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Want to Understand Israel? Start Reading...

Wednesday, March 01, 2017 | Permalink

Internal Dialogue is a Jewish Book Council blog series on literary trends, ideas, and discussions of interest to Jewish readers and community organizers, curated by the Jewish Book Council editors and staff. Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Jewish Book Council kicked off its third season of Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation this week with a discussion between Daniel Gordis and Nir Baram, two of Israel’s most celebrated contemporary writers.

Presented in partnership with The Paul E. Singer Foundation and moderated by Bari Weiss of The Wall Street Journal, Israel: A Tale of Love & Darkness? opened an engaging and provocative discussion of the current political and social realities of the Middle East today, prompted by Daniel Gordis’s recent publication Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, recipient of the 2016 Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Nir Baram’s forthcoming report A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Following the audience Q&A at the end of the live discussion, series moderator Bari Weiss asked both authors to name three books they would each recommend to American readers looking to gain a nuanced, deeper understanding of the region’s history, future, and contending narratives.

Nir Baram immediately named the short stories of A. B. Yehoshua, specifically the works collected in The Continuing Silence of a Poet. Though Yehoshua’s novels are better known among international audiences, Baram insists the Israeli Faulkner’s short fiction is unquestionably some of the best writing to ever come out of Israel—indeed, he claims, it is probably some of the best writing from anywhere, ever.

Baram also recommended Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949as a crucial primer on the history of the region. While world leaders and the older generations of activists discuss and negotiate resolutions based on the 1967 borders, Baram points to their Palestinian counterparts and the emerging grassroots-initiated movement of younger Israeli Jews shifting the focus to back to 1948.

Daniel Gordis asserted that the Amos Oz autobiography that inspired the title of Tuesday evening’s event perhaps best represents the Israeli narrative, both in terms of form—Oz’s writing remains unsurpassedly beautiful across genres—and its encapsulation of the Zionist historical experience of the twentieth century. A Tale of Love and Darkness presents “a loving look at the country without failing to point out the problematic.”

Gordis also recommended Eshkol Nevo’s Neuland, a fictional response to Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland imagining a movement to create an entirely new Jewish state among young, post-army Israelis traveling abroad. The story raises searing questions about the Zionist ideal and its evolving identity in the modern world.

Both authors agreed that David Grossman’s work is seminal to the literary expression of Israel—Gordis highlighted To the End of the Land, a novel in which a woman runs away from home to prevent the possibility of the Israel Defense Forces finding her to report the death of her son (thereby ensuring that he “can’t” ever die): “a beautiful look into the struggles and scars of the country.” He also mentioned S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh—a novella critiquing Israel’s capture of an Arab village in 1948, examined in A Land Without Borders—and the author’s curious rise to prominence at the time of the book’s publication in 1949: the book became an immediate bestseller in Israel, and Yizhar was swiftly elected to the Knesset and appointed Minister of Education, indicating that “Israel does not run away from self-critique—or at least didn’t use to.”

Of course, books don’t have to be about a place, moment, or conflict to convey the experience and tensions of the people living in them. Baram encouraged the audience to delve into contemporary Israeli writers across genres and explore works that purportedly concern the universality of the human condition. Young writers like D. A. Mishani, Asaff Gavron, Lea Aini, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, are deftly expressing the Israeli narrative in the subtext of their prose, which reaches outward but never fully departs from the socio-political environment that bore them. And if you’re looking to follow his advice, Jewish Book Council’s editorial team assembled a reading list to start you off…

A video recording of the full program will be posted online next week for readers who were unable to attend the live program, and discussion questions for the featured titles are available for free download here if your book club is interested in reading these or other books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation continues next month with Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History on March 28, 2017 at The Jewish Museum. Sign up for free admission »

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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An Intentional Detour

Monday, August 27, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Gordis wrote about how ideas and the books in which they are expressed change history and about the discourse surrounding Israel as a conflict of ideas about the nation-state. Here, Daniel concludes his week-long blog series for Jewish Book Council in partnership with MyJewishLearning.

In my last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.

But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.

So I decided that I needed to include a chapter towards the end of The Promise of Israel to address this. I needed to remind them that Israel isn’t just a homeland far away, but it’s actually the generator that provides an enormous portion of the energy for the American Jewish community. Sans Israel, I decided to argue, American Jews would find themselves without perhaps the one issue that truly motivates and energizes their community. Without Israel, after all, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long-since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel shame, or anger, or exhilaration? What else in Jewish life evokes the same intensity of emotion? It’s actually hard to think of examples.

