After the Bar Mitzvah: Famous Artists and Writers Re-Interpret the Torah

Unscrolled brings together a diverse array of talents for a new, often irreverent take on the very old book.
Rebecca Odes and Sam Lipsyte

The Torah is the most sacred Jewish book. Yet even many people like me, who had to read passages at their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, have never really read it. Many have “stumbled through the Tibetan Book of the Dead or The Prophet in our college years, but have not touched Genesis or Exodus since our pre-teen days when it was presented in a crude, sanitized version,” says Roger Bennett, a co-founder of Reboot, a secular group of Jewish artists, writers, and intellectuals that creates opportunities for Jews to re-engage with their roots.  

So in 2011, Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost and producer of the new Star Wars films, invited a room of writers, technologists, and artists to consider the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. The conversation that ensued, Bennett recalls, centered on false prophecy, blind faith, and bad parenting.  A second conversation on the Tower of Babel led to more of the same, and in its wake the group decided to produce a book titled Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah (Workman) edited by Bennett, “to see what would happen if we encouraged a gaggle of people like us to read the bible on a regular basis and come to their own conclusions.”

The book includes a supporting cast of cultural Jews and non-Jews. After all, The Torah holds fascination for Jews and Christians alike, and Christian scholars over the centuries have contributed influential interpretation of the Torah and Bible. But “what is unique about The Torah,” says Bennett, is what he calls “the traditional Jewish delivery mechanism,” the division of the scroll into 54 portions and the week-in-week-out re-run in a specific order that recycles every year. Each public reading, chanted aloud, is traditionally accompanied by a Dvar Torah (“word of Torah”) in which a member of the congregation steps up to deliver a personal interpretation of the story.

“This riff can focus on anything, from a single word or detail, to an overarching examination of character or the entire story line,” Bennett says. “We consider the project as a book of creative Divrei Torah, offered up in the spirit of the rabbinical assertion that there are infinite interpretations of the Torah and that everyone who stood at Mount Sinai saw a ‘different face’ of the text.”

Reboot’s goal for Unscrolled is to create new members for the oldest book club in the world: “We end the introduction by saying, whatever reaction the text triggers–enjoyment, frustration, amusement or anger–that is the point.  We hope every reader will wrestle with the narrative and come to their own conclusion, which is a ritual that has faithfully been followed for over 3,000 years.”

Getting the 54 writers and artists—novelists, journalists, comics artists and more—was surprisingly easy. “One of the joys of the project was how many contributors–from David Auburn on the trial of Tamar, Sam Lipsyte who partnered with Rebecca Odes to create a graphic novel on Moses’ relationship with Miriam, Sloane Crosley on Pharoah's neurosis around the Plagues, and Aimee Bender whose piece on the Tower of Babel is a thing of beauty–stepped up to grapple with the original text with a sense of adventure which we really hoped the project would be imbued with,” Bennett says.

Maybe it’ll even get some new readers to pay closer attention to the text than they otherwise would have.

“For my Bar Mitzvah,” Bennett says, “I received eight copies of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and four of Golda Meir’s biography.  We would love today’s bar and bat mitzvah kids to receive Unscrolled in the same way.”

Sam Lipsyte and Rebecca Odes comics panels on Moses’ relationship with Miriam:

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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