November 16, 2018

Eight books to light your Chanukah season

The early arrival of Chanukah coincides with Jewish Book Month, which suggests a convenient shopping list for gift-giving. Here are eight books I am planning to give this year to the book lovers among my family, friends and colleagues. Some of these books already have been reviewed at greater length in these pages over the past year.

My sentimental favorite for Chanukah is Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).  Solomon approaches the Broadway musical from her perspective as a theater critic, journalist and scholar, but she also helps us understand the unlikely process by which the works of the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, first published in the 19th century, were artfully reinvented as a cultural artifact for American Jews in the 1960s, eventually transcending their Jewish origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. While Solomon does not avoid the controversies about the authenticity of “Fiddler” as a Jewish tale, her book is richly ornamented with Yiddishkayt, theater lore and cultural politics, all of which only deepen the reader’s appreciation for the familiar tunes. As for me, I played the Broadway cast album as I read “Wonder of Wonders,” and I took pleasure from both. 

The debut novelist who won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Literature is Francesca Segal, a young writer who was inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to tell a tale of star-crossed love set in contemporary London. In her prize-winning “The Innocents” (Hyperion, $14, paperback), we are introduced to the betrothed couple, a pair of Jewish Londoners who met in Israel while still teenagers and who seem to be fated to marry, but a shadow is cast over their romance by the bride’s cousin, a seductive woman with a lurid past who quickly catches the fiance’s eye and then his heart. It’s an age-old tale of temptation on the eve of marriage with Jewish 20-somethings cast in the principal roles.