When JCC's discuss whether or not they should be open on Shabbat, do people get exercised? Not really. When a Jewish home for the aging decides to cease offering kosher food, does the issue bring out the masses? In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco that both saw Jews at the forefront and had clear anti-Semitic overtones; but did it provoke a stir anywhere near as powerful as what happened after an Israeli naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before? Not at all!

When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why, though? Sometimes, it seems that American Jews get much more worked up about what Israeli rabbis who are not of their denomination say than they do when their own local rabbis speak!

We should not ignore this peculiar phenomenon, because it speaks to something very deep inside us. When we think about it, we understand that on some level, we intuit that a People without a state is missing something critical. We can’t articulate precisely why, but we know it’s true. American Jews, secure and confident though they are, need Israel because whether we want to admit it or not, even in the Diaspora, Israel is key to making the Jewish experience whole.

That is why issues in issue electrify American Jews in ways that many “domestic” Jewish issues don’t. This, too, is a conversation that I hope that The Promise of Israel will help to foster.

Read more about Daniel Gordis here.

Ideas Do Matter

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 | Permalink
In his last post, Daniel Gordis wrote about the discourse surrounding Israel as a conflict of ideas about the nation-state. Daniel is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that The Promise of Israel might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.

In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere twenty-seven years later. John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, and fifty-two years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.

Ideas do matter. They shape history. It is ideas, even more than territory or money, over which people go to war. Witness the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world today. That conflict, one of the gravest dangers facing our world, is really about ideas. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists do not seek the West’s wealth. What they are doing is attacking the West’s culture and ideas.

Israel, I wanted my book to argue, can be our way of fighting back. For Israel is not just about borders or an army, great universities and world class medical care. It’s a story, and even more than that, Israel is the platform from which the Jewish People says something to the world about the ideas that we have been cultivating for millennia.

Jews have never bought into post-ethnic, post-identity ethos so in vogue in today’s discourse. We’ve always believed it was good that people were different, that we could learn from each other precisely because we were not the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile, more than a century before Theodor Herzl began his campaign for a Jewish State, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” Well, now we have that state. Our responsibility, I think, is to make sure that we’re speaking not only about borders and security, but about the very ideas that lie at the core of Israel, and that hopefully, the world will come to understand that it needs to hear.

Check back on Friday for Daniel Gordis's final post for the Visiting Scribe.

The Nation-State

Monday, August 20, 2012 | Permalink
Daniel Gordis, recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, discusses his forthcoming book The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength in his contributions to the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning shared blogging project this week.

People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.

The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state— a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.

Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.

So I decided that what we really need to be speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.

The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.

Check back on Wednesday for Daniel Gordis's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

JBC Bookshelf: From B(ible) to Z(oo)

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC-land is buzzing from all of the new authors and books coming out this year. We have over 250 authors signed up to tour through the Jewish Book Network, which means our offices are jammed with books we're eager to read (Network authors--can't wait to meet you in June!).  The full-list of authors will be made public in August, but in the meantime look for the Jewish Book Network badge when browsing through our new reviews.  On another note, in the coming weeks be on the lookout for an announcement about a new book club initiative launching in August. We're really excited about it and think you will be too. 

Finally, with Shavuot around the corner, it's a good time to check out our Shavuot reading list. Find it here. Now, onto the shelf...

The Guttenberg Bible: A Memoir, Steve Guttenberg (May 2012, Thomas Dunne Books)
You had us at Three Men and a Baby...

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940, Stephen Brown and Richard R. Brettell (May 2012, Yale University Press)
New Yorkers: Check out The Jewish Museum's Edouard Vuillard exhibition running from May 4-September 23

Doreen Carvajal's search to recover her Catholic family's hidden Sephardic roots 

The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, Daniel Gordis (August 2012, Wiley)
Read reviews of Daniel Gordis's books on the JBC website

One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper (August 2012, Dutton)
Our Book Cover of the Week this week

Zoo Time: A Novel, Howard Jacobson (October 2012, Bloomsbury USA)
Read reviews of Howard Jacobson's books on the JBC website




Daniel Gordis on “The Other Existential Threat”

Friday, October 08, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

2009 National Jewish Book Award winner Daniel Gordis (Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End) graces the cover of Commentary this month. His article, “The Other Existential Threat” deals with deals with Iran’s bomb, Israel’s soul and the future of the Jews. The piece is open for the public to read (thank Commentary!) and can be found here.