The Arty Semite

30 Days, 30 Texts: 'Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number'

By Rachel Brodie

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In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Rachel Brodie writes about “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” by Jacobo Timerman.

I was always a conscientious objector (aka bad sport) when teachers used the pedagogic conundrum: If you were stranded on a desert island and could take only one book… until I read Jacobo Timerman’s “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.”

I was 16 and as enamored of the low-affect nihilism of Sartre and Beckett as I was fascinated by the manic irreverence of Saturday Night Live and The Clash. At the same time, my favorite subject in school was Talmud and I fantasized about moving to Jerusalem.

Timerman’s book came as a brutal assault on my psyche. His imprisonment and torture under Argentina’s Peronist regime was obviously horrifying, but the fact that it had occurred only five years earlier was what really astounded me. Timerman’s experience exposed what I, as a yeshiva-educated young American Jew in 1983, held as a core tenet of faith — “never again”— as the product of wishful thinking.

I’m pleased to report that I did not become unduly paranoid. Instead, in hindsight, I credit Timerman with the politicization of my commitment to tikkun olam, and adding kindling to my predilection for questioning authority. I also learned to value experiences over material things because, unlike the proverbial desert island in so many ways, Timerman didn’t get even one book during his solitary confinement. But he makes clear that, throughout his ordeal, he availed himself of the books he’d already read and that were held in his mind, out of reach of his tormentors.

So what book would I take if I could choose only one? Not Timerman’s. I’d take a Tanakh.

Rachel Brodie is the founder and Executive Director of Jewish Milestones.


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