When you become a book review editor, the first thing you notice is how many books get published every year, every month, every week. This is true even if you’re trying to limit yourself to books with at least a notional connection to Jews, Judaism or Jewish life. It’s impossible to do them all justice. Fortunately, good books are, as the saying goes, “news that stays news.” If you missed these books in 2020, they’ll be just as good in 2021. Here are a few favorites that came over my desk.
Old Traditions, New Readings
The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (HarperOne, October)
I’m a huge fan of this duo of Bible scholars, whose The Jewish Annotated New Testament—edited in 2011 and reissued in 2017—takes Jewish readers carefully through a text many are hesitant to approach, showing where and how it retells or completely repurposes Jewish scriptures. In this volume, the authors delve more deeply into themes and debates that didn’t fit in the earlier format, tracing how Christians and Jews have diverged in interpreting Adam and Eve’s transgression, Jonah’s time in the whale, Isaiah’s prophecies of the “Suffering Servant” and much more. These are thrilling, eye-opening readings; each chapter offers new avenues for understanding what in the world those other folks are talking about.
Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World, by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall (Rowman and Littlefield, February)
How much can Jewish ritual change and still be Judaism? How Jewish are American Jews today and what are they doing? Books seeking to answer this question are a constant drumbeat of Jewish publishing. Kwall, author of the 2015 The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, had a more specific question based on her research into current practices: How much can Jewish ritual change and still be Judaism? This book is filled with practical reporting, sprinkled with advice, on how Jews experiencing their heritage in a liberal and secular context can “remix” observances in new but meaningful ways, using elements of Shabbat, kashrut and other practices to connect authentically to history and tradition.
Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion, by Arthur Ocean Waskow (Orbis, September)
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been a central figure in Renewal Judaism since he helped originate the Freedom Seder in 1968. The latest of his many books addresses an age in crisis, noting that “It is hard to dance when the dance floor itself is dancing, shaking, whirling, changing shape.” A cheerfully unapologetic radical, Waskow mines traditional scripture for creative and persuasive insights into environmental activism and feminism. He embraces the U-turn when needed, wrestling with “some ancient sins that have taught us new blessings and some ancient sacred practices that now seem sinful.”
New Canons for an Old Century
As the 20th century recedes, anthologies that attempt to define what it all meant appear with increasing frequency. (For students likely to be assigned these books in intro courses about the 20th century, trust us, you’re lucky you missed it.) Loud controversy broke out over the choices in Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin’s collection The New Jewish Canon. But no one attempt at canon-making can succeed without responses and disputes. Here are two other serious and substantive 2020 entries to deepen the conversation.
The Blessing and the Curse: Jewish People and their Books in the Twentieth Century, by Adam Kirsch (Norton, October)
This balanced, diverse and accessible collection of key literary and philosophical texts follows Kirsch’s earlier offering The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. Kirsch, a literary critic and scholar, addresses a central question: Which writers can best help us grapple with a century that contained the Holocaust, world wars, migrations, the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign state and the rise of unimagined new forms of Jewish identity and practice?
American Jewish Thought Since 1934: Writings on Identity, Engagement and Belief, edited by Michael Marmur and David Ellenson (Brandeis University Press, March)
I carried this engaging and authoritative volume around for weeks, dipping in and out of its selections of source and commentary on, as the foreword summarizes, “post-Holocaust theology, secular forms of Jewish spirituality, ultra-orthodoxy, American neo-orthodoxy, neo-Hasidism, feminism and queer theory, diasporic critiques of Zionism, and unrestrained Zionist militancy.” The time frame is slightly different, extending through 2014, and the focus is on philosophical and theological rather than literary sources.
Memoirs: New Lives for Jewish Women
These two autobiographies don’t address Judaism directly. They merely tell the life stories of two extraordinary American Jewish women, lives that would have been unimaginable—for women certainly, for Jews maybe—in any other time or place. They were on my desk when the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September shattered our community. Perhaps both their lives would have been unthinkable without hers.
Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner (Beacon Press, February)
Heumann is a member of my Washington, DC synagogue, and I know her slightly, but I had no idea until reading this book that she had been one of the key organizers of historic and pivotal protests such as the 1977 sit-in by disabled people at a San Francisco government building, a 25-day ordeal that forced the Carter administration for the first time to enforce key protections for disabled people. The breakthrough eventually led to the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Talk about tikkun olam! A paraplegic after contracting polio as a child in 1949, Heumann grew up in a world filled with obstacles, but she proved unstoppable. Her memoir is inspiring and entertaining in equal measure.
The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir, by Sara Seager (Crown, August)
I might never have noticed this book if the name of its author, an MIT astrophysicist, hadn’t suddenly started appearing in news stories: Her research team had just released astonishing findings suggesting there might be life on Venus. Seager’s book isn’t about searching for extraterrestrial life or, except obliquely, about succeeding as a woman in once-male-dominated space science. Nor is it about religion, exactly, though her family is “Jewish, in theory, if not practice.” Moving and insightful, the book tells of her journey through young widowhood after her husband, Mike, dies of cancer, leaving her to be the single mother of two young boys and to embark on a very different search for meaningful life in a suddenly very empty cosmos.
I’m Staying Here, by Marco Balzano. Translated from the Italian by Jill Foulston (Other Press, December)
Does a book have to have Jews in it to be of Jewish interest? Do Nazis suffice? The narrator of this novel tells the story of Trina, an ethnically German native of a South Tyrol village overtaken first by Mussolini’s fascists, then by the Third Reich, and finally by a dam project that floods the village till only the church steeple remains, protruding from an artificial lake. All the while, Trina searches for her disappeared daughter. Based on real history, the novel is a weird and gripping sidelight on World War II.
The Last Interview, by Eshkol Nevo. Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverstein (Other Press, October)
An Israeli novelist, blocked and unable to write a word, instead spends hours answering questions sent to him for an interview with a website. The routine questions (Where do you get your ideas? Do you write on the computer or in a notebook?) call forth answers that are anything but routine, circling through the writer’s illusions and self-deceits and those of the world around him. If you’ve never read any Nevo—I hadn’t—this introduction to his work feels like a whole new Israeli universe.
Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March)
Some forgotten lives are simply jaw-dropping. Hochschild gets credit for rediscovering this astonishing woman, regularly on the world’s front pages during her lifetime. Raised in a sweatshop, where she rolled cigars, Stokes became a celebrated organizer and then a Communist, married a New York society millionaire who shared her politics but from whom she ultimately was estranged and divorced, only to die penniless. Reading it, you ask yourself, “Who knew?” on every rollicking page.
Digging Up Armageddon, by Eric H. Cline (Princeton University Press, March)
Tourists of many religions flock to see the Israeli archaeological dig of Megiddo, the site of the biblical Armageddon. Teams of archaeologists have been working there for more than a century. Cline, a professor of classics and archaeology who dug on the site for 20 years and rose from summer volunteer to codirector of the expedition, started out to write the history of their findings. But he discovered that the drama of the people and teams was even more fascinating, “more like the script of a daytime soap opera” than a sober intellectual undertaking. This engaging book alternates the history of the findings with the narrative of these puckish experts, whose joking sign at the entrance advises tourists, “Please do not feed the archaeologists.”
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