Marie Ariel is a politically involved book lover, former librarian, and co-chair of the Boston Workers Circle (BWC) Book Discussion Group. The Workers Circle for Jewish Culture and Social Justice is a 120-year-old, progressive, secular, multigenerational community, as well as an arts and culture center where Jewish identity is rooted in cultural heritage and the pursuit of a better world. This book group has flourished during the pandemic.
How long have you been involved with the Boston Workers’ Circle Book Discussion Group?
I joined in 2003 because at the time I questioned why I considered myself Jewish since I wasn’t at all religious. Since then, in the monthly (except for July & August) book group I’ve read 10 books a year about the Jewish experience; those 170 books have answered my question.
How are books selected for this group?
It’s an open group with about 14 longstanding “regulars” but always welcoming to new members. Whoever is at a meeting can propose a book for the following month. We alternate fiction and nonfiction. Two rules: the person who recommends a book must have read it (see last question), and there have to be at least six print copies in our local library system.
What kinds of books does the group read?
Books we read must deal with the Jewish experience in some way and/or be by Jewish authors. There is a tremendous amount of latitude in our choices in terms of era, geography, and tone. Two examples of novels we’ve read are Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka (PRH), who was Jewish but whose book has no explicit Jewish theme, and Kaddish by Nathan Englander (Vintage), which has a very strong Jewish theme. A couple of nonfiction examples are Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land by Amos Oz (HMH) and The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari (Random House).
Can you characterize the kinds of books that, in your experience, work well as discussion books?
Well-written books, meaning those that have some complexity and that raise questions for the group work the best. The better the writing, the better the discussion. A good recent example is Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen (Rutgers). With nonfiction, coherent writing that tells us either something we’re not likely to have known or something we should know, like Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by Susan Neiman (FSG) or Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper by Laurel Leff (Cambridge).
What do you most enjoy about the group?
The people are friendly and serious about books and reading. They come with strong opinions, usually grounded in the text, and they raise good questions.
Has the book group changed over the years? If so, how? And during the pandemic?
We may have become more discriminating about our choices. And we have focused more on finding books that go beyond the Eastern European and German Jewish experience, for example, those that look at the experiences of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews historically and currently.
Without meeting in person to share bagels and coffee as well as books, how has the group kept up its cohesion?
Perhaps surprisingly, Zoom has been terrific for our meetings.
Do you have a particularly funny or unexpected experience with the group that you’d like to share?
One time we got badly burned by good reviews! The author’s depth of knowledge was considerable but the presentation was terrible. That’s when we decided to make our first commandment that in order to nominate a book, you must have read it.
Betsy Groban has worked for decades in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.