Detail of the cover of “Quill & Still” by Aaron Sofaer
Detail of the cover of “Quill & Still” by Aaron Sofaer

Local authors explore ‘rewilding,’ queer Jewish fantasy, 20th-century wars

“Wages of Empire”

By Michael J. Cooper (Koehler Books, 392 pages)

Set primarily in Europe and Ottoman Palestine during World War I, this work of historical fiction follows an American teenager who runs away from home to fight with the Entente Powers. The novel, which is geared toward young adults, includes cameos by historical figures such as Chaim Weizmann, Ahad Ha’am, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. “In this horrific and turbulent time for Israel, those yearning for any prospects of peace will find in ‘Wages of Empire’ a narrative of coexistence, and perhaps, a measure of hope,” Cooper told J.

A retired pediatric cardiologist who lives in Lafayette and belongs to Congregation B’nai Shalom, Cooper is the author of two earlier historical novels set in the Holy Land: “The Rabbi’s Knight” (2015) and “Foxes in the Vineyard” (2011). He will talk about his new novel at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 24 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.


“Why We Need to Be Wild: One Woman’s Quest for Ancient Human Answers to 21st Century Problems”

By Jessica Carew Kraft (Sourcebooks, 336 pages)

In 2012, Kraft wrote a J. cover story about Jolie Egert, a Bay Area botanist and educator. Kraft was so inspired by Egert, who died in 2020, that she decided to give up her comfortable life in San Francisco to learn Paleolithic survival skills — including foraging, basket-making, animal tracking and wilderness navigation — from “rewilders,” that is, people who have chosen to live off the grid. She documents her journey in this work of immersive journalism, which includes a chapter about how she researched her Jewish ancestry.

“As a mother of two girls, I challenge the traditional notions of wilderness survival and make the case that mothers are truly heroic survivors, and we need less macho bravery and more nurturing community in the realm of rewilding,” Kraft, who lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California with her family, told J. She will lead a workshop on how to process acorns and make ink with oak galls (the traditional ink used by Torah scribes), among other skills, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 at Wakamatsu Farm in Placerville.


“Quill & Still”

By Aaron Sofaer (Riverfolk Publishing, 374 pages)

The debut novel from Sofaer, a Bay Area native who lives in Sunnyvale, is a queer Jewish fantasy about a middle-aged scientist who is transported to a magical, more tolerant world. Sophie Nadash finds herself on the planet Yelem after an encounter with the Greek goddess Artemis. There, she rediscovers her love for chemistry and becomes someone new — Alchemist Nadash.

“This story grew out of the Shabbat table arguments about public policy and civics that were one of the defining elements of my childhood,” Sofaer, a Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School graduate, told J. “I hope readers find themselves transported, for a moment, to somewhere where the rat race gives way to the slow life and the viciousness of bigotry is only a memory.”


“Places We Left Behind: A Memoir-In-Miniature”

By Jennifer Lang (Vine Leaves Press, 156 pages)

In this compact memoir, written in prose and poetry, Lang examines her cross-cultural marriage to Philippe, a French man she met in Israel when she was 23, and their search for home across three countries.

“In intimate scenes that vibrate with life and energy, and with the help of lean, astute language, Lang shows us just how harrowing it can be to survive the negotiations and compromises that accompany marriage and starting a family, not to mention the added challenges when our spouse is a different nationality and level of observance,” Nina Lichtenstein wrote in a review in Lilith. “What makes ‘Places We Left Behind’ a revelatory read is the author’s playfulness with form, which in its unconventionality delights and surprises.” Lang grew up in Piedmont and lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs the Israel Writers Studio and teaches yoga.


“Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity & Love”

By Oren Jay Sofer (Shambhala, 304 pages)

This is a practical guide to living a meaningful life during a time of social and environmental upheaval, written by a Jewish-Buddhist teacher who lives in Richmond. Sofer suggests ways to improve one’s ability to focus, sustain energy, handle stress and respond more effectively to challenges.

The website Spirituality & Practice recommends the book, writing, “There are many books about meditation and the importance of contemplative practices, but few that manage to remain contemplative-centered while drawing timely applications. That’s what Oren Jay Sofer’s book does so well. We highly recommend this book for everyone on the spiritual path, Buddhist or not.” Sofer will help facilitate a Winter Solstice retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Dec. 17-23.


“Rise, The Lion: An Imaginative and Talmudic Memoir of the Life of a Six-Day War Tank Commander”

By Ze’ev Benoni (self-published, 223 pages)

Benoni grew up in Israel, and he drew upon his experiences in the army to craft this novel (contrary to its title) about a tank commander during the Six-Day War.

A food chemist who worked at Fleischmann’s Yeast and now runs Mezzoni Foods, Benoni researched and wrote the book over a period of six years, then put it aside.

The Berkeley resident decided to finally publish it after surviving a cardiac arrest. He told J. he hopes it will help readers find “a deeper connection to the mysteries of the Bible.” To buy a copy, contact [email protected].


All of the books except “Rise, The Lion” are available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers.  J. invites local authors to submit their books for possible inclusion in future columns by emailing [email protected]. Books that were published within the last six months and are available to buy from major retailers or borrow from local libraries will be given priority for coverage.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.