Talking to a stranger in an Irish pub, Thomas Cahill learned to keep quiet about books he has in the works.
"What do you do?" he asked the man beside him.
"I'm a writer."
"What have you written?"
"I haven't written anything."
Cahill told the story to a gathering at Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood who asked about his own plans for a series of books he has in the works. His latest, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Doubleday), is the second in the set called "Hinges of History."The first was "How the Irish Saved Civilization" (Doubleday, 1995), which makes it hard to predict the next logical step.
As invitations to speak fill Cahill's calendar, most of them from Jewish community centers around the country, there's this other question to ask: Why would a book about Judaism written by an Irish Catholic appeal to Jews?
"Unalloyed admiration," he guesses.
It's true, his enthusiasm is showing. "The Jews," he writes, "were the first people to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea human beings have ever had."
He does, though, have other credentials. Cahill was director of religious publishing for Doubleday in the 1980s. Before he wrote "The Gifts of the Jews," he studied Scripture at a Jewish theological seminary in New York, where he lives, went to the deserts of the Middle East to walk through the beginnings of Jewish history and learned Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the language of the Jews.
Was his hair as silver before all of that? He says he "busted a gasket" studying Hebrew and found out that brute memorization was easier when he was 17 than now in his mid-50s.
But none of it was wasted energy. Like the dinner partner who makes you feel you are the most fascinating person at the table, he has twisted brains, wit, charm, scholar's muscles and traveler's memories toward his subject with undivided attention.
"I tried for several years to live with the people of the Bible," he says. "Finally, I could see Abraham's tent in the desert heat."
The gifts, he decided, come down to two: The Jews were the first in human history to claim individual freedom, and to presume that they could make the future better than the past. "There is a direct link between the ancient Jews and the American Declaration of Independence," Cahill says.
Abraham, father of the clan, took the first step toward independence when he answered a voice he heard in the desert, telling him to leave his home and go where he would be led. He asked who was speaking and heard, "Yahweh," one of several Hebrew names for God.
Until that night, Abraham was like everybody else in ancient Mesopotamia who saw things as predictable and out of control. "Life was a wheel, and there was no escape," Cahill says. "You were born fated. Nothing new was supposed to happen. But this one little desert tribe decided not to see life that way."
After his conversation with God, things changed for Abraham and his descendants. He fathered two sons in his 90s and his wife, Sarah, was almost as old when she attracted an amorous king. A city exploded in fire before his eyes, a nephew's wife turned to a pillar of salt, a grandson wrestled with an angel all night, an army drowned in the sea chasing his followers. Things went on like that for centuries. "A new notion of time changed Abraham," Cahill says. "Time became real because the future became real, and unpredictable. Since then in the West, we don't believe everything is fated. We make our own fate.
"Once you've been there, you can't go back to a cyclical view of the world. You aren't part of a wheel, you are an individual. A human life has value."
Maybe life is easier when everything seems inevitable. "You can be at peace if you believe this is all supposed to happen," Cahill suggests. "We have much more trouble in the West because we don't believe it. That's why we have violence. People on the bottom think things can be better, and a lot of our conflicts are a result of it."
To see life as a procession, not a circle, was like bracing a turbine to Jewish history. "A sense of time and individuality produces a sense of accomplishment," Cahill says. "We can safely say the Jews have won that derby." Thirty percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jews, who account for one-quarter of 1% of the world's population, Cahill notes.
His book is a cultural history more than a study of how the Bible was made, but Cahill does refer to the views of progressive Scripture scholars.
He describes the "Book of Ruth," about a friendship between two women, as one probably written by a woman, and says the first 50 psalms are probably by King David, Israel's second king. He writes about mahn-hu, translated as "bread," in no romantic terms.
"It was probably white edible insect secretions to be found on the branches of some rare Sinai plants," he explains of the food the Israelites lived on as they walked across the desert.
"Most of what I wrote is a consensus of contemporary Scripture scholars," he says. "The trouble is that no one [else] gets to read about it. Scholars talk to one another, not other people."
As a Christian learning to read the Bible like a Jew, Cahill discovered a new way of looking at the book.
"For Jews, the Bible is the family document," he says. "They read with a sense of authority. I don't think Christians have ever been as comfortable with it.
"Protestants and Catholics want to take up a section, get an answer to the question, 'What does this mean?' and move on. They are unwilling to live with the ambiguities that Scripture contains."
Cahill's book about the Irish describes a cultural history that can't be separated from its Catholic tradition. The book held a spot on the bestseller list for more than a year and helped Cahill form his approach toward the Jews as both a cultural and religious community.
While he was studying Jewish history, he studied publishing trends to figure out the secret to successful sales. "People's interest in religion is constant, but their way of expressing it changes," he says. "Until the '60s, Jews read religious books by Jews, Catholics read Catholics. Now, it's no longer denominational."
His best teacher was M. Scott Peck, whose spiritual self-help book, "The Road Less Traveled," published in 1978, was a bestseller for more than 10 years. "It was the great religious publishing phenomenon of the last decade because it combined religion and psychology," he says.
"I tried to combine modern psychology with ancient spirituality."
* Cahill will speak at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega, Los Angeles, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.