November 20, 2019

For Chanukah, books that bind us

Giving a book as a Chanukah gift is a fine, old Jewish tradition, although nowadays books often take the form of a Kindle download or a digital gift certificate from Amazon rather than a festively wrapped hardcover. Still, the tactile pleasures of what publishers now refer to as a “physical book” are undeniable, and for those who are shopping for book lovers, the season brings some exceptional choices.

For eye-dazzle, theological mind-play and sheer chutzpah, “The 613” by painter and muralist Archie Rand (Blue Rider Press) is unique. The text consists of nothing more than one-line summaries of the 613 mitzvot that are regarded as divine commandments in observant Judaism. For each one, Rand provides a painting that depicts the commandment in ways that are sometimes literal, sometimes oblique and sometimes just baffling, but always provocative. The 241st commandment (“To leave gleanings”), for example, is illustrated by an image depicting a distraught figure running away from a biplane as it strafes the ground around him.

Rand himself contributes a resonant introduction: “Judaism and art don’t mix well,” he explains. “ ‘The 613’ houses an unwilling Judaism, invited to sit on view in this fun house.” It’s significant that the enthusiastic blurbs for the book come from luminaries ranging from essayist Cynthia Ozick to director Ang Lee, from Rabbi Laura Geller to Playboy artist LeRoy Neiman, but the one that says it best is from Art Spiegelman, creator of “Maus.” “Archie Rand’s ‘The 613’ is all the religion one can use in a lifetime,” Spiegelman enthuses. “… In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow’!”

The books and movies that we call “noir” were often created by Jews but seldom featured Jewish characters or settings, and prize-winning mystery writer Kenneth Wishnia insists there is something deeply Jewish about the fatalism that is a hallmark of the genre. “In Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get screwed,” he explains in “Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds” (PM Press). “That’s noir.” There are rarities and delights throughout Wishnia’s collection, ranging from a 1912 story that first appeared in Yiddish in the pages of the Forverts, to a resurrected little masterpiece by the immortal Harlan Ellison, “Final Shtick.” One contributor, Adam Fisher, is a rabbi, although his story, “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah,” contains some ribaldries that have never been heard coming from a pulpit. Heywood Gould’s “Everything Is Bashert” conflates a hard-boiled tale of murder and mayhem with pious (and ironic) quotations from the Shulchan Arukh. And a story by film historian Eddie Muller, the celebrated “Czar of Noir,” is ornamented with an irresistible opening line: “The mishegas really started with the cat, but my version begins with Daphne’s boobs.”

Now that we all know the Bible is Donald Trump’s favorite book, we have new reasons to delve into the Scripture, if only to find out what unspecified message he finds so compelling. To assist us in our own Bible reading, Oxford University Press has issued an elegant and authoritative new edition of the Tanakh under the title “The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition,” edited by Hebrew Bible scholars Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Starting with a refreshed and revised version of the venerable 1917 translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), they have enhanced the received word with introductory essays as well as maps, charts, tables and diagrams, all of them contributed by a roster of fellow scholars. 

The core text is presented in a page design that resembles the Talmud, with the JPS translation surrounded on all sides by lavish explanatory notes and commentaries that enable us to enter the text in fresh and illuminating ways. The goal, as the editors explain, is “to convey the best of modern academic scholarship on the Bible,” but always with “a strong conviction that this approach does not undermine Judaism, as leading figures of a previous generation had argued, but can add significant depth to Jewish belief and values.” 

For exactly that reason, I suspect that some readers will, as I did, spend even more time in the footnotes than in the Scripture.

Gloria Steinem is so iconic that even the sound of her voice over the radio is instantly recognizable, a fact that surely results from her tireless activism. “My Life on the Road” (Random House) is a chronicle of what she has heard and what she has learned over the decades she has spent as an advocate for women’s rights and women’s causes, a mission that necessarily required her to address audiences of both genders and every point of view. 

As a young woman, she was determined not to follow in the footsteps of her restless father, whose absences were painful for young Gloria, but her life’s work turned her into a kind of latter-day Joe Hill, wandering from place to place and showing up wherever the action is. “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy,” she explains. “It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories — in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.” Whether chatting up a taxicab driver or delivering a formal address at Harvard, Steinem always seeks to connect with those she wants to influence and inspire. “If you want people to listen to you,” she writes, “you have to listen to them.”

Journalist Dan Ephron succeeds in elevating the hard facts of history into an epic and a tragedy in the pages of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel” (Norton), a work of investigation and analysis that often reads like a police procedural or a political thriller. Yet Ephron — who reported from Israel for Newsweek — is just as interested in showing us the precarious state of politics and diplomacy that prevailed at the moment of the assassination in 1995. The parallel accounts of a visionary and courageous Israeli leader and his relentless assassin are ultimately heartbreaking, but they also help us understand the slough of despair into which Israel and the Middle East slumped in the aftermath of Rabin’s murder. “A twenty-something law student, smart and exceedingly radical …, set out to alter the slope of history,” Ephron writes, “and succeeded.”

Everyone has an opinion on the Middle East, but when Dennis Ross speaks, people listen. As a participant in American policy-making under several presidents, Ross was the voice of America in peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and he sums up what he saw in “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a book that takes on a special relevance in light of recent tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Such tension is nothing new, he reports. The realities of American politics, for example, cautioned Truman during the birth pangs of the Jewish state: “He faced constraints, and the actual support he provided was limited.” Even in those early days, Ross reports, Truman was unhappy over the reluctance of Israel “to allow at least some Arab refugees to return after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” 

Ross accepts that American and Israeli interests may diverge: “Perhaps the best approach is one that tries to distinguish with the Israelis between those issues that actually do pose existential threats and those that do not.” And Ross issues a warning: “While humility should be the order of the day in predicting what will unfold in the Middle East, one thing is clear: The U.S.-Israel relationship is going to be buffeted by the transformation that is taking place.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.