Nine Nobel laureates reflect on their favorite classic and contemporary Jewish books
“I do not believe that civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb. Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the Earth might be killed, but enough men capable of thinking, and enough books, would be left to start again, and civilization could be restored,” Albert Einstein wrote in 1945, 24 years after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. What books, in addition to the Torah and the Talmud, would we want to pass on to the future? We’ve asked Moment co-founder Elie Wiesel and eight of his fellow Nobel laureates—from fields as diverse as economics, physics and medicine—to reflect on their favorite Jewish books. Although most were born before World War II, their selections span the whole of Jewish history. Einstein’s comment not withstanding, these books are best read in a peaceful world untouched by bombs and radiation.
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Elie Wiesel (Peace, 1986)
I’d choose The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, because Rabbi Nachman is one of the greatest Hasidic storytellers we have in Jewish literature. He has imagination, fervor, mystery and talent. Franz Kafka’s The Trial, because in this novel he opens new horizons; S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night, because he brought midrashic style to modern experiences; The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart, one of the great books that deals with memory; Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, one of the greatest books about the Jewish tragedy of the 20th century; and Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales. Babel knew how to condense big novels into short stories.
Martin Perl (Physics, 1995)
I choose Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson. I was raised in a Conservative congregation and am now in a Reconstructionist congregation, and I could never understand the self-segregating Orthodox religious life. But from the story of Boris Makaver’s life I now understand it, although such a life is not for me.
Eric Maskin (Economics, 2007)
One of my favorite novels is Herzog, by Saul Bellow, which was published in 1964. I particularly like the contrast between Moses Herzog’s life in the external world—where he is largely ineffectual—and the life that takes place inside his own mind. That life is a rich, complicated and very entertaining one.
Avram Hershko (Chemistry, 2004)
It is hard to tell which Jewish books I like most, because I like many of them. Two of my favorites are S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night and The Bridal Canopy. I enjoy especially Agnon’s beautiful descriptions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, his wonderfully rich language and his subtle humor.
Eric Kandel (Medicine, 2000)
There are many Jewish books that have made a great impression on me. High among these are four that concern the Holocaust: Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Of these, Elie’s book has had the deepest impact and has moved me the most. Night is powerful because it is written in spare and stark language and conveys in extraordinarily honest terms the harrowing and painful experiences of a 15-year-old Orthodox boy, Eliezer, who is progressively converted, first at Buchenwald and then in Auschwitz, from a pious boy into a hardened, callous and mature nonbeliever.
What I find particularly profound about Night is Wiesel’s handling of a theme that later was to dominate 20th century thought: the death of God, the Father. This is symbolized in two ways. The death of God is symbolized by the slow hanging of a young Jewish boy, a hanging which cannot help but draw parallels in our mind to the slow death through the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, in a curious way, there is an intermingling of Jewish and Christian themes, whether conscious or unconscious. The death of the Father is symbolized by the death of Eliezer’s actual father as well as by the complex and brutally honest depiction of the reversal of the typical father-son relationship, with the son protecting and caring for the father. The book creates a consistent and unified mood and one comes away with a powerful message of the concentration camp experience: We cannot rely on God. We cannot rely on the Father. We have only ourselves.
Finally, one cannot separate this classic book from all of the later accomplishments of its author and his subsequent role on the world stage. In the decades since the publication of Night, Elie Wiesel has been a unique moral force. He has taken the Holocaust experience and generalized it to humanity and to all genocide. He has made the motto “never forget” a reminder to be ever watchful for hatred and aggression in any context.
Robert Aumann (Economics, 2005)
I would choose Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch. It is a kaleidoscope of Talmudic, midrashic and medieval lore, very carefully chosen, succinctly and beautifully rephrased, plus here and there an original insight, and a smattering of stylistic and grammatical remarks. In its way, this magnificent text is a summation of Jewish tradition and culture, with a powerful influence that extends to this day. It is almost untranslatable—existing translations lose much of its power and grace.
I would also choose The World Was in His Heart: Shlomo Aumann’s Letters. These are the letters of a young man growing up in Israel in the 1970s and early 1980s, commenting on life and death in Israel and the United States, which he visited often, on life in the yeshivas, on Talmudic and other texts, on music, on the army, indeed on everything under the sun. The letters are vibrant, incisive, deep as well as broad, altogether extraordinary. Shlomo was that very rare creature on the Israeli scene—broad-minded, tolerant of views that he did not share, living in many worlds simultaneously. He was killed in action in “Operation Peace for Galilee” in June of 1982; about 5,000 people came to his funeral, ranging from Arabs in kaffiyehs to Haredim in shtreimels. To fulfill the duty of proper disclosure, I must add that Shlomo was my son.
Royte Pomerantsen is a collection of some 150 stories, mostly humorous, edited by Emanuel Olsvanger, and published in 1947 by Schocken. The stories are in Yiddish, but are printed in English characters. They are charming, witty and profound, with a wry humor, and in many ways they sum up our world. I tell these stories over and over again—I almost know the book by heart. They are untranslatable; a large part of their charm and effect lies in their pithy language.
Robert Solow (Economics, 1987)
I would choose The Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo, whose real name was Ettore Schmitz. He was a Jew of Trieste, and the author of that novel and several others, including Further Confessions of Zeno and Senilità (sometimes translated as A Man Grows Older or Emilio’s Carnival). Schmitz was an Austrian subject, German-educated, writing in Italian. I suppose that what I like about his novels, especially the main one, is the same atmosphere that makes Trieste an interesting and attractive city, the meeting-point of Habsburg and Italian cultures, a sort of perpetual outsiderdom.
Sidney Altman (Chemistry, 1989)
I do not have a favorite book, although there are many authors that I do admire. Certainly, anyone who wrote of the Jews and their dogged survival through history is of interest to me. About Zionism by Albert Einstein contains many important statements about Einstein’s very early conviction of the falseness of the society he lived in and the determination to be Jewish, even though he was not an observant person. The same can be said of some of Sigmund Freud’s writing. I also have great admiration and respect for Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.
Roger Myerson (Economics, 2007)
I would choose Josephus by Lion Feuchtwanger. It is a brilliant view of one pivotal moment in Jewish history, Judea at the fall of the Second Temple, from the perspective of a great writer from another pivotal moment in Jewish history, Germany before the Holocaust.