“Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh….”
Those were the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher, Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon.
Is it ever possible to have too many companions, too many paper pals? I ask myself that question, as I start to divest myself of many of my books.
But, it is no use — because I just buy and read more.
OK, it’s a thing.
Here is my short list (in alphabetical order, according to author) of the best books that I read during this past year.
Get out your Amazon gift cards.
Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, by David Bernstein and Natan Sharansky. This is a disturbing book — the kind of book that fulfills the mission of Martini Judaism, i.e., shaking and stirring the reader. David Bernstein coaxes the reader out of any self-imposed lethargy about some of the less attractive elements of the radical Left, especially in its relationship to the Jews. His book convinced me why I, and many others, remain resolute liberals. I wrote about it here; you can listen to a podcast interview with the author and a prominent American rabbi as well.
Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash, edited by Tamar Biala. By now, the members of my Shabbat morning Torah study group at Temple Israel in West Palm Beach are accustomed to hearing these teachings by this anthology’s gifted souls. As I mentioned here, this volume is not only a homage to the midrashic literary form; it continues the tradition, stretching us in unimaginable ways. Worth the price of the book: the speculation that Asnat, the wife of Joseph, was not only the daughter of Dinah, who had been raped by Shechem, but that her name was in reality “At Nes,” “you are a miracle” (cool trick — jumbling the Hebrew letters of a word around to get new meanings. NYT puzzle master Will Shortz would have loved it). There is much that is gorgeous and meaningful here; my colleagues will be teaching from it for quite a long time.
The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah, by Edward Feld. If you have never thought seriously about the literary, historical, and moral power of the Jewish Bible, this would be the time to start. Rabbi Feld’s work left me shaking my head in joy and wonder. Worth the price of the book: His exploration of the different stages of the development of Jewish law, showing how Judaism oscillates between a fixed tradition and a fluid interpretations. I wrote about the book here, and you can listen to Rabbi Feld and me having a great time discussing it here.
Who by Fire? Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, by Matti Friedman. Is it a story about rock music? Is it a story about one musician’s pilgrimage to a sacred place? Is it a story about Jewish identity, forged and confirmed in the midst of a terrible war? It is all three of those things, and more. Matti Friedman tells the story of one of the most legendary and least known episodes in modern popular music — when the singer Leonard Cohen went to the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War to entertain Israeli troops. You will be singing Leonard Cohen’s songs to yourself as you read this book — as well as weeping over the sheer beauty of Matti’s prose.
I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry to: Stories, by Mikolaj Grynberg. I read this book immediately following my trip to JCC Krakow, Poland, on a relief mission for Ukrainian refugees. You don’t easily divest your brain and soul of a trip to Poland, and this book was the perfect followup. The book is a series of monologues by Poles; Poles who love Jews; Poles who hate Jews; Poles who are ambivalent about Jews; Polish Jews; Poles who might be Jews; Poles who just discovered they’re Jews — all about the complexity of Poland and its Jews. Worth the price of the book: the scene in which a young boy finds bone fragments in the pavement of the old Warsaw Ghetto, and saves them for preservation. Devastating, powerful, and redemptive.
Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, by James Kirchick. Homophobia often walked hand in hand with antisemitism — in a very complex city with many shadows. James Kirchick tells a great story of LGBTQ people and American politics — of fear, furtiveness, and pride. Worth the price of the book: the account of the deep, lasting impression that the movie “Advise and Consent” made on the young Barney Frank.
The Wrong Kind of Jew: A Mizrahi Manifesto, by Hen Mazzig. Just in case you need a Moroccan-Jewish-Iraqi-Zionist-gay man to remind you that not all Jews spoke Yiddish, and that we should check our cultural biases when we blame Israel’s rightward turn on Jews from Arab lands. A book so good it hurts. Check out this blog and podcast.
The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, by Walter Russell Mead. There is no shortage of good histories of the state of Israel. But, even on a very overcrowded shelf, Mead’s book stands out. He tells the amazing story of the American preoccupation with “the Holy Land,” showing that American support for Israel is far older and deeper than simply the “Jewish lobby” of antisemitic suspicions. But, more than this: Mead introduces the reader to the history and philosophy of American diplomacy. A tour de force that will stay with you for a long time.
From This Broken Hill I Sing To You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen, by Marcia Pally. Yes, this is the second book on this list about Leonard Cohen. Marcia Pally treats the reader to a broad theological understanding of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, poetry, and personality. Her understanding of Leonard, and his various textual and philosophical sources, is stunning. Worth the price of the book: Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal’s stunning introduction, in which he analyzes the bibical word “hineini.” You’ll tremble. Check out this blog and podcast interview with Prof. Pally and Leonard’s rabbi, Mordecai Finley.
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about it, by Richard V. Reeves. I have been writing about issues of masculinity for several decades (two books — here and here), but it took this book to convince me that I had missed a whole lot of what was happening. In short, and surprising: Men and boys are in trouble. The author writes: “We can hold two thoughts in our head at once. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.” Education, biological differences — this book will, once again, shake you and stir you. The entire subject is worth a larger national conversation.
The Cruelty Is the Point: Why Trump’s America Endures, by Adam Serwer. The greatest challenge in America today is the survival of our democratic values, and Adam Serwer spares nothing in his lament and warning. Killer quotes: “I found disturbing echoes of Trump’s rhetorical style in Hannah Arendt’s description of Stalinist and Nazi apparatchiks in The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The realization dawned that Trump, win or lose, was summoning to the fore the most treacherous forces in American history and conducting them with the ease of a grand maestro.” There is a disturbing chapter on American Jewish identity. The title says it all — that for Trump and his supporters, the cruelty is neither a design flaw nor a byproduct, it is the product. Once again — you will be shaken and stirred.
The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft. At 912 pages, it is a a weight machine of a book, but it is worth your endurance. I am still in the middle of this swirling, heady, historical novel by the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature — a journey into the story of the false messiah, Jacob Frank. This book will show you why the Frankist debacle remains one of the most disturbing and fascinating chapters in modern Jewish history. Just want the straight history? Check out The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth, by Jay Michaelson. Michaelson does a great job of sifting through the historical records — even showing that a certain famous Supreme Court justice and namesake of a well known college in the Boston area came from a family that venerated Frank. Jewish history has rarely been this fun.
With that, my dear friends and readers, a happy and fulfilling 2023! And while books might be your companions, may you have real, flesh and blood buds to hang out with, as well.