Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul
Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a humanist whose life and work have been shaped by religion.
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The story about Seltzer is interweaved with that of Azarya. The young Jewish prodigy lives in the orthodox village Seltzer's mother grew up in and is destined to be the next rebbe. Both Azarya and Jonas Elijah Klapper, a megalomaniac scholar who used to be Seltzer's mentor, have deeply influenced Seltzer's life and thoughts.Skip to next paragraph
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"36 Arguments" not only marks Goldstein's return to fiction, but also means a renewed focus on the religion that shaped her life.
Goldstein's books have received wide acclaim in the world of fiction – The New York Times listed several of her novels among the most notable books of the year – though many in the philosophical world were less enamored of her initial choice to write literature. "The Mind-Body Problem," which came out in 1983, was set in Princeton and not only told the story of a young female philosophy student, married to a mathematical genius, but also deeply satirized the world of philosophical academia. Having apparently chosen fiction over academics, for a long time Goldstein felt that the field of philosophy no longer regarded her as one of their own. Her recent work on Spinoza, however, has put her back on the map of philosophy.
SPINOZA'S ROLE IN GOLDSTEIN'S LIFE goes further. She was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, the daughter of the town's cantor and a mother deeply frustrated by unfulfilled dreams of personal success. Goldstein even taught at Hebrew school as a teenager, but doubts about her community's religion seeped in at an early age. When a teacher at the all-girl yeshiva she attended spoke of the rebellious Jewish philosopher as "a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom," the usually silent Rebecca raised her hand and spoke up. She was intrigued by this man who, according to her favorite teacher, equated God with nature. She demanded to know what he had meant by that. Was it flowers he referred to, or the laws of nature? Her love of philosophy was triggered there and then, and would finally take her to college and a community that she could truly call her own.
Goldstein always loved writing. She started to write as a child, stories at first, poetry later – most of it very religious. The first story she remembers writing was in second grade, about a mischievous little girl who tricks her mean principal. "I don't know if it's the first thing I wrote, but I remember it because my mother liked it. Everything my mother liked, I remember." Her mother was a child of the Depression and felt thwarted in her own literary ambitions. Goldstein thinks that, while writing first pleased her mother, it later became a painful reminder of her own unpursued dreams.
GOLDSTEIN MET HER FIRST LOVE when she was 15. She was with her older sister, Mynda, at a singles' weekend at a Jewish hotel in the Catskills. It was a Jewish holiday, and the hotel had designated one dining room for families, and one for singles. Taking one look at the meat market otherwise known as the singles room, the Newberger girls turned around and hid out with the families instead. They sat down with a Jewish family from Atlanta, the Goldsteins. Sheldon and Rebecca married four years later.