The Many Ways Jews Loved: A History from Printed Words and Images explores types of love with varying ethnic outlooks — toward God, people, country, food, traditions, artistry and humor.
Some years ago, at an age close to 90, Constance Harris felt bored.
“What can I do with the rest of my life?” the Californian and former Michigander asked her son, Stephen.
“Write another book,” he suggested, and she did just that, dedicating it to him and his wife, Ruth.
The Many Ways Jews Loved: A History from Printed Words and Images (McFarland) came out this year and follows her two other books also published by McFarland — The Way Jews Lived: Five Hundred Years of Printed Words and Images (2009) and Portraiture in Prints (1987).
The new book explores types of love with varying ethnic outlooks — toward God, people, country, food, traditions, artistry and humor.
“Because I had finished the book on how Jews lived throughout history, I was trying to take some other angle, and I thought about relationships,” said Harris, 95, whose studies and research might touch upon her experiences as an English literature major at Hunter College in New York City.
“There are so many versions of relationships, and there are so many versions of Jewish life. I tried to suggest interpretations of them.”
In the process of developing her latest text, Harris went through the Bible and across centuries of writings to find diverse examples described by Jewish authors addressing loving relationships, from love associated with fun to love associated with tragedy.
“I was always interested in the collective identity of Jews,” said Harris, who practices Orthodoxy but also has had membership in a Conservative synagogue, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, and a Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif.
“I’ve tried to look at the history of Jews with slightly different interpretations and create cultural understandings.”
When she finished the manuscript and before submitting it for publication, Harris asked for the impressions of Howard Lupovitch, associate professor of history at Wayne State University and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.
“There’s a real scholar at work in this book, but her writing is very accessible,” Lupovitch said. “She’s writing for a lay audience, and there’s a transparency to the way she writes. Her analysis is sophisticated, but it’s not done in a way that’s opaque.
“She’s using familiar characters and familiar themes, and she does a good job of connecting older sources and how they made their way into more recent literature. For example, she [calls attention to] Portnoy’s Complaint, a book many people have read.
“She’s not confining herself to a narrow definition of romantic love or love of God. It’s a feeling and a state of mind that she understands as broadly as possible.”
Love for Judaism has been shown by the author in ways beyond writing. She has held memberships in traditional organizations that include Hadassah and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and she started a group in California to introduce members of different faiths to each other. Launched in 1970, the Women’s Interfaith Committee continues.
Throughout her life, Harris has had a love for Jewish artifacts, amassing a large collection with her late husband, Theodore. It was given to the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan, and that artistic interest made its way across the pages of her book, which contains many noted images, such as an 1860 engraving of a Jewish family shown in the Illustrated News of the World.
Arranged as The Jewish Heritage Collection at the library, the collection holds some 3,000 items — ritual objects, artworks and books. Sections of the collection have been borrowed by other universities for temporary displays, and she recently found and added a rare Ladino Haggadah.
As Harris worked on her third book, she seems to have adhered to the advice of the late Jewish comedian Milton Berle, who starred in the stage production Always Leave Them Laughing. The book, which includes favorite traditional recipes, from kreplach to rugelach, ends with Jewish jokes.
“I’m grateful for good health, friends and family that includes two adult grandsons living in the East and calling their grandma regularly,” Harris said.
As author, Harris could add gratitude for many good reviews, such as the one by Deborah Lipstadt, renowned history professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Lipstadt defined the book as “interesting, illuminating and engaging.”
The Many Ways Jews Have Loved is available on Amazon.