January 21, 2019

Eight Nights, Eight Illuminating Reads

Here are some gift ideas for the eight nights of Chanukah, each one full of wisdom, pleasure or provocation, and all of them between covers — a fitting present for the “People of the Book” to give or receive!

Some readers know Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (better known by the acronym “Rashi”) from his classic commentaries on the Talmud. Others encountered him for the first time as the father figure in Maggie Anton’s popular series of historical novels, “Rashi’s Daughters.” Perhaps the single best introduction, however, comes from the Holocaust memoirist (“Night”), the political activist and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who was assured by his parents in early childhood that he is a descendant of the revered medieval scholar. Wiesel’s short biography in the Jewish Encounters series, “Rashi” (Schocken, $22), is an opportunity to glimpse a glorious inner world of scriptural analysis and argument that has sustained the Jewish people during their darkest times and to understand how Judaism is defined as much by the Talmud as by the Torah and as much by debate over scripture as by scripture itself.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am obliged (and proud) to say that I provided a blurb for “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, $27.95), an author whose work I have admired, enjoyed and studied since she first started writing about religion in “Through the Narrow Gate.” Here is what I said about her latest book, a sweeping history of the idea of God that serves as a rebuttal to recent best-sellers by famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins: “No one is better qualified or more needed than Karen Armstrong to enter the hot public debate between believers and nonbelievers over the existence of God. Her latest book, eagerly awaited and received, rings out with the qualities she brings to all of her work — ‘The Case for God’ is lucid, learned, provocative and illuminating. Indeed, Armstrong once again does what she always does best by shining a clear light on the deepest mysteries of the religious imagination.”

“Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story,”
with text by Ari Folman and illustrations by David Polonsky (Metropolitan Books, $18), is a “graphic memoir” based on Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary film about the troubling experiences of Israeli soldiers who served in Lebanon in 1982. The book captures the haunting look of the movie — Folman himself likens it to a “bad acid trip” — but also allows the reader to ponder the moral crisis in which these young men find themselves when war spins wildly out of control. The imagery is sometimes dreamy, often nightmarish, and yet rooted in a gritty reality that boils up when the author finally retrieves the memories of what actually happened in the camps at Sabra and Shatila. Like “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, “Waltz With Bashir” demonstrates how the techniques of the comic book artist can be repurposed as a powerful expression of art and history.

Zoë Klein’s day job is serving as a pulpit rabbi at a Los Angeles synagogue, but she surely knows how to write a page-turner. Set in an archaeological dig in modern Israel and featuring a female version of the kind of scholar-hero that started with Indiana Jones, “Drawing in the Dust” (Simon & Schuster, $25) imagines the discovery of the long-lost grave of the prophet Jeremiah, a mysterious scroll and the mortal remains of the woman he loved, all of which are deeply unsettling but also illuminating in surprising ways. It’s a thriller, a love story and a tale of spiritual discovery, and, between the lines, Klein manages to insert a gentle sermon about the power of respect and tolerance to heal the wounds that religious true belief is capable of inflicting.

“The Book of Genesis Illustrated” by R. Crumb (Norton, $24.95) is not your father’s Bible — the iconic artist of the ’60s offers not only the unexpurgated text of the first book of the Bible in its entirety, using Robert Alter’s recent translation, but also the frank depiction of bare breasts, frontal male nudity and various random acts of violence. “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors” is the warning label on the front cover. In other words, it’s absolutely faithful to what is really to be found in Holy Writ, and, for that reason alone, it’s going to shock some readers who are accustomed to reading the Bible in family-safe doses. But it’s also a work of visual midrash that allows us to see Genesis in a wholly new light. Here’s one coffee table book that is actually going to be displayed on the coffee table at holiday parties, and it’s guaranteed to be a conversation-starter.

The novels and short-story collections of the late Isaac Bashevis Singer remain in print, but the single best way to introduce a new reader to the work of the master storyteller — or to remind an older reader of the magic that Singer is capable of working on the printed page — is the compact but elegant three-volume set from Library of America, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories” ($35 per volume). The Nobel Prize-winner is, by turns, a Yiddishist, a modernist, a magical realist, a social chronicler and a teller of ribald tales, but all of his prose sparkles with ironic wit and shimmers with the sure sense of a story well told. “God’s novel has suspense,” Singer once wrote in Esquire, and so do the rich and resonant stories of Singer himself. I favor the collected stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer as a bar mitzvah gift, but it’s just as pleasing to grown-ups.

Of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, the only face we know intimately belongs to Anne Frank. But that’s only the starting point of “Anne Frank:  The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” by novelist and essayist Francine Prose (HarperCollins,$24.99), a superb work of history, biography and criticism. Prose has something new and important to say about the young girl whose diary has been both celebrated and exploited, used and abused, and she rejects the common perception of Frank as “the perky teenage messenger of peace and love.” Instead, Prose courageously explores Anne Frank’s Jewishness, sexuality, family politics and literary ambitions, all of which have been distorted when they were not ignored by those who used and abused the diary for their own purposes. Above all, Prose allows us to see Anne Frank not merely as a victim of a crime against humanity but also as a gifted young writer, which makes the tragedy of her death all the greater.

“A Literary Bible” by David Rosenberg (Counterpoint, $35) is not your father’s Bible either. In fact, it is not so much a translation as a re-imagining of what the author calls “the core of the Hebrew Bible.” The “begats” and the “shalt nots” are omitted, but the poetry and prose that are the beating heart of the Bible are given a fresh and provocative new reading. Rosenberg, co-author (with Harold Bloom) of the best-selling “The Book of J” (Vintage, 1991), is on a mission to persuade us that the Bible is the “subtle and ironic” work of flesh-and-blood authors who felt some of the same drives that we do. Thus, for example, when he channels the author of Ecclesiastes, Rosenberg presents him as an ambitious scribbler and describes how he “set to work/in the grand style/building an oeuvre/ten books in five years,” only to realize that “we can take in anything/and we are still empty/on the short of the life/our blood flows to.” Like R. Crumb, but in a wholly different mode, Rosenberg audaciously recasts the foundational book of Western civilization into a work that will be resonant and relatable for the modern reader.

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Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of 13 books, blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve.