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How many times have you picked up a book you bought years ago and never opened, only to find that it’s the perfect read for that moment in your life? This happens to me all the time (though, admittedly, I buy books with reckless abandon and let them pile up, which increases the odds). Something similar must happen to publishers who ink a contract for what they think is going to be a book about, say, 20th-century German postwar history, only to find a year later that a war has broken out and turned it into a blindingly relevant meditation on the possible long-term consequences of today’s headlines.
This, at least, is how I imagine it went for the people at Alfred A. Knopf, who published an English translation this winter of German journalist Harald Jähner’s 2019 book Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955. It’s certainly how it was for reviewer Carlin Romano, Moment’s critic-at-large, who had suggested to me back in January that it might be interesting to look at this book and consider why it had been received so enthusiastically in Germany, where it spent 48 weeks on bestseller lists and won the 2019 Leipzig Book Prize. It sounded like a good idea. The book, in fact, focuses a keen lens on the strange mix of guilt and denial that Germans clung to as the war receded. It shows how they made use of that denial, paradoxically, in the work of rebuilding their devastated country, putting off the reckoning with the past for another generation. Romano writes that Jähner “convincingly shows that Germany in its postwar decade—with help from its conquerors—set aside justice to achieve democracy and reconciliation.”
But by the time Romano sat down to write, the war in Ukraine had broken out, and daily front-page pictures of what Russian weapons have done to Mariupol and Bucha and other Ukrainian cities and suburbs make the pictures in Jähner’s book look horribly immediate. And so Romano’s piece, “Germany’s Time of the Wolves,” became an agonizingly timely thought experiment in how these nations and peoples, in their turn, will eventually grapple with what they’ve experienced. How will they respond in the aftermath of so much destruction, including war crimes? Can we even envision that future yet? “One hopes, in the aftermath of Russia’s crimes against Ukraine, that history won’t repeat itself,” Romano writes, “and that justice and democracy will advance together.”
Not all our book reviews this issue are so depressing. If you’re still feeling the glow of an uplifting and meaningful seder, or if you’re entranced, as I am, by the way the seder continually seems to evolve while staying somehow deeply familiar, you’ll enjoy Rachel Barenblat’s review of a notable new Haggadah by poet and liturgist Marcia Falk, Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah. Barenblat, a rabbi who writes the popular blog The Velveteen Rabbi and contributes occasionally to our “Ask the Rabbis” feature, came of age with a generation of feminists who struggled for years to find the best way to allow women’s voices to be heard in central rituals such as the seder. Her review puts Falk’s work in the context of that effort, in which the liturgist has been a significant figure. As Barenblat writes, Falk’s Book of Blessings opened the door for a whole new liturgy in which blessings that traditionally begin with Baruch ata (“Blessed Are You”) are replaced by N’varekh (“Let us bless”). “They open with inclusive, active verbs,” she explains, “calling upon us, the human community, to perform the act of blessing…awakening the pray-er’s awareness of our role in channeling blessing into the world. Today this language has become familiar, but it has not lost its power.”
(For more on feminist insights that have illuminated the seder, don’t miss our profile in this issue of Susannah Heschel, who explains the true meaning of the orange on the seder plate.)
Finally, another voice that doesn’t fade is the wise, humane, humorous voice of the Israeli novelist and essayist Amos Oz, who died in 2018. Fortunately for readers who miss him, while he was working on his last novel, Judas, Oz fell into a series of wide-ranging taped conversations with his friend and editor, Shira Hadad, who has brought out a volume of them in What Makes An Apple? Six Conversations About Writing, Love, Guilt, and Other Pleasures, translated by Jessica Cohen. Robert Siegel reviews the collection and admits to envy for Hadad, who got to talk to Oz for longer than he ever did when interviewing Oz on NPR’s All Things Considered.
These conversations mostly stay off politics; Hadad promises yet another posthumous volume that will capture more on those topics. Meanwhile, for more on Oz’s work, you can dive into Moment’s archives to read reviews of Dear Zealots, Judas and his collaboration with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, jews and words.
Or, even better, consult your own book piles, where maybe there’s a previously bought, long-unread Amos Oz novel waiting for you. Chag sameach!