This is a guest post by D.G. Myers. This article was first published on January 2, 2012 by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
The holidays are over, the coffee-table books have all been unwrapped and set aside, and winter isn’t going anywhere for a while. In short, it’s time to settle in for some good reading.
The literary critic D. G. Myers here presents the 38 best Jewish books of 2011, all of which merit your attention. The list itself is an essay on the breadth and diversity of Jewish experience. Jewish observance and religious thought, ancient and modern, form one theme. Another theme is the variety of Jewish lives in places from medieval Egypt to the 20th-century Pale of Settlement, encompassing figures from Trotsky to Modigliani. Inevitably and grimly, the Holocaust appears both in the story of the Jewish “emperor” of the Lodz ghetto and in works by masters of Yiddish literature. There is the glorious puzzle that America poses for Jews in fields from poetry to baseball. And everywhere there appear stories of dislocation, from Cairo to Brooklyn, from Soviet Latvia to the free world, from Russia to Palestine and South Dakota. For real readers, here is a feast—and a New Year’s present. —The Editors.
Of the making of Jewish books there is no end—and some of them are even worth reading. The past 12 months have not produced a major Jewish novel; in fact, the best novel of the year was published by an obscure university press in Texas. But histories, translations of Yiddish literature, selected poems from two of our finest poets, and several first-rate memoirs have rushed in to fill the gap. And, as always, Jewish biography has proved to be a reliable category for the book-starved Jewish reader. Here is a reader’s guide to the top Jewish books of the past year, listed alphabetically by author’s last name.
Jewish History and Thought
- Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press). A brisk and informative survey of the efforts, after emancipation had ended Jewish political separateness, to redefine Jewish difference as Jewish religious difference. (Reviewed here.)
- Elisheva Carlebach, Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press). An illustrated history of the Jewish calendar in the early modern period and the many ways in which Jews depended upon it in their daily lives. (Reviewed here.)
- Tracy Daugherty, Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller (St. Martin’s Press). A thick, satisfying literary biography of the first-generation American Jew who wrote Catch-22—and and six more novels that never quite recaptured the magic.
- Herbert A. Davidson, Maimonides the Rationalist (Littman). A penetrating study of Maimonides’ life-long, ultimately unsuccessful struggle to reduce all of human experience, from Torah to science, to rational explanation. (Reviewed here.)
- Nathaniel Deutsch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement (Harvard University Press). Deutsch engagingly reconstructs S. An-sky’s fact-finding trip through the Pale of Settlement, animating Russian Jewish life in the early 20th century. (Reviewed here.)
- Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale University Press). Four illuminated haggadot from the 14th century are lovingly examined and explained in this marvelously illustrated book.
- David Hartman, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Jewish Lights). A prominent theologian challenges the Modern Orthodox movement to grow and change, without abandoning traditional Jewish practices, by incorporating modern insights into human behavior.
- June Feiss Hersh, Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival (Museum of Jewish Heritage). Traditional Jewish recipes from Poland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece are interwoven with the heart-warming stories of Holocaust survivors.
- Gertrude Himmelfarb, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill (Encounter). Despite their long legacy of Jew-hatred, the English people also have a distinguished history of Jew-admiration. Himmelfarb tells its story uniquely and memorably. (Reviewed here.)
- Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Schocken). The story of how the Cairo Genizah was discovered, acquired, and mined for its secrets about medieval Jewry. (Reviewed here.)
- Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942–2009 (Basic Books). A life’s work, including nine unmatchable essays on the Jewish experience, by the wide-ranging intellectual upon whom nothing human was lost. (Reviewed here.)
- Mark Kurlansky, Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One (Yale University Press). A brief, well-written biography of the Detroit Tigers slugger who became a hero to American Jews for standing up to anti-Semitism-and refusing to play on Yom Kippur. (Reviewed here.)
- Deborah E. Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (Schocken). The famous historian of Holocaust denial offers a compelling revisionist account of the capture and trial of the man who managed and oversaw the Final Solution. (Reviewed here.)
- David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (Sentinel). Sparing nothing and no one, the playwright and film director tells the dramatic story of his “right turn” away from the international Left. (Reviewed here.)
- Yvette Alt Miller, Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum). A richly detailed introduction to the Jewish Sabbath from sunset to sunset, offering instruction and information with a light touch.
- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Knopf). The great-great nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, the Holy Land’s great philanthropist, tells the life story of the Holy Land’s greatest city and how it came to be that way. (Reviewed here.)
- Alicia Oltuski, Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life (Scribner). The daughter and granddaughter of New York diamond dealers gives the inside dope on the diamond trade, drawing upon her own family’s story and first-hand reporting. (Reviewed here.)
- Alvin H. Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust (Indiana University Press). One of the first scholars of Holocaust literature dispassionately traces the bitter assaults upon it which have diminished the Holocaust in American and European memory. (Reviewed here.)
- Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life (Yale University Press). An incisive biography that demythologizes and decodes the complicated Russian Marxist revolutionary who split with Lenin and stood against Stalin. (Reviewed here.)
- Meryle Secrest, Modigliani: A Life (Knopf). The biographer of Frank Lloyd Wright and Stephen Sondheim trains her sights upon the Italian Jewish painter, separating the truth from the fiction of what she calls “the archetypal accursed artist.” (Reviewed here.)
- William Steig, Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies and Clowns: The Lost Art (Abrams). Best remembered for the original Shrek, Steig published some fifty books of cartoons during his lifetime—and this posthumous volume collects some of his best, most of which are published for the first time.
Jewish Literature and Memoirs
- Aharon Appelfeld, Until the Dawn’s Light, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Schocken). A brief novel by one of Israel’s greatest writers about a brilliant and talented Austrian Jewish girl who marries a Christian and converts, only to find misery.
- David Bezmozgis, The Free World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In 1978, three generations of Latvian Jews, including an old Party official, flee the Soviet Union to start a new life in the chaotic and confusing free world. [TC Jewfolk Eds. Note: Read Alexander Tolchinsky’s interview with David Bezmozgis here.]
- John J. Clayton, Mitzvah Man (Texas Tech University Press). When a middle-aged software consultant loses his wife in a traffic accident, he becomes a Jewish superhero—saving marriages, damsels in distress, and even lives.
- Eitan Fishbane, Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss (Syracuse University Press). A husband’s loving memoir of his wife, a young Jewish historian killed without warning by a brain tumor, and what it means to live on with loss.
- Martin Fletcher, The List (Thomas Dunne). The foreign correspondent for NBC News tells the story of a Jewish refugee family grappling with anti-Semitism and Zionism in London during the Second World War.
- Edward Hirsch, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Knopf). The author of the practical and no-nonsense How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry selects fiercely burning poems from his 35-year career.
- Maxine Kumin, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990–2010 (W. W. Norton). The 86-year-old poet collects plain-spoken poems from Robert Frost country, where Kumin and her husband breed Arabian and quarter horses.
- Lucette Lagnado, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn (Ecco). The author of the marvelous Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, a memoir of her father, returns with the equally marvelous next installment, her mother’s story and her own in Cairo and Brooklyn.
- Nancy K. Miller, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past (University of Nebraska Press). After her father’s death, a literary critic searches for the truth about her immigrant family and finds that literature helps to make sense of the past.
- Der Nister, Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation, trans. Erik Butler (Northwestern University Press). Seven devastating stories about the terrible fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland by the “hidden master” of Yiddish literature. (Reviewed here.)
- Amos Oz, Scenes from Village Life, trans. Nicholas de Lange (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The eighteenth book of fiction by the Israeli writer perennially mentioned as a favorite for the Nobel Prize: a novel in stories about the unusual lives in one town.
- Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Lookout Books). Remarkable stories about the search for meaning in family and loneliness from the 35-year literary career of the best Jewish writer no one knows.
- Yehoshue Perle, Ordinary Jews, trans. Shirley Kumove (SUNY Press). A new translation of a Yiddish classic from the Holocaust: a poor Jewish family struggles to survive in a Polish town, narrated by the 12-year-old son.
- Steve Sem-Sandberg, The Emperor of Lies, trans. Sarah Death (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A sprawling Swedish novel about the Lodz Ghetto and the Jewish “emperor”—Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski—who ruled it for the Nazis.
- Meir Shalev, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir, trans. Evan Fallenberg (Schocken). The Israeli novelist introduces his Grandma Tovia, a cleaning fanatic who emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1923, in this breezy memoir. [TC Jewfolk Eds.’ Note: Read Susan Esther Barnes’ review of the book here.]
- Anna Solomon, The Little Bride (Riverhead). A 16-year-old Russian mail-order bride finds herself in South Dakota, married to an older man while she falls in love with her stepson.
- Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, trans. Arch Tait (Overlook). The Russian novelist, not widely known in the United States, dramatizes the story of Brother Daniel, the Polish Jew who famously sought Israeli citizenship despite his conversion to Catholicism. (Reviewed here.)
Since you have to start somewhere, you might start with John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, a wise and wonderfully readable novel about the power of the Jewish religion to save lives and change the world. Lucette Lagnado’s second memoir, The Arrogant Years, is poignant and brilliantly written, sweeping the reader between unfamiliar worlds with strange emotions. Easily the best Jewish book of the past 12 months, though, is the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays, gathered together under the title The Neoconservative Persuasion. If you disagree with Kristol politically, don’t let the first word of the title turn you away: the second word is the key to these thought-provoking essays. Kristol never writes polemically; he writes always to persuade, explaining himself fully and with plenty of surprises. And his essays on Jewish life are among the best things ever written on the subject.
D.G. Myers, a critic and literary historian in the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University, is the author of the blog Literary Commentary.