When participants in the Jewish Book Discussion Group sat down to talk about Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” in the basement of the Kensington Park Library last week, much of what followed sounded like any of the book groups in the Montgomery County library system.
Marjorie Kenemuth of Rockville described the “rich world” Diamant created and the “sisterhood” that the book’s female characters share in the author’s retelling of the biblical story of Dinah.
But Kenemuth and 13 others gathered a semicircle also discussed the book in ways that were decidedly Jewish. They returned again and again to the question of whether Diamant was writing midrash (the Jewish practice of answering a religious question in the Torah through story or interpretation).
The group, which is the older of two Jewish book groups in the Montgomery County library system, hasn’t missed a month since it began in 2012. Its members have read a wide range of material, including nonfiction by Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and books on Jewish humor. In July, the group members will choose a book from among a few on death and mourning. Most members are retirees.
Kenemuth and other members described the “Jewish lens” the group applies to its reading and discussion.
“I sort of lost touch with my Jewish cultural influence and this brings it all back together,” said Kenemuth, who retired from teaching four years ago. “We bring things back to the Torah, back to the midrash, back to how we take care of our families. We’re taking the values of Judaism and applying them to the books.”
Jonina Duker, the group’s leader, said the participants’ Jewish knowledge allows them to appreciate the full breadth of many of the books they read. In last week’s discussion of “The Red Tent,” Duker read excerpts from an essay in which Diamant addresses whether her book is midrash, and told the group about traditional midrash that relates to the story of “The Red Tent.”
Duker, who facilitates other book groups professionally and led a Jewish book group for the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in what she called “various permutations” for 14 years, kept the discussion structured, but mixed in humor.
She said she and other members decided to start the group after observing that there are a good number of book groups in the library system for ethnic communities, but there wasn’t one for Jews, despite Montgomery County’s large Jewish population. She added that the leaders of the Montgomery County library system wanted to be sure the group would approach its material from a culturally Jewish and not religious perspective.
“We decided to put a bagel on our fliers and not a menorah,” Duker said, laughing.
Duker said the group gravitates toward books with intellectual heft, but is sometimes limited by the availability of books in library system, as members check the books out.
Linda Pottern, who chairs the advisory committee for Rockville’s Davis Library, where the group normally meets, described the sense of community within the group. She said the group is mostly composed of people who did not know one another before they started meeting.
“After I was out sick for one meeting, people asked me where I was. They said they missed my contribution and they asked me if they could help me in any way,” she said. “This group is like family.”
Another Jewish book group in Montgomery County meets on Sundays in the Olney library. In April that group will discuss “The Empire of the Senses” by Alexis Landau. For a schedule of both groups’ meeting times and the books they are reading, visit montgomerycountymd.gov/library.