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Poster Commentary
"A book must be an axe to break the sea frozen inside us."Franz Kafka
Poster design:Orit Bergman


by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Can you ever forget the times when your heart leapt into your throat as you read a riveting book for the first time? When was the last time a book shattered your world, completely altering your perspective? And how many times have you plowed through endless pages of text, only to realize you barely remember any of it? Sometimes books thaw out our insides; sometimes they allow us to hide within our own boredom and alienation.

Franz Kafka was an early-twentieth century, German-language Jewish author. Inside each of us, says Kafka, is a frigid core. We can easily become set in our ways and numb to the outside world. Only an axe can shatter the most hardened surfaces, such as thick ice. When the frozen surface is not simply a sea, but a human soul, we need books to break open our calcified hearts. Only words of critique and rebuke will effectively free the living waters that run beneath.

This image is harsh, even violent. But the notion that words have the power to change the world is an old idea, and a very Jewish one. In Psalm 147:18, the Bible speaks of how divine words melt the snow that blankets the earth. This softer image of melting offers a gentler perspective on the power of words. Words can break us, as in Kafka’s image. But they can also warm us and melt our frozen hearts, releasing energy and potential from within that can, in turn, warm others.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker is Rosh Yeshiva and chair in Jewish law at Mechon Hadar. Rabbi Tucker was ordained by the chief rabbinate of Israel and earned a PhD in Talmud and rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. He cofounded Kehilat Hadar and is a winner of the first Grinspoon Foundation Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. Rabbi Tucker was selected three times by Newsweek as one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America.

Conversation Guide


1. What is the last book you read that had the effect on you that Kafka is describing here?

2. What frozen seas do you have inside you? What does the image of an axe breaking the frozen sea suggest to you? What happens after the axe breaks the frozen sea? How is it a metaphor for a good book?

3. In the larger context of this quote, Kafka says we should “read only the kind of books that wound or stab us.” Do you agree? What other kind of books do you read and why?



1. How does the high contrast, black and white formal clothing help reinforce the idea in the quote? What meaning can you infer from the use and placement of the color red?

2. By the demeanor and actions of the man, what do you think he is trying to say in support of the quote? Does knowing that the man is Kafka change your experience of the poster?

3. The book the man reveals is called HaGilgul—Hebrew for Kafka’s book, Metamorphosis—how does that contribute to the image?


Frames of Mind©2015, Orit Bergman, Quote: Franz Kafka, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA