(November 10, 2013 / JNS)
The much-debated Pew Research Center survey has ignited fears that the Jewish community is in big trouble these days, but you would not know it from the number of Jewish books that keep hitting the shelves. The following are 10 of the new Jewish titles that I have enjoyed and learned from this year.
LIKE DREAMERS: The Story of the Israeli paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi, HarperCollins, 575 pages.
Yossi Klein Halevi explains how Israel has changed since the Six-Day War, both for good and for bad, by telling the stories of seven of the soldiers who reunited Jerusalem. They helped win the war, but failed to win the peace. One was the founder of the first West Bank settlement, another a leader of Peace Now. This is a book that anyone who cares about Israel must read. It will not persuade you to change allegiances from dove to hawk, or vice versa, but it will enable you to understand both of those perspectives—and everything in between—with reverence and admiration.
THE LIARS’ GOSPEL, by Naomi Alderman, Little Brown Pub. Co., 309 pages.
To take what is probably the western world’s best-known story and retell it in a whole new way—and make it convincing—takes imagination of the highest order. Naomi Alderman has pulled it off in this Midrash on the New Testament. We all think that we know the facts of Jesus’s life and death, at least as they are described in the New Testament, but in this novel, Alderman tells the story that we think we know through the eyes of four people—his mother, Mary; his friend, Judas Iscariot, the High Priest; Calaphas, the Roman governor; and Barbaros, the rebel against Rome, whom the crowd chooses to save instead of Jesus. Each of them sees Jesus from a different point of view. This novel enables us to understand him in the light of the Jewish situation in his time, when Judea was a conquered province of Rome on the edge of rebelling.
BELIEVING AND ITS TENSIONS, by Rabbi Neil Gilman, Jewish Lights, 110 pages.
Neil Gilman takes on the issues of God, Torah, Suffering and Death in Jewish Thought and treats them well in just a hundred pages! He makes use of the findings of anthropology and sociology to explain what it means to call God a myth, and probes the reality that lies beyond all myths. He argues that humanity is a partner in revelation and therefore has a share in determining its authority. He deals with the central spiritual questions of how do suffering and death fit into our religious faith. And what is most impressive is that he does all this in language that the educated layman can understand.
THE SHORT, STRANGE LIFE OF HERSHEL GRYNSZPAN, by Jonathan Kirsch, Liveright Publishing Co., 334 pages.
His name has been forgotten, and what happened to him at the end is no longer known, but in his time Herschel Grynszpan was a central figure. On Nov. 7, 1938, this 17-year-old Jewish refugee walked into the German embassy in Paris and killed a low-level Nazi diplomat. He said that he did it out of love for his parents who were being deported from Germany, and out of concern for his people. Two days later, Kristallnacht took place, supposedly in reaction to his deed. Was he an emotionally disturbed youngster or was he the first resister to the Holocaust? Jonathan Kirsch examines all the possible explanations for his act and traces his whereabouts as he wandered from French prison to a concentration camp and then disappeared from the stage of history, never to be heard from again. This book brings him back to the attention of a new generation.
THE NEW REFORM JUDAISM, by Dana Even Kaplan, U. of Nebraska Press, 360 pages.
Dana Kaplan traces the ways in which Reform Judaism has met the challenges of living in a secular society until now and sets forth his view of what it must do moving forward. He argues that a tent so big that it includes every point of view is too vague to win the souls of the young people of today. Kaplan’s book is a warning that, despite its expensive buildings and its trained professional staffs, the Reform movement may not be able to sustain itself unless it can articulate a reason for its existence.
BUT WHERE IS THE LAMB?, by James Goodman, Schocken Books, 303 pages.
This book makes you feel like a guest at a truly eclectic symposium on the meaning of the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, featuring Jews, Muslims, and Christians; medievals and moderns; artists and novelists. It is amazing to see how 19 sentences of the biblical account have given birth to so many different interpretations, and one leaves this book with the sense that the discussion is not nearly over yet.
BROKEN FRAGMENTS, Jewish Experiences of Alzheimer’s Disease, edited by Douglas Kahn, URJ Press, 215 pages.
In this anthology, rabbis and therapists wrestle with the question of what are the obligations, and what are the limits on the obligations, of people who are dealing with loved ones who have dementia. Can a person date other women if his wife no longer recognizes him? Are there guidelines for the situation where the mind has died but the body has not? When is it right to move a person to an institution? Whether you agree or disagree with the writers in this book, know that each of them writes out of painful personal experience.
CHESED SHEL EMET: THE TRUEST ACT OF KINDNESS, by Stuart Kelman and Dan Fendel, EKS Publishing Co., 93 pages.
This book will probably not make the bestseller list, but it is a very helpful gateway to understanding the Jewish way in death and mourning. Most people have no idea what the Hevra Kadisha does, or what prayers its members say, or what these prayers mean. In this book, the authors go through the rituals step by step and provide clear and simple commentary for them. This is a book not only for members of a Hevra Kadisha but for all those who want to enter into the wisdom that Judaism offers in times of mourning.
RELATIONAL JUDAISM, by Ron Wolfson, Jewish Lights Publishers, 262 pages.
Everyone says that Jewish organizational life is in big trouble, but no one seems to know what to do about it. Ron Wolfson’s answer in this book is to focus not so much on programming and not so much on buildings, but instead on building relationships. His thesis is that when people feel needed, they stay involved. This is a book that those who are concerned about the state of Jewish life should take seriously.
FAITH UNRAVELED, by Daniel Greyber, Resource Publications, 122 pages.
What happens when a rabbi loses his faith? Does he bare his soul and reveal his heartache to his people? Or does he deny his own pain and cover up his own grief in order to be a source of strength to others? Does he recite the traditional words of the prayer book, even though they feel as if they weigh a ton and as if they fall from his lips to the floor? This is a painfully honest book by a young rabbi whose faith unravels in the light of the loss of two of his closest friends, and who struggles to find it again. The book will be valuable to his colleagues and to any Jewish person who goes through grief.
Part of the JNS.org special section on Jewish books.