(September 5, 2011 / JNS) One of the most maddening and frustrating books of the Bible counsels us, “Of the making of books there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
The sage Ecclesiastes’ words are certainly true today, when hundreds of thousands of tomes are distributed both in print and electronically each year. This monthly column will survey the landscape of the latest Jewish-related books—works that are suitable for a common read not just by a Jewish individual, but also Jewish community center, synagogue or book group. There’s also some seasonal flavor, with content appropriate for the holidays and other highlights on the Jewish calendar.
Israeli Fiction—In English
The latest book to appear in English from Amos Oz, one of Israel’s best-known fiction writers, is a series of linked stories that take place among the inhabitants of the village of Tel Ilan—a fictional place with a strong resemblance to the real-life Zichron Ya’acov. In Scenes from Village Life, Tel Ilan’s inhabitants are all missing something: an ill nephew who couldn’t quite make the bus, a stillborn child, a husband who died of heart failure on his fiftieth birthday, a wife who disappears leaving only a note to say “Don’t worry about me.” The village is externally beautiful, a haven for those seeking bucolic tranquility, art galleries and gourmet food on weekends, though none of its permanent inhabitants—with the exception of a teenage boy who tells an older woman of his unreciprocated feelings for her—are able to speak or connect to others.
The setting is quietly ordinary and the writing is exceptional. Each detail, so carefully given, leaves the reader with a clear understanding of a larger scene. The one Arab character in the collection tells his landlord, “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul.” Though the characters are certainly not all happy, it is a pleasure to see the souls Oz has come to bare in his latest volume, as wonderfully done as his own personal soul-baring in his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which could serve equally well as the subtitle for this outstanding collection.
Journalists Turned Novelists
Amy Waldman’s The Submission and Martin Fletcher’s The List are worthwhile works from career journalists have taken up longer-form writing. Waldman is a former New York Times South Asia bureau chief who imagines in this novel what would happen were a Muslim architect to win the commission to design a 9/11 memorial. There are Jewish characters in this well-written and engaging novel, though the themes are not specifically Jewish. Fletcher, an award-winning journalist and author, combines family history with research to write about post-World War II London in The List, which has been chosen as a “One Book, One Jewish Community Book of the Year.” Therefore, this bookshould be on the list—pun intended—for those looking for fiction in their book groups.
The Jewish Response to 9/11
One of the most interesting collections to come out of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is a compendium of Orthodox rabbinic rulings about the event published by ArtScroll, Contending With Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11. So far as I know this is the only full volume to deal with a Jewish response to the day. The volume contains both halakhic articles dealing with determining the status of those presumed to have died in the Twin Towers without physical evidence, documents relating to these matters, and philosophical essays on the difficulty of the problem of evil in Jewish tradition.
Memoir is a currently popular genre, and two recent examples give a sense of the diverse edges of the Jewish community. Lucette Lagnado’s newest memoir is The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, which picks up where her award-winning tale of her father, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, left off—with the family’s struggle in American after immigration from Egypt.
A very different family is the one chronicled by Katharine Weber in her memoir, The Memory of All That. Weber—an accomplished writer of five novels—starts with great material recounting on her life as part of the Warburg banking family, and granddaughter of a woman who was a composer with George Gershwin.
The Classics: Jewish and Biblical Texts
The chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, has a new Rosh Hashanah Mahzor (prayer book), The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor, employing commentary written with his own flair. The modern aspect of Sacks’ modern Orthodoxy is not slighted; a reader can find mentions of Stephen Hawking and Michaelangelo along with multiple references to modern Orthodox heroes Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Joseph Soloveitchik. Anyone from any denomination looking to deepen understanding of the New Year liturgy cannot go wrong with this volume. My (non-Orthodox) rabbi took my copy from me, so he could share pieces of it with the congregation!
As the Torah reading cycle begins again, any reader looking for a new take on the Genesis text should open Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach Bereshit. This volume is a compilation of essays that originally appeared on the Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash website. The writers are all in some way connected with this institution, which was founded so that the values and concerns of the outside world would be taken into account and Bible study would be part of the foundation of the learning, rather than solely Talmud and halacha. The writers are all serious rabbis and scholars who find new messages and meanings in the ancient text, exemplifying the word of Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of books, there is no end.”
Author’s note: Special thanks to Elissa Schapell, who has written the Hot Typecolumn of Vanity Fair, Abraham Socher, editor of the Jewish Review of Books, Josh Lambert, former editor of a book column for Tablet, and Naomi Firestone-Teeter of the Jewish Book Councilfor their advice regarding this column.
Beth Kissileff has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College and for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis, and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible.