I belong to a unique book group. That is to say, I’ve been told I belong to a unique book group.
Until recently, I simply thought I belonged to a book club that met weekly in a public location in the South Hills. What I have come to find, though, is that everything about this study group — from where we meet, to how and what we read, even to its membership — is unusual.
It’s probably best if I start at the beginning, and you can decide for yourself just how unique my group is.
Several years ago, a friend from Temple Emanuel of the South Hills asked if I wanted to study Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” He explained that he had attempted to read it but found the prose somewhat obtuse. I had a similar reaction when I first picked it up, so I agreed.
We decided to meet at The Galleria of Mt. Lebanon. If you’re familiar with the mall you know it’s not unusual to find South Hills Jewish men and women there walking laps, playing mahjong, taking meetings, having lunch. In short, it’s where the South Hills Jewish community spends its time when the JCC isn’t open or not right for the activities they have planned.
Even before our first meeting, another member from Temple Emanuel decided he’d like to join us. The three of us met on a Wednesday night with different versions of Buber’s famous work. Unsure of how to approach the book, we decided that we would read passages aloud and discuss our thoughts. Having two versions, neither in the native German, meant that we had a lot to ponder.
The reading was slow. Each week, if we were lucky, we would get through a section. If we weren’t so lucky, we’d complete a paragraph. If the stars were against us, we’d end up rereading the section we discussed the previous week for added clarity. While this was a laborious process, it was also the perfect pace for new members to jump in as they found out about the group.
Our next participant joined a month or two into our reading. We had probably completed a dozen pages. This new member was a bit different than the three of us. He lived in Moon Township and was unaffiliated. Of course, his views were different than ours, who were all at different places on the Jewish spectrum of belief and observance. Our analysis of each paragraph and section grew longer as did our discussions before and after our weekly reading.
Occasionally, people we knew would see us and ask what we were doing. Sometimes they would join us. Soon our group swelled, and we needed two tables to accommodate the crowd. Not everyone was a Temple Emanuel member. A couple from Beth El Congregation of the South Hills heard what we were doing and joined. It was, and is, a porous bunch. Participants come and go as their schedules allow. The group has had doctors, college professors, retirees, engineers, writers and academics.
Everyone in the group is Jewish, but not everyone is observant. The atheists among us have made the discussion interesting as we’ve studied “I and Thou” and “God in Search of Man.” I’m sure Buber and Heschel would find the observations both interesting and maddening!
The conversations that take place around the book discussions have grown in length and depth and are now as important as the study itself. Vacations, illnesses, family, jobs are all discussed. We have created a community within a few Jewish communities in the South Hills. In fact, what began as an impromptu discussion among a few friends about a book we found challenging has now become as important to me as the weekly Torah study I attend.
This group, which is part book analysis, part study session, part beit din and so much more is a place where ideas flow without the restrictions of any preconceived notions. A passage about faith can suddenly become a discussion about the big bang and morph into a conversation about an upcoming trip to Machu Picchu someone is planning. Along the way the point of the narrative we’re discussing is never lost. I imagine we’re a lot like the Algonquin Round Table without the bite.
Over the two and a half years we’ve been meeting, we’ve completed two books, started a third and have already begun discussions on what will follow. More importantly, we’ve found a community that supports and encourages one another. This is a group where the trip is much more important than the destination. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@