Rachel Cobleigh (reveilles) wrote,
Rachel Cobleigh

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praise of unexpected value

Back in my undergrad days, I took a class called "Biblical Myths & Legends" from the Judaic Studies department at UMass. It was offered by the very colorful Professor Julius Lester. Despite the title, it wasn't about deconstructing the Bible and assuming it was myth--it was about reading the very first few chapters of Genesis, pondering the word choices, appreciating the puns, and speculating on the origins and motivations of the authors. For me, it was an incredibly rich discussion of Creation and the beginning of the monotheistic religions.

It was one of my favorite classes ever, mostly because several of our assignments required us to write midrashim: stories that fill in "holes" or questions that the text leaves unanswered. (Things like: if Adam and Eve were the first two humans and they had only three sons, Cain, Abel, and Shem, how did Cain go off somewhere else and find a wife?) In the midrashic tradition, rabbis usually made up stories that were meant to not only answer one of these sorts of questions, but to also teach the listeners an important moral lesson. I think this is a fun idea (though a slightly dangerous one: a few of the Jewish friends that I discussed the Bible with had no clear idea which stories that they'd heard as children were actually in the Bible).

Essentially, Prof. Lester was asking us to write Biblical fanfiction, so I dove into it with great delight (though I struggled with feeling heretical, too!) All of my stories were returned to me with "A++!! 105/100" etc., on them. I was surprised and pleased that the professor liked what I turned in, and I was only too happy to keep writing fiction for class credit. Once, when he handed a story back to me, he said that it was a delight to read and it was some of the best midrash he'd ever read. I put those assignments up on my webpage and moved on with life.

jcobleigh and I just spent a week in Maine on vacation, at a friend's cabin. The friend had the book "Do Lord Remember Me" by one Julius Lester, on a shelf in the cabin. I saw it, blinked, and thought, "How many Julius Lesters can there be in the world? I wonder if my professor wrote this..."

I remembered to look it up this morning and discovered that not only had he written it, he'd written a ton of award-winning novels, nonfiction, and various other odds and ends.

It was an eye-opening moment. An award-winning author liked something I wrote... wow. Cool.

That was today's nice surprise. :)

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