Personal and professional
NJ writer sees Judaism through different prisms
Eitan Fishbane has his name on three books published in November, all of which are more intimate and personal than most volumes published by professors.
Fishbane, a Teaneck resident, is professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The three books cover a range of topics, from Shabbat, to a personal tragedy, to Jewish activism in the 19th century.
In The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time (Jewish Lights Publishing), Fishbane brings his academic knowledge of hasidic texts to a general audience.
Through translations of hasidic prayers and teachings, together with explanatory notes, the author seeks to enhance the reader’s Shabbat experience.
“It really first emerged for me through texts that I was myself studying on Shabbat, the kind of texts that I brought with me to shul,” he said.
The Sabbath Soul began life as a series of seminars, in which Fishbane shared his favorite hasidic texts about Shabbat with students at JTS. The book follows the rhythms of Sabbath practices — preparation, washing, candle-lighting, kiddush, reciting the blessing on the hallah, and eating the Sabbath meal — ending with a final reflection on Havdala.
Unlike The Sabbath Soul, which translates and presents traditional texts, Shadows in Winter (Syracuse University Press) is more purely personal, as its subtitle — A Memoir of Love and Loss — makes clear. At its core is the death of Fishbane’s wife, Leah Levitz Fishbane, at age 32, who died in March 2007, shortly after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At the time, she was a graduate student in Jewish history, two-months pregnant, and with a daughter nearly four years old.
Working on the book “was a very therapeutic process,” said Fishbane. “Within the first month after Leah died, I began writing about it. Trying to express on paper some of those seemingly unspeakable and overwhelming emotions that rip open the heart of the grieving person was something I found genuinely comforting and meaningful.”
Written mainly in the first six months after his wife’s death, the book is “my attempt to come to terms with the raw emotions of early grief, and to try to express the ferocity and the searing nature of that early period. It captures a state of being and a state of emotion that is hard to conjure up from a distance and from greater, so-called, perspective.”
Fishbane said he found reading other people’s stories of loss to be “powerful and comforting, precisely because it puts into words the feelings and the emotions that I was having.” He hopes Shadows in Winter will provide that comfort to others.
The third book — Jewish Renaissance and Revival in America (Brandeis University Press)— combines the personal and the academic as it features his wife’s unfinished dissertation on the 19th-century Jewish activists in Philadelphia and New York who became the founders and leaders of institutions such as JTS and the Jewish Publication Society. The book grew from a symposium at JTS marking his wife’s first yahrzeit.
Fishbane received his doctorate at Brandeis under Arthur Green, whose goal — through translation and interpretation — was to make hasidic texts accessible to a modern, not necessarily Orthodox, American audience. Fishbane himself was drawn to “the language of Hasidism, of hasidic mysticism. It was something interesting at the academic level and the personal level of spiritual meaning and theological resonance,” he said.
He hopes to emulate Green in combining “serious historical scholarship and a theological creativity that has the potential to be meaningful and inspiring to the contemporary spiritual seeker and the contemporary Jew,” he said.
Part of what appeals to him about hasidic, kabalistic ideas “is their potential for inspiring a new, refreshed spiritual language that can be adapted in such a way that it’s not in conflict with contemporary science or contemporary thinking. I wouldn’t say that I take these ideas from the Kabala or hasidic thinking and believe in them literally.”
For example, he said, many of the texts he quotes suggest that Jews receive “an extra soul” on the Sabbath.
“This neshama yeteira, this influx of the soul, creates an open state of spiritual awareness and consciousness,” said Fishbane. “The Jewish person can see reality and see their lives with the eye of spiritual sight, in a way that is harder to do in the six days of ordinary time.
“The way I would adapt it for the contemporary person is to see the idea as an expression of the way that we are infused and inspired with a renewed sense of spiritual vitality on Shabbat, with a greater sense of awakening and awareness of the sacred in our lives…. It becomes a context in which we feel ourselves uplifted and elevated by a profound spiritual energy.”
His own Shabbat observances have been affected by the hasidic practices and images he presents in the book.
He experiences Friday night candle-lighting “as a symbolic re-creation and uncovering of the divine light that was created in the beginning of time and sown deep in the earth of primal reality and of Torah, to be uncovered in the sparks of Shabbat.”
One aspect of hasidic teachings that resonate strongly with Fishbane is their theology, “the notion that God’s presence is to be found in the deepest chambers of the human heart, in the soul, in the natural world, in the here and now, not just in the heavens, but in the great beyond.”
This proved helpful to Fishbane as he tried to come to terms with his wife’s death.
“God for me is the great force of life that runs through and manifests in all things, and that includes both the sublime and the tragic. If God is the great All of being, we can’t argue that God is only manifest in perfection and justice, but rather that God is also reflected in our experience of brokenness and our experience of suffering,” he said.
One year ago, Fishbane married Rabbi Julia Andelman.
“That’s been a beautiful opening into a new chapter of my life,” he said.
How does the publication of his grief memoir, and the resurfacing of those memories and emotions, fit in to his new life?
“Part of the journey for me is finding a way to integrate both of these aspects of my life in an authentic way and to be able to realize that both of those experiences make me the person that I am today,” he said.
A version of this story appeared in the New Jersey Jewish Standard.