In the Living Room With Jane Austen

In a Jerusalem living room laden with rugs and books, a group of 30 people meet. Women and men, most religious people in their 60s. Near the wall stands a table covered in a white cloth, bearing candles and a variety of refreshments. The host serves everyone hot punch as they take their seats on the sofas, talking among themselves, holding a book and waiting for the discussion to begin.

This is a meeting of one of Jerusalem's veteran reading groups, founded by Dr. Rafi Posen. This evening they are going to discuss Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief," which is set during World War II. The guests in hostess Uzia Ben-Elhanan's living room include former finance minister Professor Yaakov Neeman, literature Professor Yehuda Friedlander, writer Mira Magen, and translator Ada Paldor, as well as a doctor from Hadassah Medical Center, a physics professor and a docent at the Israel Museum.

Eliezer Yesselson opens the discussion of the book. He presents and analyzes the plot, expresses his opinion and adds information about the writer. He liked the book, but he considered the translation poor. Ben-Elhanan doesn't like the graphic gimmicks in the book, nor does she like the voice of the narrator, the Angel of Death. However, Rivka, one of the participants, says she likes the distance this provides, another participant complains that the book depicts the Germans as human, and Professor Friedlander has read only one-quarter of the book and is already critical.

At the end of the evening everyone opens their diary, and they arrange to meet again in six weeks, in order to discuss Haim Sabato's "Come, O Spirit." They will even invite the author.

Far from the Web

This reading group is one of many in Israel - it seems they have been multiplying in recent years. Whether out of a hunger for a cultural experience or a desire to strengthen social ties, people are gathering in private homes, usually once a month, to discuss a book of choice.

Book clubs of this sort are very common in the United States. Coming soon to movie theaters is "The Jane Austen Book Club," about six women in California. In Israel, book clubs exist mostly among people aged 40 to 70, of the established classes. It seems as though precisely on the backdrop of the culture of television and the Internet, which isolates people in their homes and feeds them mostly popular entertainment, a great many people are choosing to return to old habits and hold intimate gatherings based on culture and broader horizons.

A few months ago, the Mifal Hapayis national lottery also decided to bring book clubs to the general public. It has started about 20 clubs around the country. The meetings, moderated by literary figures, meet at public libraries once a month and are limited to 30 participants, who sign up in advance. In Jaffa, for example, the moderators are Ran Yagil and Yosef Granovsky, and at the Ma'aleh Yosef Library in the Upper Galilee the moderator is literature professor Michael Gluzman.

"Each library has received a list of 30 original and translated works and has chosen 10 of them," says writer Moshe Sakal, who is directing the project. "The libraries receive enough copies for all the participants, and after the meeting the books are returned to the library."

The reading group in Jerusalem was founded 20 years ago by Posen, a rabbi and Bible lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. About 20 couples participate. "There are always new people who want to come, but the [small] apartments don't make it possible to host a large number of people," says Posen.

Thus far, the group has read more than 150 books, most recently Gabriela Avigur-Rotem's "Ancient Red" and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wind." Quite a number of writers have appeared as guests, including Moshe Shamir, Haim Beer, Aharon Appelfeld, Binyamin Shvili and Mira Kedar.

"I was a representative of the Jewish Agency in Canada," Posen says. "One evening my wife was invited to a reading club and she came back thrilled, She related that 30 women sit and talk about a different book each time. I asked to take part, but they told me it was for women only. I decided that when we returned to Israel, I would implement this idea, and I invited my friends to my home. We are all busy people and the circle was an incentive to read and expand our horizons."

How do you choose the book?

"I pressed for reading more Israeli literature because it is a window on society," he says, "but we also read books in translation. The discussion always progresses to topics like the Holocaust, history, the State of Israel, secular and religious people, Arabs and Palestinians, things that touch everyone here. We are not heterogeneous politically, we are all religious, National Religious Party people more or less, educated, in our 60s. But we have no problem debating the quality of a book."

Another group that has been active for 20 years was founded by Avishai Lubitch in Tel Aviv. Once a month, on a Friday evening, the members meet. First they eat and then they discuss the book of choice. "There is social value to a meting of this sort," says Lubitch, 60, who works as an actuary at an insurance company. "Over the years, the group has changed shape a number of times."

The group's most recent meeting centered on Gerard Donovan's novel "Julius Winsome." The members do not always agree, and sometimes loud arguments ensue. "One of the members got so angry at our opinions that he decided to leave the club forever," says Lubitch. "There is one person among us who has never read a book through to the end, and he always has something to say. At the last discussion, of 'Julius Winsome,' one woman came out sweepingly against hunting for sport and every time anyone wanted to talk about another aspect of the book, she monopolized the discussion and went back to talking about hunting - it was very weird."

Lubitch says there are fundamental differences between the Israeli and the American groups. "In American society it's obsessive. The Americans go crazy with a lot of things, including this. We have friends who lived in Canada for 26 years and they tell us that in North America, someone who doesn't prepare for the meeting becomes anxious and nearly goes into therapy for it. For us, however, it's supposed to be a fun gathering. If a person hasn't read the book, didn't have the time or didn't feel like it because he doesn't like the author, that's accepted. We are, after all, at an age when it isn't necessary to waste time on things we don't enjoy."

Younger people also have their own reading circles. In Tel Aviv, for instance, students from the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts and Sapir College have their own reading and enrichment circle. The meetings are initiated by lecturer Dr. Yvonne Kozlovsky-Golan, who specializes in film history. The students come to her home once every two weeks. Last month writer Hava Nissimov, author of the book "A Girl From There," about the Holocaust period, was a guest speaker.

"The intention is to open the students' eyes, to introduce them to people from different fields and to give them perspectives that deepen their creative work," says Kozlovsky-Golan. "Once a month I also invite Rabbi Moshe Ganz to my home, and he gives them a lecture on the Jewish bookshelf. We regularly visit temporary exhibitions or museums. This custom was common in the past, the gathering of students around an educator. Haim Gamzu once said his father had studied medicine in Germany and would meet with [Sigmund] Freud and a group of researchers every week at a different place, and they would hold discussions on psychiatry and other topics."

Authors, too, like to participate in these evenings. "These are unmediated meetings with ordinary readers, not critics and academics," says writer Esti G. Haim, who has been invited to several meetings. "It's a little like bringing a clown - the writers play before us and we hear the secrets from the writing room. On the other hand, it's very interesting and intimate. Maybe they want to peek into my home, but in the end I'm the one who peeks into their home and lives."

And there are also quite a number of reading clubs at kibbutzim. Some were formed at the initiative of Omanut La'am. "A few years ago I was the guest of a reading club at Kibbutz Giv'at Oz in the south," says Haim. "There were many elderly people there, but there were also a few young women. This reminded me of the atmosphere of Israel of yore - they approach books out of a kind of seriousness. This population is different from those who invite you to a bourgeois salon. There I had a kind of sense of mission."