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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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10 Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5775

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Permalink

Looking for the new list for 5776? Click here!

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

1. Many Seconds Into the Future by John J. Clayton

Ten stories of ten men grappling with life, love, and loss from acclaimed short story author John J. Clayton contemplate Jewish identity, prayer, and mourning.

And then one day, on this very day of my first sentence, late fall, God comes to him, speaks in the form of a shiver that ripples through him and —he’s almost sure—means something. I could say he feels a surge of energy reaching from the box on his arm through the box above his forehead and down through him to his toes, but he himself can’t say exactly what happens in his body. He finds himself in tears.

This is probably a purely neurological event, even the start of a nervous breakdown, not an encounter with the holy. At least that’s what I’d think if it happened to me. No burning bush, no heavenly chariot. But for Harry it’s a nudge from God—the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, brushing her soft Self against his skin. Holy goose bumps. Does he hear himselfcalled—Harry, Harry…? He isn’t sure. He answers anyway, Hineni, Here I am.

2. But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

On the second day of the Jewish new year, communities traditionally read the story of the Binding of Isaac—nineteen lines from Genesis, composing one of the most perplexing stories across the three monotheisms. James Goodman struggles with this passage through commentaries and exegeses of Second Temple sages, rabbis and priests of late antiquity, the Hadith, Syriac hymns, allegories from the First Crusade, medieval English mystery plays; through the art of Europe’s Golden Age, the great Western philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the works of Boby Dylan, Elie Wiesel, and A.B. Yehoshua.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would. I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t go back on yours.

Right up to the last moment, I thought, I hoped, I may have prayed, that Abraham would protest: I can’t do it, I can’t. I obey you as I obeyed my own father, Terah, but Isaac: he is my son.

But he didn’t.

3. The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars’ Gospel is essentially a Jewish Master and Margarita, without the time warp. Rewriting Jesus’ rise to fame and fervor during his living days from the isolated perspectives of Miryam (Mary), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiaphas, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), Naomi Alderman’s intense third novel is grounded in sources from Josephus, the New Testament, and the Talmud. The festering political tensions mounting in Jerusalem are mirrored in the High Priests preparations for Yom Kippur, when he will enter the Holy of Holies to atone on behalf of the Jewish people alone—and he may not survive.

They tie a rope around his ankle so that, if he dies, they will be able to haul him out[...] Today is ordinary, and tomorrow will be ordinary and the next day in all likelihood. But once a year he will stand in the full presence of the Almighty and see if he is worthy to survive.

4. The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Like The Liar’s Gospel, Nina Siegal’s stirring novel is voiced through multiple imagined perspectives of real and fictional characters. Inspired by Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, The Anatomy Lesson weaves the story of a criminal who remains unrepentant until glimpsing the face of the woman who loves him at the moment of his execution and the figures of Amsterdam who attempt, in their own ways, to redeem him.

I wish I could tell you that a kind of fire burned through my hand just then, feeling my mother’s benediction on my skin, but I can’t. All I can say is that I know it was the right thing. That, right there, would be the center of the painting. The artist’s invisible hand presents the surgeon’s living hand, to reanimate the hand of the dead convicted thief. And in that way, to resurrect all humanity.

I heard the singing grow louder outside my windows as the parade took shape along my street. I knew that I had finally found my way into this painting, and that it would be no mere portrait but one of my greatest works. I would illuminate Adriaen’s body. I would cast the damned man into the light.

5. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

The concept and practice of vidui, or confession, in Judaism, is extraordinarily complex. As part of the traditional Yom Kippur service, individuals ask forgiveness for the sins of the world—but both then and year-round, there is a personal component as well. Perhaps the rawest Jewish American confession penned for the current generation—and certainly this year—is Leah Vincent’s gut-wrenching memoir of survival after being abandoned and ostracized by her yeshivish family and community.

I slammed the phone down and struggled to take in a breath as frustration and despair and fury rose higher and higher in my body, like a typhoon in a glass bottle.

It was the tradition to ask for forgiveness in the High Holiday season, in hope that others relinquishing their grudges would swar a stern God to pardon our sins. Would there, I fumed, be such easy forgiveness for me? If I did anything that also hurt your feelings in some way? Is she fucking kidding or is she just completely oblivious? Exasperated, I shook my head.

6. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Though no intermediary between the penitent and God was originally prescribed, Hasidic masters encouraged their scholars to bring their vidui to a sage, a mentor. Up until his death four years ago, countless readers all over the world chose J.D. Salinger as their sage, though he had no wish to hear them. In My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff recounts her experience answering letters addressed to him while working for his agent as her first foray into the literary world:

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him with such urgency, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed[…] And so, of course, his readers felt an urge to write back. To say this is where it hurts or here’s how you made it better.

7. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck

A generation earlier, Jewish immigrants to New York had Abraham Cahan.

When I get angry I go into a trance and attack the weakest parts of the people I love. I am eating out my husband’s poor heart. So far, I have only used words, but it is just a matter of time before I become physically violent.

