Remember how our calendars were empty in 2020 and 2021, and we were going to read All the Books? This year, life was busy and mostly normal, and I for one am happier having to fight for my reading time; it reminds me how much I need it. Revisiting the year’s most intriguing and satisfying reads, I was struck by the sheer stature—the weight, the length, the importance—of the Jewish contributions marked here. It’s a bumper crop of full-length biographies and collected works from major Jewish figures whose impact on the broader culture they inhabited becomes more evident every day.
At Moment we did our best to capture that significance, digging deep with reviews and essays, nagging the authors to sit down with us for Zoominars. And since, as with readers everywhere, every book calls up the thought of other books we may have missed, here are 12 books that made us think—one for each month of 2022—along with some of the books they made us think of reading next.
Women take their place at the study table. And the Seder table.
12. Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash
Edited by Tamar Biala
Brandeis University Press
Studying Jewish texts, whether Torah, Talmud or Midrash, once meant plunging into a bottomless treasure of voices and insights that, while inexhaustibly fascinating, were almost all male. One great contribution of Jewish feminism has been a vast flowering of midrash by women, which joins in the traditional pursuit of illuminating gaps and conundrums in sacred text by inventing stories and commentaries. This long-awaited English translation of a collection of midrashim by Israeli women from many walks of life—scholars, educators, even prosecutors—begins to answer the question posed by our reviewer Maggie Anton: How might women have told their stories if they were central, rather than peripheral, characters in the tradition?
(For a very different example of how women’s voices are taking their place in tradition, see what our reviewer Rachel Barenblat had to say about a groundbreaking feminist poet’s take on the Haggadah, Marcia Falk’s Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah (Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press).
Female Jewish poets—including Nobel laureates—get the attention they deserve.
11. Flight and Metamorphosis: Poems, by Nelly Sachs. A Bilingual Edition
Translated by Joshua Weiner (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Berlin-born Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) fled the Holocaust and was the first Jewish woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1966 (she shared it with S.Y. Agnon). Her poems are iconic, especially in Israel, but poet and translator Joshua Weiner, encountering them more recently, was moved to retranslate them in this year’s beautiful new bilingual edition, Flight and Metamorphosis: Poems. “Poetry lives in the freshness of language, and poetry in translation is more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of change than other writing. It was time now for a new Nelly Sachs,” Weiner wrote in a Moment essay accompanying one of these new translations.
(It was a glorious year for Jewish women’s poetry generally, with stately volumes offering collected works of the poet and translator Barbara Goldberg, and of Irena Klepfisz, a pioneer of lesbian and feminist poetry who also virtually invented a form of poem that uses Yiddish and English side by side. And Louise Gluck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020, gave us the delightful Marigold and Rose: A Fiction, a slim 64-page fantasia in poetic prose that traces the developing perceptions of twin baby girls.)
Some male poets, too. And they wrote more than poems.
10. Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet
By Robert Pinsky (W.W. Norton)
The former U.S. poet laureate (and sometime Moment contributor) came out with a delightful memoir that accompanies him from an Orthodox childhood in New Jersey to the heights of literary and cultural fame. Our reviewer Carlin Romano notes the leitmotif in Pinsky’s life of his optician father’s mantra, “It all turned out okay.”
(Two other notable artists who should probably be called poets—one crowned as such by no less than the Nobel Prize committee—came out with books of non-poetry this year that might best be considered curiosities. For Bob Dylan, it was The Philosophy of Modern Song, an analysis of 66 songs that drew reviews ranging from “brilliant” to “bonkers.” And from the late Leonard Cohen, we had a book of posthumously published early fiction, A Ballet of Lepers: A Novel and Stories. Though neither of these maestros is working in his home genre, books like these are a boon for camp followers and completists.)
And while we’re on the topic of Leonard Cohen, few books this year were more surprising or got more attention than Matti Friedman’s Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, a previously untold tale of a seemingly random 1973 visit the young singer made to Israel and the time he spent with Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War.
An American dynasty gets its due.
9. Morgenthau: Power, Privilege and the Rise of an American Dynasty
By Andrew Meier (Penguin Random House)
The late New York City mayor Ed Koch called the Morgenthau family “the closest thing we’ve got to royalty in New York City.” And to relate the story of four generations of Morgenthaus, our reviewer Robert Siegel says, “is to relate a century and a half of New York City and American history.” Siegel plunged undeterred into this magisterial thousand-word-plus biography, and you should too. From the patriarch’s arrival in 1862 from Germany, through an ambassador, a cabinet member and a legendary New York prosecutor, the Morgenthaus shaped history and policy at every level, and the enormous sweep of their careers is mirrored in this enormous, compelling volume.
(If this doesn’t scratch your Jews-who-shaped-American-public-policy itch, there’s always the option of a deep dive into the world of Henry Kissinger, whose latest book Leadership: Six Studies dissects the use of power through close-up portraits of world leaders, many of whom he observed firsthand. Abe Sofaer reviews it here. There’s more Kissinger in a Zoominar we held this year with Martin Indyk and Dan Raviv, focusing on Kissinger through the lens of Indyk’s 2021 biography, Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. )
There’s more than one way to lead a landmark American Jewish life.
8. Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank
By Eric Orner (Macmillan)
Barney Frank, beloved longtime congressman, political magician and one of the first national elected officials to come out as gay, is the subject of this quirky graphic-novel treatment by a longtime staffer. Watch our Zoominar with the author and Ann F. Lewis, a political whiz in her own right who happens to be Frank’s sister.
Some World War II villains were even worse than you thought. No, worse than that.
7. Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties
By David de Jong (Mariner Books)
David de Jong’s financial reporting, originally for Bloomberg News, tells the tales of five German families that made millions working with or for the Nazi regime—and ended up hanging on to almost all of it up to the present day. Familiar names—Porsche, anyone?—share space with one Gunther Quandt, whose connection to Joseph Goebbels (to whom his ex-wife Magda was later married) renders his story “operatic,” as reviewer Robert Siegel puts it. We called Siegel’s review of this tome “Very, Very Dirty Money,” and that’s not even the half of it.
As if that’s not bad enough, check out:
6. The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler, by the authoritative , Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian of the subject, David I. Kertzer. (Penguin Random House)
Drawing on Vatican archives opened only in 2020, Kertzer drives home the details of how this pope, like his predecessor, preserved the church’s power by declining to act against the Nazis. Yes, way worse than you thought.
And dangers still lurk—abroad and at home.
5. Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century
By Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman (Princeton University Press)
Can democracy withstand rising autocracy? It’s the question that preoccupies our era, the one no one can answer—yet. As our reviewer notes, this book, like a clutch of others, went to press before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but appeared after the invasion had taken place, casting a cold and sometimes skeptical light on the distinctions it drew between new-era dictators basing their rule on “spin”—essentially, the control of information—and old-style dictators relying on the use of force. As it turned out, the distinction isn’t that clear. But this book and others like it got a lot of attention, along with others such as Gideon Rachman’s The Age of the Strongman.
4. Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy
By Jamie Raskin (HarperCollins)
In the chaos of January 6 and its aftermath, Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin was an inspiring presence—defending the legitimacy of the government against violent insurrection, speaking out eloquently and soon after, at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request, chairing the House impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. What few knew at the time was that Raskin, along with his family, was also reeling from the December 31 suicide of his 25-year-old son, Tommy. These dual traumas are threaded together in a heartrending account of the first 45 days of 2021—“I’m not going to lose my son at the end of 2020 and lose my country and my republic in 2021,” he told CNN—and his renewed commitment to the cause of democracy. Raskin talked more about the book in a Moment Zoominar.
Then again, not everyone is the enemy.
3. Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities
By Emily Tamkin (HarperCollins)
This engaging work of reporting is in one sense just the latest entry in the ongoing search to define American Jewish identity—what is it? What’s new about it? Is it in crisis? But the author takes a creative and refreshing path through the topic, focusing on the myriad ways Jews try to read one another out of the community for transgressions real or imagined. Are “bad Jews” those with the wrong level of observance? The wrong spouse? The wrong politics? A conversation-starter that should outlive its moment. Our Zoominar with the author and Dan Raviv asked, “Is there such a thing as a bad Jew?”
And there’s always show business.
2. SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers
By Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
American Jews may disagree on politics, on Israel, on food. But you’d go a long way to find one who doesn’t agree that the American musical was one of the greatest gifts Jewish immigrants gave America—and the world. This intimate life of Mary Rodgers, composer of musicals herself and daughter of the great Richard Rodgers, who created Oklahoma! and South Pacific, captures both the mystique at the heart of Broadway and the trials of living there. The world of New York theater at mid-20th century was overwhelmingly Jewish and marked by its Yiddish theater heritage—though, as reviewer Gloria Levitas notes, many of the most famous artists avoided the West Side as “too Jewish,” preferring to live across the park. The author’s voice, captured posthumously in interviews with coauthor and chief New York Times theater critic Jesse Green, is witty, angry and insightful.
Intriguingly, the posthumous semi-autobiography assembled from interviews, notes and diaries after the subject’s death is also the form used by the widely reviewed memoir Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, which was culled from taped interviews with Newman’s best friend during the mega-star’s lifetime; the tapes themselves were lost, but the transcripts turned up and proved to hold a “brutal, unvarnished” and “painfully revealing” narrative of insecurity and anguish.
Finally, all other Jewish contributions to American life pale beside this one:
1. Zabars: A Family Story, With Recipes
By Lori Zabar (Schocken)
For anyone who’s breathed in the delectable odors at Zabar’s, the “temple of culinary delights” (per our reviewer) on Broadway and West 80th Street in New York City, there’s no argument on this point: Zabar’s is America. A family business built by four generations of an immigrant family, it shaped and catered to the increasingly sophisticated tastes of New Yorkers and others with caviar, bagels and cream cheese, spices and specialties, and lox famously sliced so thin that (so the story went) you could read The New York Times through it.
Three generations of the Zabar family gathered recently to publicize this book at the New York Jewish Book Festival, including Stanley Zabar, now well into his 90s but a familiar sight to regulars who patronize the lox counter. Missing, sadly, was the author, Stanley’s daughter Lori, an anthropologist who passed away shortly before publication. Though somber when invoking her name, the family cheered up in discussing the store’s thriving business, and even more so when confiding to the crowd that they had just bought yet another adjoining building on Broadway. This book will carry you into the new year, and beyond. It’s more than a good read; as the title points out, there are recipes. Happy 2023!