Books are dying—everyone says so—but you couldn’t prove it by the Jews. 2012 was a very good year for Jewish books.
Taking full advantage of the growing prestige of interdisciplinary research, Jewish scholars have been particularly active, publishing studies of European Jewish spas, Jewish education, Jewish self-hatred, Jewish music, and a thousand other enticing subjects. Jewish novelists, young and old, have written novels worth keeping around the house and loaning out to friends. All in all, it was a great year to be a Jewish reader.
Of course there were terrible Jewish books, too. To anticipate the inevitable criticisms, Judith Butler’s anti-Zionist Parting Ways, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer’s hipster Haggadah, and Deborah Feldman’s self-congratulatory memoir of breaking with Orthodox Judaism (predictably entitled Unorthodox) have been intentionally left off the following list of the 40 best Jewish books, 20 in nonfiction and 20 in literature, from the past year:
- Alan Balfour, Solomon’s Temple: Myth, Conflict, and Faith (Wiley-Blackwell). A history of the Temple and the Temple Mount from the Ark of the Covenant to the Second Intifada, Balfour’s book is comprehensive, lavishly illustrated, and written to wear its scholarship lightly.
- Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70–1492 (Princeton University Press). The transformation of the Jews from an agrarian people in the Middle East to skilled urbanites scattered from Spain to India was driven not by anti-Semitic persecution but by the rabbinical imperative to educate one’s sons. Reviewed here.
- Harry Brod, Superman Is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press). The artists and writers who invented comic-book superheroes were not the only ones who were Jewish; the superheroes were Jewish, too. Brod shows how American comic books derive from Jewish culture. Reviewed here.
- Joseph Epstein, Essays in Biography (Axios Press). Americans from George Washington to Susan Sontag, Englishmen from Max Beerbohm to John Gross, pop-culture icons from Alfred Kinsey to Michael Jordan—40 brief lives by the greatest living essayist.
- Arnold E. Franklin, This Noble House: Jewish Descendants of King David in the Medieval Islamic East (University of Pennsylvania Press). Relying upon material from the Cairo Geniza, Franklin interprets the medieval claims to Davidic ancestry as the Jews’ response to living in an Islamic milieu.
- Lela Gilbert, Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner (Encounter). A Christian who sojourned in Israel for six years explains how she came to understand the true character of the rage against the Jewish state, which is now being directed against the Christian communities of the Middle East.
- Daniel Gordis, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength (Wiley). The deep sense of belonging that characterizes Israelis—the love of the land that puts them at odds with the utopian universalism preferred by the chattering classes—is the Jewish state’s light unto the nations. Reviewed here.
- Ruth HaCohen, The Music Libel against the Jews (Yale University Press). To Christian ears, trained by the classical tradition, Jewish music sounded like noise. When they entered the tradition, then, Jewish composers like Schönberg created music that was intentionally dissonant and noisy. A provocative, idiosyncratic book. Reviewed here.
- Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Columbia University Press). Can Tanakh be read as a product of reason instead of faith? The Israeli philosopher who founded the Shalem Center teases out political, ethical, and epistemological themes by treating the Hebrew Bible as a coherent whole.
- Ronald Hendel, The Book of “Genesis”: A Biography (Princeton University Press). A volume in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, Hendel’s biography traces the cultural influence of Bereshit from its genesis to its enlistment, by both sides, in modern political conflicts.
- Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press). In his tenth book, the great biblical scholar takes issue with the popular view that the three “Abrahamic” religions share a common source, which might bring them together. For Levenson, the differences are more telling. Levenson is interviewed here.
- Olga Litvak, Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism (Rutgers University Press). The Jewish “Enlightenment,” as it has long been known, is better understood against the background of European romanticism. A Jewish historian at Clark University, Litvak applies her reinterpretation of Haskalah to current debates over Jewish secularism.
