two hands pry into a steaming-hot pita
From the cover of "Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel" by Alon Shaya

The best Jewish books of 2018: feminism, seltzer, race and beyond

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This has been a great year for Jewish books, and I’m thrilled to share some of my favorites of 2018 in several areas of interest, helping to shine much-deserved light on books that haven’t always received the attention they deserve.

cover of "The Land of Truth" by Jeffrey L. RubensteinAmong religiously oriented titles, I am drawn to two, partially for their potential to break through the intimidation that many American Jews feel in relation to rabbinic texts. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is an important academic scholar, but his new book The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachingsis written for a popular readership. Rubenstein selects individual stories from the Talmud and, after explicating them, brings them into conversation with challenges we face in our world today. He both shows the timeless relevance of the tales and models how to extract meaning from the terse language of the rabbis.

In “The Talmud of Relationships,” Rabbi Amy Scheinerman acts as both teacher and tour guide, going deep into a selection of short rabbinic texts in order to ask larger questions about familial relationships, communal relationships and more.

In American Jewish history, Joyce Antler’s “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement” feels like a long overdue book, examining the disproportionate role of Jewish women in shaping the modern feminist movement, with an enormous impact both in the larger society and within Judaism.

cover of "Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s" by Marc DollingerMarc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, provides a corrective for some of the myths that have developed around the relationship of African Americans and American Jews in Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.”

It was a banner year for biographies. In “Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose,” Mark Cohen makes a strong (and entertaining) case for songwriter, impresario and philanthropist (and husband to Fanny Brice) Billy Rose as an early 20th century Renaissance man deserving of our attention.

In Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death,Lillian Faderman revises our understanding of the pioneering gay politician by bringing his Jewish identity to the fore.

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff’s “Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker” and David Weinstein’s “The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics” ably resuscitate the memory of pioneering entertainers of their day.

Among books on Israel, I was moved by Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” It may not reach its intended audience, but it’s an important work of soul-searching, and I deeply appreciate its affirmation of the need for conflicting sides to listen to each other’s narratives.

Listening is at the heart of Micah Goodman’s “Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War,” which was a bestseller in Israel and has recently been translated into English. Goodman honors the conflicting beliefs and agendas that animate Israeli politics, and, while maintaining realism, offers some hope for measures that may dampen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The cover of "The Italian Executioners" by Simon Levis SullamThe Holocaust-related book that had the greatest impact on me was The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italyby Simon Levis Sullam. This short study challenges the common understanding that Italians did not share in the genocidal intentions of their Nazi allies. Sullam details the many ways in which Italians at all levels of society participated in the persecution of Jews, and he explains how the memory of these efforts was suppressed in the aftermath of World War II.

Other very worthwhile books in Holocaust studies include “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz” by Omer Bartov and the dual autobiography “Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.”

In the food category, I love Alon Shaya’s Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” in part because it’s much more than recipes. The celebrated New Orleans-based chef relates his difficult childhood as an immigrant from Israel to the United States, which included falling into drug abuse and crime before a remarkable teacher helped steer him to a career in the kitchen. The recipes are integrated into these chapters of remembrance, which awards them greater meaning.

My other favorite cookbook of 2018 is “Israeli Soul” by Michael Solomonov (of “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” fame) and Steven Cook, which is both instructive and gorgeous. I also want to mention Barry Joseph’s “Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink,” the only book I’m aware of to delve into the history of seltzer water.

The cover of "Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi" by MaNishtanaFor me, the most eye-opening novel of 2018 was Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi by MaNishtana (the pen name of Shais Rishon, who, like the book’s protagonist, is a young New York-based African American Orthodox rabbi). The novel is a fine contemporary example of Jewish humor as laughter through tears, with the tears here being a byproduct of depressing doses of racism. Rishon testifies to the strength of character and faith it can require for observant Jews of color to wear the mantle of multiple identities in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding from every direction.

Other favorite fiction included Tova Reich’s extraordinarily cynical and masterfully written “Mother India,” which follows three generations of an American Jewish family in India, and Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success,” with the caveat that the reader must possess the patience to accompany a pretty awful protagonist on his journey by bus across the United States.

May 2019 offer us as many literary riches for the mind and soul.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.