Soaring the skies on Shabbat

Writer John Rosen relates bird watching to Judaism

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 8, 2008

John Rosen

Media Credit: Allison Freedman
John Rosen discussed his book, which examines the role of the natural world in the spiritual, yesterday in Houston Hall.

For John Rosen, Judaism, the search for human contentment and the need for belonging all have a strong correlation to the migratory patterns of birds.

Yesterday, Rosen shared those thoughts with students and faculty members at Kelly Writers House, and later, during a book-signing in Houston Hall to promote his forthcoming book, The Life of the Skies: Judaism, Evolution and the Natural World, which will be released later this month.

The event was sponsored by Penn's Jewish Studies Program and co-sponsored by the Kelly Writers House

Rosen got into bird-watching 15 years ago while eating lunch on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, in Manhattan. There, he overheard a man say Warblers were coming through Central Park, and he decided he wanted to see.

"Birds raise complex questions about belonging, much like Jews," said Rosen, author of three previous books and numerous essays. "We all have to figure out where we belong geographically, but also metaphysically," he said.

By focusing on Judaism and the role of the natural world in religious life, Rosen provided some clarity on his theory about birds.

"While you're civilizing them, they're decivilizing you," he said. "By studying birds, you're bringing them into your literary world, but they're bringing you into their natural world."

Beth Wenger, a Penn History professor, praised Rosen for his positive influence and hailed the event as an overall success.

"The Jewish Studies Program and Kelly Writers House together embraced this wonderful opportunity to bring one of the most prominent young writers to campus," she said.

Kathryn Hellerstein, senior lecturer in Yiddish and Jewish studies, described herself as a casual, unofficial bird-watcher, but that did not stop her from gaining a greater insight to the intricacies of bird life.

"I thought it was a wonderful talk," she said.

Toward the end of the lecture, Rosen opened a short question and answer session.

"The question we should ask ourselves is 'What do we owe the natural world and why," he said.

And he remained undeterred in his hope towards a better world for humans, and birds.

"I imagine a world, not where birds are being protected, but where birds don't have to be protected," he said.