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Book Review: The Book of the Unknown – Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathon Keats

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The Jewish people are known as the “people of the book” for our veneration, preservation, and constant attempts to live according to and gain more meaning from the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. Another important book for us is the Talmud, in which learned Rabbis debate, explicate, and attempt to fill in the gaps in the Torah to make Jewish law more applicable to daily life. The Talmud is written in many styles, including back and forth conversations and debates as well as stories and folklore.

While we do see some back and forth discussions in the Torah, especially in the story of Sodom and Gemorah where Abraham tries to save the cities by bargaining with G-d. While G-d starts out requiring proof of 50 good people to save the cities, Abraham manages to get the number down to 10. Now, we know that there were not even 10 as the cities were destroyed. In the Talmud there is a similar discussion about the number of good righteous people who must exist at any given time in order to keep the entire world existing, and the number is 36.

While many readers may be unfamiliar with the tale of the 36 Lamed-Vov (Hebrew letters have numerical values, and the letters Lamed and Vov add up to 36), I can remember my Orthodox Jewish grandfather telling me about these people, and how they were always hidden (sometimes even from themselves) until called upon or needed. In fact, they were often so hidden that nobody would even believe that they were the righteous, typically showing up as vagrants, thieves, gamblers, and liars. The ultimate lesson of the 36 being that we should treat every person, including ourselves, as if he or she might be one of the Lamed-Vov.

The Book of the Unknown is a tale within a tale, opening with a fictional forward by a Professor Jay Katz and closing with a fictional Editor’s Note. Professor Katz tells the sory about finding old papers in a German synagogue that was discovered unscathed after the Holocaust, and in the papers discovering a list of 36 names, a list of the 36. Instead of turning the list over to authorities he keeps it and starts to visit the neighboring villages asking about the names on the list, discovering that they all fit the description of the Lamed-Vov. According to the Editor’s Note, after publishing some of the stories he mysteriously disappears along with his papers and the list of the 36.

In between are of stories following 12 of the 36. We have a gambler who teaches a King that people can create their own order, gain, and loss; a liar who shows others how to live truthfully; a whore who helps bring together the families in her village and shows the stupidity of shared ignorance; and a thief who keeps everyone else in town honest. Each story is beautifully told and warrants at least a day to absorb the importance of the lesson, and they are complex enough to be interesting to adults, and as interesting to non-Jews as to Jews.

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