- Harry Ostrer, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People (Oxford University Press). The story of the Jews—their origins and migrations—is encoded in their DNA, and Ostrer (a geneticist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine) shows how the story can be told without ideological ax-grinding.
- Joshua Parens, Maimonides and Spinoza: Their Conflicting Views of Human Nature (University of Chicago Press). A revisionist study arguing that the value of reading Maimonides is to gain distance from the modern world and its thinking, which were deeply shaped by Spinoza. Dense but rewarding.
- Paul Reitter, On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred (Princeton University Press). A new genealogy of the old term, which argues that “Jewish self-hatred,” rather than being a polemical weapon and instrument of censure, arose in inter-war Germany with an affirmative, even redemptive meaning. Reviewed here.
- Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, trans. Anthony Berris (Brandeis University Press). A comprehensive history, from Zionism’s origins to the present, which shifts the focus from the Arab-Israeli conflict to internal politics, immigration and nation building, culture, and the economy. Reviewed here.
- Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (Oxford University Press). The 1975 United Nations resolution declaring that Zionism is racism galvanized American support for Israel; and the symbol of that support was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador who memorably denounced the resolution before the UN General Assembly. Reviewed here.
- Robert S. Wistrich, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (University of Nebraska Press). The great scholar of anti-Semitism follows up his magisterial Lethal Obsession, one of the best Jewish books of 2010, with an account of how the political Left’s attitudes toward the Jews have undergone the transformation described in the title.
- Mirjam Zadoff, Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture, trans. William Templer (University of Pennsylvania Press). Every summer before Hitler, middle-class European Jews descended en masse upon the spas of western Bohemia, creating “Jewish places” where they were the dominant group. Zadoff recreates these lost places skillfully and in detail.
- Yair Zakovitch, Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch, trans. Valerie Zakovitch (Yale University Press). A “literary archaeology” that reconstructs the patriarch’s life from multiple sources, primarily by putting the biblical story “under a microscope.”
- Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins (Grand Central). As the matriarch of the clan passes the 300-pound mark without looking back, a Jewish family in suburban Chicago comes flying hysterically apart. Reviewed here.
- Ramona Ausubel, No One Is Here Except All of Us (Riverhead). When the rumors of war reach them in 1939, the Jews of a Romanian village decide to protect themselves by reinventing the world from scratch. An intriguing debut.
- Eduardo Halfon, The Polish Boxer, trans. Anne McLean and others (Bellevue Literary Press). An English translation of a novel by the Guatemalan Jewish writer, which wrestles with the question of identity in a world full of migrants and exiles.
- Hillel Halkin, Melisande! What Are Dreams? (Granta). At the age of 72, the ever-wonderful Jewish writer offers his wonderful first novel, a love letter to conjugal love and a meditation on dreams and resurrection. Reviewed here.
- Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (Pantheon). An American Jewish family gathers for the unveiling of the headstone of its youngest son, killed while covering the war in Iraq. The family’s disagreements over his memorial and the war are just the beginnings of their differences. Reviewed here.
- Howard Jacobson, Zoo Time (Bloomsbury). The 12th comic novel by the “English Philip Roth”—the “Jewish Jane Austen,” he interrupts—in which a Jewish novelist confronts the death of books and his yen for his 66-year-old mother-in-law.
- Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular, trans. Mitch Ginsburg (Grove). The third Hebrew novel by the Israeli Arab who created the popular sitcom Arab Labor rewrites Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” as the tale of an Arab lawyer’s jealousy toward a Jewish paraplegic—who may be cuckolding him. Reviewed here.
- Hans Keilson, Life Goes On, trans. Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The late Dutch Jewish novelist’s 1933 debut, never before translated into English. Banned by the Nazis, it tells how one family experienced the upheavals of Weimar Germany and the rise of National Socialism. Reviewed here.
- David Koker, At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943–1944, trans. Michael Horn and John Irons (Northwestern University Press). The Dagboek written on scraps of paper in the Vught concentration camp by a 21-year-old philosophy student, first published in the Netherlands in 1977 and never before translated into English.
