(RNS) — “The making of many books is without limit.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
Do you think the ancient author of this biblical book might have been looking at my bookshelves — not to mention my Kindle?
Despite my 2021 New Year’s resolution to buy fewer books, this past year has provided me with some excellent literary experiences. Here is a list of my best reads, arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s name.
A British Jewish comedian turns an appropriately snarky eye to the issue of antisemitism in his home country and across the world. His major insight: When antisemitism comes from the left, good, smart and cultured people routinely ignore it or explain it away.
A sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for, and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it. … And if you believe, even a little bit, that Jews are moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world … well, you can’t put them into the sacred circle of the oppressed. Some might even say they belong in the circle of the oppressors.
Joshua Cohen: ‘The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family’
Yes, this is the only fiction book on my list. And yes, it is the best work of fiction I have read this year. The book was reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, causing me to read and devour the book in about two days — and then, almost improbably, it disappeared from public discussion. The premise is outrageous — a fictional account of how the esteemed scholar Benzion Netanyahu (father of Bibi and the late Yonatan) brought his family with him as he interviewed at a college in upstate New York in the late 1950s, and the mayhem that ensued.
Is the book an indictment of Bibi, through the creation of a bizarre origin story — or an indictment of American Jewish responses to the adult version of him? Is the book critical of an aggressive Israel or of American Jewish ambivalence over Zionism itself? I howled. I cringed. You will, too.
So many of my former students — especially those from my last stretch of teaching — were so tolerant of others’ psychosocial fragilities and resentments as to become intolerable themselves, junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with nearly every remark, finding bigotry and prejudice everywhere.
Rachel Held Evans: ‘Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church’
Surprised to find such a blatantly Christian-themed book on this list? Don’t be — my literary tastes are theologically promiscuous. Evans, alas, died “before her time, and before anyone’s time” (Bialik), and this book of theological and communal insights is an apt kaddish for a life of faith and struggle.
Contrary to popular belief, we can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans. We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained. Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.
Can I hear an “amen”? Because I might say the same thing about Judaism.
I have already written about this extremely engaging and troubling book. Horn writes about our culture’s obsession with Jewish suffering and the sometimes quirky way we interpret antisemitic acts. Major insight: People reacted differently to the attack on the kosher supermarket in Jersey City and a home invasion of a Hasidic family than they did to, say, the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue. Horn will make you think and will probably cause you to start an argument with someone.
[I asked] people at my public talks if they could name three death camps, and then asking the same people if they could name three Yiddish authors — the language spoken by over 80 percent of death-camp victims. What, I asked, was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived?
This is not the first time human beings have experienced climate change. In past centuries, such changes tended to make things very cold. When people needed explanations, they turned in anger to religious and social minorities.
Although we cannot predict future events with any certainty, our historical background provides some guidance as to likely patterns. When we look at contemporary developments in both Islam and Christianity and at interfaith conflicts across Africa and Asia, it is difficult to imagine that catastrophic climatic changes might not inspire religious responses.
Michael A. Meyer: ‘Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times’
I wrote about this amazing book. Baeck was one of the most inspirational figures in modern Jewish history. The lessons from his biography — fighting against Nazism; maintaining his own and his people’s faith in Theresienstadt — serve us in good stead during this time of (comparatively mild) crisis. Major insight: Gandhi suggested the Jews commit mass suicide in order to stir the conscience of Europe. No, Baeck gently reminded the Mahatma, God’s command is that we should live. (I would not have been as polite, but then again, I am not Baeck.)
Marcia Pally: ‘From This Broken Hill I Sing to You: God, Sex and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen’
The above quoted insight from the author of Ecclesiastes — that there is no end to the making of books — applies triply to the cottage industry of books about the late poet-singer-songwriter-sage Leonard Cohen. The worst part: I cannot stop buying those books. Pally does a wonderful job of analyzing the various theological messages in Cohen’s work. Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal wrote the introduction; the book is worth your indulgence, if only for that. Shout out, as well, to Harry Freedman’s equally erudite “Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius.”
That is my list, and YLMMD (your literary mileage may differ). My warmest wishes for a happy, healthy and spiritually fulfilling 2022.
God knows, we all need it.