Fourteen years ago, Jonathan Rosen was lunching in Manhattan when a fellow diner mentioned the impending migration of warblers through Central Park.
“It was almost mystical in a way,” Rosen says, his curiosity piqued in a manner he still can't quite explain. “I just thought, my goodness, these wild animals are here in my backyard and maybe I can go out and find them. And then I very quickly did.”
That chance encounter led to a pastime that would become for him a metaphor for nearly all of life's mysteries and now has yielded The Life of the Skies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) an effusive chronicle of Rosen's love for bird-watching and a history of the naturalists, poets and philosophers who have been its most illustrious practitioners. But the book is only nominally about birds; it is, in fact, a wide-ranging meditation on the precariousness of the environment and on humanity's fraught and paradoxical relationship with it.
In Rosen's telling, there is no activity more fully human than watching birds. Birds are a medium between the natural world and civilization. “Birds are all that are left of the wild world in the city if we want to see it every day,” Rosen says. “I go to see the birds migrate through Central Park because I live nearby. If buffalo were trampling through, I'd go see them, too, but they're not.”
All this is lost on the typical city dweller, as it was once lost on Rosen. Rosen's credentials place him among the literati—not the naturalists. A graduate of Yale, Rosen, 44, dropped out of a doctoral program in English at Berkeley to become a writer. In 1990, he became the first arts editor of the English-language version of the national Jewish weekly the Forward, where he remained for a decade. He is now editorial director of the Jewish literary nonprofit Nextbook and edits the Jewish Encounters series, a collaboration between Nextbook and Schocken.
In important respects, Rosen was perfectly suited to the Forward, where he was instrumental in bringing the newspaper—once the primary translator of American life for its Yiddish-speaking readership—to their more comfortably American, English-speaking offspring. Rosen himself is the product of both those worlds. The son of a Viennese Jewish father and an American-born mother, Rosen grew up in the shadow of a diminished European Jewish civilization once as dense with life as the preindustrial sky.
The Life of the Skies confronts the tension of being both wild and civilized, but by the author's own account, all his work deals with individuals caught between opposing worlds. His first novel, Eve's Apple (Random House, 1997) is about a woman struggling with an eating disorder, “a meditation on hunger and longing.” The year he left the Forward, part of a mass editorial exodus that accompanied the departure of the English-languagepaper's founder, Seth Lipsky, Rosen published The Talmud and the Internet (FSG, 2000). Ostensibly an attempt to link ancient rabbinic discourse with the contemporary chaos of the Web, the book is more of a memoir of his own struggle to reconcile the disparate worlds of his parents: his European-born father's weighted with anti-Semitism and annihilation, his American mother's grounded in postwar assimilation. In his 2004 novel, Joy Comes in the Morning (FSG, 2004), a love story about a female rabbi and a bird-loving science writer, the rabbi struggles to understand her femininity with her sacred calling.
The latter is a topic Rosen knows about intimately. His wife is a rabbi and the associate dean of a Manhattan rabbinical school. The couple have two children.
Though not as conspicuously a Jewish book as his earlier works, there is something distinctly religious about the experience chronicled in The Life of the Skies. Even as he finds comfort in the birds, Rosen is disquieted by the recognition that human beings are animals, too, and have something more fundamental in common with birds than religion normally allows.
Yet Rosen is no more comfortable as an environmental fundamentalist than he is as a religious one. His is not a radical temperament. Like those birders of yore, who sought out nature with binoculars in one hand and a shotgun in the other, Rosen respects both the urge to conserve and to subdue.
“There's a natural balance that has to be found,” Rosen says. “I think the more aware people are of the natural world and how interconnected it is with all parts of the globe, the healthier the choices they'll make. I'd like to believe that that's true, but I'm not sure that it's true.”
|Ben Harris writes about religion for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an international news service.|