- Mario Levi, Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale, trans. Ender Gürol (Dalkey Archive). A major work of Turkish Jewish literature, Levi’s 600-page saga of a Ladino-speaking Sephardic family from the last days of the Ottoman Empire to the end of the 20th century submerges the reader in an exotic Jewish world. Daunting, but worth the struggle. Reviewed here.
- Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (Yale University Press). A personal essay by the famous Israeli novelist and his daughter, a historian. The Jews, they argue, are neither a political nor an ethnic grouping but a tradition of meaning-laden words.
- Elliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper (Riverhead). The “multilayered” and “epic” third novel by the Australian Jewish novelist, 600 pages in length, which weaves the civil rights movement together with the Holocaust in a story spanning decades and continents.
- Joseph Roth, A Life in Letters, trans. Michael Hoffman (W. W. Norton). The great Austrian Jewish novelist (author of Job and The Radetzky March) may have been at his best in his letters. Collected here in one book, they tell the story of the man and of his times, the years between the wars. Reviewed here.
- Ellen Ullman, By Blood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In 1974, a disgraced professor eavesdrops on the therapy sessions of a young lesbian who discovers she is Jewish. With his unsought help, she learns her connections to the Holocaust and Israel. Reviewed here.
- Francesca Segal, The Innocents (Hyperion Voice). The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s classic novel about the clash between social convention and romantic desire, is rewritten and transplanted to North West London (the Jewish district), where young 21st-century Jews find themselves in the same predicament. A brilliant debut novel.
- Sasson Somekh, Life after Baghdad: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel, 1950–2000 (Sussex Academic). Originally titled Yamim Hazuyim (“Call It Dreaming”) when first published in Israel, the second volume of memoirs by the scholar of modern Arab literature recounts his life in Oxford, Princeton, Cairo, and Tel Aviv.
- Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin, El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel (Basic Books). A literary critic and a cartoonist team up on a detective story that also reveals something of the history of “crypto-Jews” in the American Southwest.
- Gerald Stern, Stealing History (Trinity University Press). The distinguished Jewish poet, winner of the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, offers a memoir in the form of 84 essays (average length: not quite four pages), which shift like an easy-going conversation between past and present, public and private.
- Steve Stern, The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories (Graywolf). A series of stories, 17 in all, balancing precariously on the razor’s edge that separates fantasy from reality, by the author of The Frozen Rabbi, best American novel of 2010.
- Elie Wiesel, Hostage, trans. Catherine Temerson (Alfred A. Knopf). In his 15th novel, originally published in France in 2010, Wiesel tells the story of a Jewish writer who is kidnapped from his home in Brooklyn and held hostage while his captors demand the release of three Palestinian Arab inmates from an Israeli prison. Reviewed here.
The best Jewish book in each category this past year? Inheriting Abraham is the most impressive work of Jewish scholarship published during 2012. For more than three decades, Jon Levenson has been quietly developing a biblical theology that would revolutionize Jewish understanding and worship, if only more Jews were to learn of it. Inheriting Abraham is his most accessible book yet—a model of how exacting scholarship can be written for the well-educated layman.
For once a literary prize serves as a faithful guide: Joshua Henkin won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the year’s best Jewish novel. The World Without You deserves the accolade. The grandson of a famous Orthodox rabbi and the son of an influential Columbia University law professor, Henkin understands the dynamics and tensions of a Jewish family from the inside. The World Without You belongs to a tradition that includes I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi and Der Nister’s Family Mashber. At 336 pages, Henkin’s multi-generational family chronicle is too short a visit with sharp-edged and unforgettable characters.
D.G. Myers is a literary critic and historian with the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University. Author of The Elephants Teach, he has published essays and reviews in Commentary, the New York Times Book Review, Philosophy and Literature, and elsewhere.