A Year in Books
It was a good year for Jewish books in English. The two greatest living American Jewish novelists—Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick—added beguiling volumes to their already impressive bodies of work, although perhaps the most interesting Jewish novels of the year belong to two somewhat younger writers. Several fascinating biographies of several fascinating Jews appeared, and the field of history was distinguished by two monumental studies of anti-Semitism. Joan Nathan even came out with a new cookbook! From the popular to the scholarly, here is a reader's and buyer's guide to 34 of the best, listed alphabetically by author's last name.
- Yehuda Avner, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (Toby, 715 pp.). The adviser to four PM's—Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, and Begin—offers a compelling and greatly entertaining inside look.
- Gal Beckerman, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry (Houghton, 608 pp.). A reporter weaves together the two strands of the story of Soviet Jewry: the Russian "refuseniks" and the American Jews who fought to get them released. (Reviewed here.)
- Saul Bellow, Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor (Viking, 571 pp). What may be the last volume of collected letters by a great American novelist offers many a page exemplifying his extraordinary literary gifts and ambitions. (Reviewed here.)
- Joel Chasnoff, The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah (Free Press, 288 pp.). The comic true-life adventures of a twenty-something nebbish among teenagers in an IDF tank brigade.
- Niall Ferguson, High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg (Penguin, 576 pp.). The definitive biography, based on previously unavailable materials, of the famous German Jewish banker whose philosophy of finance was vastly different from today's.
- Norman Gelb, Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation (Jewish Publication Society, 190 pp.). The stories of the fifty-two men and two women who reigned between 1020 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.
- Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (Yale, 448 pp.). Churchill's biographer relates a millennial experience that has swung between "the two extremes of protection and intolerance." (Reviewed here.)
- Mark Glickman, Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic (Jewish Lights, 255 pp.). An in-depth account of the astounding storehouse of documents discovered in Cairo's Ezra Synagogue over a century ago.
- Abigail Green, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero (Harvard, 560 pp.). An Oxford don with unique access to the family archives writes a light-footed and engrossing biography of the great Victorian philanthropist who bankrolled the first modern Jewish settlement in Palestine. (Reviewed here, and author interviewed here.)
- Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi (Nextbook/Schocken, 368 pp.). Nominally a biography of the 12th-century poet and philosopher, Halkin's immensely rich book also tells the story of Spanish Jewry, explains Hebrew poetry, and defends Halevi's place in contemporary Zionism. (Reviewed here.)
- Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton, 382 pp.). The first critical biography of the messianic Lubavitcher rebbe by scholars from outside Chabad. (Reviewed here.)
- Joel Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning (St. Martin's, 272 pp.). A lively tour of the difficulties besetting the Bible's translators, their successes and (more frequent) failures.
- Thomas L. Jeffers, Norman Podhoretz (Cambridge, 418 pp.). The life of the writer and editor who with great consequence transformed Commentary into a superb magazine and helped found the neoconservative movement.
- Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford, 864 pp.). A comprehensive history of the four varieties of British and, by extension, most Western anti-Semitism. (Author interviewed here.)
- Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed (Yale, 336 pp.). The desire of most Palestinian Arabs to live in peaceful coexistence with their Jewish neighbors has been repeatedly undercut by Arab leaders; a well-documented and well-told history. (Author interviewed here.)
- Giulio Meotti, A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel's Victims of Terrorism (Encounter, 428 pp.). An Italian journalist sickened by "the monstrous morality of anti-Semitism" tells, for the first time, the stories of Israeli Jews who perished in acts of Islamic terrorism.
- Jerry Z. Muller, Capitalism and the Jews (Princeton, 272 pp.). Why the Jews have succeeded at business and finance while loudly criticizing both.
- Joan Nathan, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 400 pp.). Her readers have come to expect a savory mix of casual history and easy-to-follow recipes; Nathan does not disappoint.
- David B. Ruderman, Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History (Princeton, 336 pp.). Long before the date set by conventional wisdom, Jews were modernizing and modernized. (Reviewed here.)
- Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk's Creator, S. An-sky (Harvard, 392 pp.). An exceptionally lucid, wide-ranging, and suggestive biography of the man who wrote the most famous Yiddish play. (Reviewed here.)
- Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis, and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe (Littman, 414 pp.). Delightfully informative essays on the lives of ordinary Jews, from the history of the pushke to a revisionist account of women's place—not in but largely out of the home. (Reviewed here.)
- Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 1,200 pp.). In his magnum opus, the distinguished historian of anti-Semitism traces its origins and warns that it remains as vigorous, and as lethal, as ever. (Reviewed here.)
- Allison Amend, Stations West (LSU, 250 pp.). A multi-generational saga of a Jewish-Cherokee family on the Oklahoma frontier, where the word Jew means peddler "and not a worn-out religion."
- Joshua Cohen, Witz: The Story of the Last Jew on Earth (Dalkey Archive, 800 pp.). A difficult and ambitious tale about an international vogue of Jewishness as Jews themselves dwindle to a single survivor.
- Joseph Epstein, "The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff" and Other Stories (Houghton, 272 pp.). Fourteen witty stories about urban professionals, mostly Jewish, mostly aging, mostly willing to learn what life still has to teach.
- Jacob Glatstein, The Glatstein Chronicles, ed. Ruth Wisse (Yale, 396 pp.). In two autobiographical novels, the great American Yiddish poet returns to Poland in 1934 to visit his dying mother and foresees the coming of catastrophe. (Reviewed here.)
- Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 307 pp.). A brilliant and darkly comic novel chronicles the intellectual odyssey of a Jewish TV personality jarred, despite himself, out of his antipathy to Israel.
- Joan Leegant, Wherever You Go (Norton, 253 pp.). An award-winning first novelist explores the love-hate relationship between American Jews and the state of Israel.
- Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge (Knopf, 602 pp.). The experience of two Jewish families is mobilized to narrate the tragedy of the Holocaust in Hungary; a first novel.
- Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (Knopf, 272 pp.). In the author's sixth novel, the encounter between America and Europe ends in America's favor. (Reviewed here.)
- Philip Roth, Nemesis (Houghton, 280 pp.). When a polio epidemic in wartime Newark begins to strike Jewish children, one of their teachers—and heroes—blames himself.
- Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic (Algonquin, 608 pp.). From his friendship with Sigmund Freud to his entrapment in the Warsaw ghetto, a Viennese doctor watches the Jewish experience turn dark.
- Steve Stern, The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin, 384 pp.). A 19th-century Hasidic tsaddik, fresh-frozen after tumbling into a Polish waterhole, thaws out hilariously in a Memphis basement.
- Andrew Winer, The Marriage Artist (Holt, 384 pp.). In 1928 Vienna, a young Jewish artist is put to work illuminating ketubot; in New York 80 years later, an art critic struggles with his wife's suicide. In time, the two stories converge.
What are the year's best Jewish books? Many are the contenders. Three I would single out for special mention are, in fiction, Steve Stern's The Frozen Rabbi and Howard Jacobson's prize-winning The Finkler Question, and, in nonfiction, Anthony Julius's Trials of the Diaspora. Easily the year's best, however, is Hillel Halkin's Yehuda Halevi, which packs enough learning into one small volume for three or four scholarly studies but does so with an unrivaled lightness of touch and an unembarrassed partisan love for Jews, Jewish books, and the Jewish state.
D. G. Myers writes on books regularly at A Commonplace Blog.
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