2012: A Year in Books

By D. G. Myers
Wednesday, January 2, 2013

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: 

Nonfiction 

Literature

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.


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