Noteworthy books for the new year

In my 20s, I studied French culture and became enamored of what the French call “la rentrée littéraire.”
September 22, 2014

In my 20s, I studied French culture and became enamored of what the French call “la rentrée littéraire.” Along with their returns to work, school and politics that follow the summer lull, the French immerse themselves in a wave of new books for the season. Here in the United States, we may not have anything quite so embedded in our way of life, but that doesn’t mean we have to look far to find new books to read. Many of them are likely to be of particular interest to those who seek education, enlightenment or sheer entertainment rooted in Jewish subjects. Our own Jewish New Year offers a good moment to consider some of these offerings.

Don’t let the title of “American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader” intimidate you (Brandeis University Press; also available in paperback and e-book formats). Despite the surface hint that the volume may be best suited for scholars, this book has a rightful place in every American Jewish home. Many of us may have grown up with a Tanakh, a siddur and a Passover haggadah in the house, but how many have reached bar or bat mitzvah (or beyond) with a clear or even semi-complete understanding of the Jewish presence in America since colonial days? This book, edited by Gary Phillip Zola, a rabbi and scholar who serves as executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, and Marc Dollinger, who holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University, provides just such a canvas. It begins with the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654 and concludes with President Barack Obama’s 2013 Jewish American Heritage Month proclamation. Bookended within, readers will find such varied historical morsels as a 1774 appeal to American Jews requesting support for Jews in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, accounts of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War, and rabbinic statements representing an array of denominations. Inevitably, some readers may wish the editors had chosen to focus more on one topic or another. But overall, “American Jewish History” offers a fascinating guide to the highs, the lows and the more ordinary moments that have characterized American-Jewish experience. 

“The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction” (Wayne State University Press) reflects a different purpose but has a similar effect. The book’s editors — Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt and Mark Shechner — have all served as judges for the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, a prestigious prize that for more than 50 years has honored, as the guidelines stipulate, “an American writer, preferably unrecognized, whose published creative work of fiction is considered to have significance for the American Jew.” This collection presents short stories and novel chapters by writers who have won the award in recent years alongside work by other authors who have been considered for the award. Thus, in one tidy volume, the book offers fiction by names already beloved to the American-Jewish reading community as well as by those who deserve a larger readership. You’ll find here, for instance, the bylines of David Bezmozgis, Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, Joan Leegant, Peter Orner, Scott Nadelson, Edith Pearlman, Thane Rosenbaum, Margot Singer and many more. Don’t neglect the introduction, which not only provides a helpful overview of these writers, but also contextualizes this book within the larger history of American-Jewish fiction. “If our book of stories is about anything at all,” the editors suggest, “it is about the tradition of storytelling itself, aggadah, which, in all varieties of Jewish observance and culture — Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Hassidic and Yeshivist, Lubavitcher and Satmar, Reform and secular, Russian and Israeli, and all hybrid identities and schismatic communities in between — holds a special place as a center of gravity that gives weight and significance to individual lives.” (Editor’s note: This book is slated for release later in the season, around Thanksgiving. But it’s never too early to start those Chanukah book-buying lists!)

The season’s literary abundance also features local author (and Jewish Journal columnist) Gina B. Nahai’s latest novel, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” (Akashic Books). Notwithstanding the fact that it takes the reader a fairly long time to encounter the eponymous Jonah S., the book lives up to its publisher’s description: “Part murder mystery and part family saga, this dramatic and often hilarious novel explores the history of Los Angeles’s Iranian Jewish community.” Give it a read, and check Nahai’s website (ginabnahai.com) for several local events where you might hear her discuss the work.

Speaking of books from Akashic: If your reading tastes edge toward the noirish, you may already have discovered the Akashic Noir series, which began with a best-selling “Brooklyn Noir” volume in 2004. (Since then, two series volumes have focused on Los Angeles, both edited by Denise Hamilton.) October will bring the publication of “Tel Aviv Noir” (edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron; translated by Yardenne Greenspan; Akashic Books; also available in paperback and e-book formats). Set in familiar Tel Aviv locales — Rabin Square, Dizengoff Center, etc. — the book’s 14 stories are apportioned among three categories: “Encounters,” “Estrangements” and “Corpses.” As Keret observes in an introduction, the concept of noir in Tel Aviv may not be immediately comprehensible: “Tel Aviv is one of the happiest, friendliest, most liberal cities in the world. What could possibly be dark about our sunny city, a city nicknamed ‘The Bubble’ due to its sense of complete separation from the violent, conflicted country in which it is situated?” But then Keret concedes a point: “Don’t get me wrong — Tel Aviv is a lovely, safe city. Most of the time, for most of its inhabitants. But the stories in this collection describe what happens the rest of the time, to the rest of its inhabitants.” They reveal, in Keret’s words, “the concealed, scarred face of this city that we love so much.” By the way: Co-editor Gavron has another book, a novel, out in October, “The Hilltop” (translated by Steven Cohen; Scribner), in which the titular setting is the heart of a West Bank settlement; the novel won Gavron the 2013 Bernstein Prize in Israel.

Also Israel-focused, but in the realm of nonfiction and likely to interest anyone whose attention has been caught by headlines about gender-segregated buses or the Women of the Wall: Elana Maryles Sztokman’s “The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism Is Smothering the Voice of a Nation” (Sourcebooks). Originally from Brooklyn and now living in Israel, author and activist Sztokman is careful to note that the subject’s importance extends far beyond Israel’s borders. As she explains in an introduction: “This book tells the story of the rapidly spreading religious radicalism in Israel and the phenomenal ways that religious feminists are leading the struggle for women’s freedom against this increasing oppression. It looks at the different places where this struggle is taking place: on buses, on streets, at the holy site of the Western Wall, in courtrooms, in rabbinical courts, in the media, on the Internet, on billboards, and in the Knesset. It’s a war that is still unfolding. Perhaps when you finish reading the book, you will discover that you have a place in this story as well, because as you will see, the war on women in Israel is a war on women — and men — everywhere.”

Other Noteworthy Books Coming Early in 5775

Additional titles you’re likely to hear about this fall:

Fiction: “The Betrayers,” by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown and Company); and “Monastery,” by Eduardo Halfon, translated in consultation with Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn (Bellevue Literary Press). 

Biographies:  “Ben Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” by Anita Shapira, translated by Anthony Berris (Yale University Press); and “Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” by Shlomo Avineri, translated by Haim Watzman (BlueBridge). 

Histories (some public, some more personal):  “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David,” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf); and“Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind,” by Sarah Wildman (Riverhead).   

Erika Dreifus lives in New York. In August, she became media editor at Fig Tree Books, a new publishing company that focuses on fiction of the American Jewish experience. Visit her online at erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

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