“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah” presents 54 of the edgiest and most inventive d’vrei torah imaginable. There are poems, stories, essays, memoirs, plays, recipes, an architectural rendering and a graphic novel. They are penned by contemporary Jewish luminaries such as A.J. Jacobs (“The Year of Living Biblically”), Joshua Foer (“Moonwalking with Einstein”), Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), Jill Soloway (”Afternoon Delight” and “Six Feet Under”) and Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”).
“Unscrolled” had its genesis during animated Torah discussions at the annual meeting of Reboot, a national network of young Jewish creatives and intellectuals devoted to grappling with questions of Jewish identity, community and meaning. The lively Torah dialogues morphed into a book where 54 individuals wrestled with a single section of the Torah, yanking it into the 21st century.
These unorthodox riffs are as uneven as they are varied. While some are serious and traditional, others are hilarious, and some may really offend certain readers. The best stories are in Genesis and Exodus. The results are simultaneously reverent and irreverent; sentimental and raunchy; somber and humorous. While there is not a dull one in the mix, there are a few that confuse profanity with profundity; blasphemy with innovation.
What resonates, however, is how each author succeeded in personalizing the characters and tales of the stories we have heard over and over, year after year. This alone makes “Unscrolled” a work of consequence.
For example, we sit beside Pharaoh at his computer as he Googles “boils,” “lice” and “frogs” on WebMD. We watch Zipporah pout, sulk and vamp as Moses’ neglected wife in a graphic novel version of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. We hear a pensive Miriam muse to herself how she, “star of the sea, star of the river,” delivered her brother Moses not once, but twice. We meet a saucy, mouthy Rebekah at the well, and Esau, “the first Jew to wish he wasn’t.” We rethink “an eye for an eye” through a wise and touching poem. The Tabernacle, all 7,200 cubits of it, finds a home in Manhattan as a vertical skyscraper. Another chapter lists it on MLS.
You get the idea.
Physically and organizationally, the book is a pleasure to read. Each section contains a synopsis of the parsha, with the particular verse that inspired the commentator’s interpretation. These synopses, faithful to the biblical text, read with a narrative ease and fluidity. Their pages are bordered in luscious hues. In the back of the book is a userfriendly listing of each contributor, with just enough biographical detail to enhance reading his or her commentary.
We have all heard that humor is part of what binds us as Jews. The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans reports that 42% believe “having a good sense of humor” is an essential attribute of being Jewish, ranking it higher than being part of a Jewish community, observing Jewish law or eating traditional Jewish foods. While “Unscrolled” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for the Pew Study’s 42%, this book is a refreshing hoot.
Unscrolled: 54 writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah; Edited by Roger Bennett Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2013