When I wake up in the morning I am remorseful. I vow to be good to him. But some little thing always sets me off and I become my old self in a minute. What should I do? A known murderer is at least punished, but I am an unknown murderer.

8. The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish New Year by Marcia Falk

Modern liturgist Marcia Falk has composed an entire book of original prayers and blessings for the Ten Days between Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, infusing traditional elements into contemporary values and sense of self. Her version of vidui replaces the “catalog” of sins throughout mankind with “a call to self accounting”:

In the mirror of our eyes, the other is reflected;
in the eyes of the other— ourselves.
We look outward, inward,
see how we have hurt and harmed,
how hurt embeds even in the smallest wounds.
We give ourselves over, begin to make amends,
Begin to make ourselves whole.

9. Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek by Lee Kravitz

Rather than test driving a few sports cars or researching hair regrowth gimmicks, when midlife crisis struck Lee Kravitz he began a “spiritual shopping expedition” through Buddhist meditation groups, Quaker meetings, Hindu chanting sessions, and Christmas mass. Eventually he returned to Judaism, finding a community that suits his specific religious needs. His memoir culminates at the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur:

Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we’re supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.

The stakes can’t get much higher than that.

10. The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman’s debut novel is by no means a retelling of the Biblical Book of Jonah; it is, rather, an impressive experimenta­tion with allegory and the antihero, leaning ever so lightly on the traditional Yom Kippur reading and exposing facets of the story heretofore unconsidered. Reimagining a modern-day Jonah as the Harry Potter of city street preachers—the unlikely savior of mixed parentage, straddled between the real world and suddenly-encoun­tered mysticism—in a society of devotees of the iPhone and capital assets, Feldman transforms the archaic dichotomy of good-versus-evil into a profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth.

For me, the image of the whale—or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish—presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that—and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so reso­nant with people—is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah.

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Reading Lists

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Need a good book, but don't know where to start? Check out our reading lists here.

New Reading Lists

Friday, September 21, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Move Over Europe

Friday, November 21, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the past several years, the Jewish Book Council has received an influx of titles concerning the plight of Jews outside the boundaries of Europe. No longer are our shelves dominated by the European Jewish experience, as we see an increasing number of books that convey stories of the Jewish experience in Iran, Iraq, India, and Egypt, among other places. As the Jewish communities of these regions shrink, it’s important that we encourage the publication of these gems of history that capture the vibrancy and unique qualities these cultures hold. With Winter at our door, what better time to stay inside and expand your understanding of the Jewish experience.

A few suggestions to you get you going…

My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, Ariel Sabar

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, Lucette Lagnado

The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer

The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community, Edna Fernandes

Dropped From Heaven, Sophie Judah

The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home, Sadia Shepard

Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad, Naim Kattan

Have another recommendation? Please comment and let us know!

Calling Jewish Women Everywhere

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the past year we’ve come across some great titles to enhance your collection of resources for Jewish women. A few goodies that stand out:

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, eds.)

Created in a partnership between the URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, this commentary presents the women’s side of our story. Women of Reform Judaism commissioned the work of the world’s leading Jewish female Bible scholars, rabbis, historians, philosophers and archaeologists to provide comprehensive commentary, authored only by women, on the Five Books of Moses, including individual Torah portions as well as the Hebrew and English translation.

Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar, and Marty Linsky, eds.)

Paints a picture of gender bias in North America’s Jewish organizations, and explains why more equitable environments are essential to the success of these organizations and the long term health of the Jewish community. It also presents comprehensive strategies for anyone — executives, staff, lay leaders, volunteers — who wants to build an action plan for change within their own organization.

New Jewish Feminism (Elyse Goldstein, ed.)

“Growing up in the 1960s, the notion of a woman rabbi, a woman Israeli Supreme Court judge, an Orthodox female Talmud scholar, or an Orthodox synagogue where women read the Torah from their side of the mechitzah were impossible, even ridiculous scenarios. Yet in the modern day, all of this is reaching the stage of “normative.” What’s left for Jewish feminism to accomplish?” Join Jewish women from all areas of Jewish life as they examine what makes a “Jewish woman” today, how feminism has affected her identity and whether the next generation of Jewish women is braced to tackle the challenging work still ahead.

Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality (Leora Tanenbaum)

From one of Third Wave feminism’s most respected thinkers, comes an eye-opening look at women and religion today

A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book (Aliza Lavie)

A beautiful and moving one-of-a-kind collection that draws from a variety of Jewish traditions, through the ages, to commemorate every occasion and every passage in the cycle of life, including:

Special prayers for the Sabbath, holidays, and important dates of the Jewish year
Prayers to mark celebratory milestones, such as bat mitzva, marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth
Prayers for companionship, love, and fertility
Prayers for healing, strength, and personal growth
Prayers for daily reflection and thanksgiving
Prayers for comfort and understanding in times of tragedy and loss

Celebrate Israel with AJL

Monday, November 10, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Association of Jewish Libraries just released a new reading list on Israel for adults and children. The list, called Israel@60, includes more than 30 fiction and nonfiction titles as well as websites and videos. Check it out here.