throughout the year, this cadre of early risers, spent an hour reading, exploring and delving into the meaning of the weekly Torah portion. The study groups were cozy, familiar and lively.
In March 2020, the study groups, along with everything else, stopped. I passed the time by walking in the park. I wasted time by watching too much Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV. I hate wasting time and decided to find something useful to do.
I had always wanted to read Joseph And His Brothers in much the same way people want to read any massive classic. Nice idea but who has the time? Well, I finally had the time. I most needed the book on Shabbat when I faced an entire day of observance without community. I saved the book for the afternoon when the day stretched before me. At about 1:00 each week, I opened my place marked by the gold string attached to the hard covered, cellophane encased book that had become my friend.
I experienced Joseph And His Brothers, translated from German to English by John E. Woods, to be a breathtaking, brilliant, midrash, bringing to life the founding family of the Jewish people. At a crucial moment in the story, the narrator cautions the reader that now is not the time to stop reading, writing, “It is one thing to know something, it is altogether something else to be present to it”. Through Mann’s imagination, perseverance and immense skill I felt I was present to the lives of the founding family of my faith.
This book is not a secular telling but rather brings to life the Torah’s deep religiosity. Tying together the four volumes is the blessing that began with Abraham, was given to Isaac and then to Jacob; a blessing that Joseph carried into the pit, into slavery, triumph and forgiveness. I began by reading one page at a time, and was surprised that it was accessible, funny, relatable, dramatic and spiritual.
During those hours of reading, I forgot the feelings of isolation brought about by the pandemic. In the summer, I took the book and went to the hammock, rocking back and forth, underneath the large trees in my backyard. In winter I read and took in the warmth of my house,
I read Joseph And His Brothers and came to understand that the relationship between a reader and writer can be holy. At moments, I sat up, closed my eyes, and took in my deep gratitude for Thomas Mann’s genius and willingness to spend sixteen years writing the four volumes. Thomas Mann’s superhuman imagination and skill connected me with the Torah in a way that only literature can.
Despite the pandemic and echoes of a very dark spirit taking hold in our body politic, great books remind us that human beings can be extraordinary, that the present moment will pass and what endures over decades and millennia is the power of the written word.