This is not a book review, but a review of reviews. I’ve been looking at the Jewish Review of Books from the sidelines for a while, but on a recent visit to Yeshiva University, I bumped into a former student of mine, Phil Getz, now associate editor, who arranged for me to receive his publication. I haven’t yet seen the Pesach edition (!), but I loved the previous number, marked ‘Winter 2012’. It is large-format, attractively presented and filled with really interesting articles and reviews. The reviews are serious, well-written and the entire publication has a strong sense of Jewish purpose – one of its reviewers attacks a book on Jewish identity as ‘bloodless and noncommittal’. Yet it retains an excellent balance, and includes an array of reviews covering a whole range of works – academic, religious, historical and political. A real landscape-changer for serious lovers of books with a Jewish theme.
Yan Martel, Beatrice and Virgil
This slim novel is a highly-unusual contribution to Holocaust literature. It is a fictional biography of Henry, a once-successful author who becomes fascinated with a taxidermist and his shop packed with expertly mounted animals. The Holocaust theme is initially explored through a dialogue between two stuffed animals – a donkey called Beatrice and a monkey called Virgil, who represent the lives and suffering of victims. To say too much more might risk spoiling a gripping read: it’s a novel, but one that offers a controversial and disturbing new approach to an overwhelmingly painful real subject and its aftermath.
Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing
Recommended by Simi Peters
This book, by the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, was recommended to me for the essay on the literary character of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. It is a fascinating assertion of the use of secret ideas and hidden agendas in the Guide. He asserts that the real goal of the work is to reveal the beliefs and opinions of the Torah, something that the author can only do in a covert way. This fits well with the rest of Strauss’ book, in which he considers the aims and ideas in Yehudah ha-Levy’s Kuzari and Spinoza’s Treatise. The central idea, persuasively laid out in the title-essay, is that persecution produces a unique form of clandestine writing, which manages to convey its message between the lines of its own text, sometimes against its explicit meaning. The ramifications of this notion reverberate through the rest of the book. A tough read, but well worth it and one I plan to read again.
Rosie Rosenzweig, A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la
Echoing ‘The Jew in the Lotus’, Rosie Rosenzweig’s book describes a personal journey of Jewish identity and Buddhism. Starting with the ‘come home Sheldon’ joke about the Jewish mother whose son becomes the leader of an eastern religion, Rosenzweig explains that this really happened to her: her son Ben became a Buddhist. Through a journey with him through Europe to Nepal, she demonstrates how she came to terms with her reservations about his beliefs and her fear for his soul, which is seen against the backdrop of her growing Jewish commitment and deepening halachic observance. The book is entertaining, well-written and highly unusual, written by a woman who seems to be simultaneously a stereotypical Jewish mother and an open-minded, thinking poet and practitioner of meditation. I found some of her views on Judaism simplistic, and her approach to Buddhism somewhat naive, yet none of this detracted from a worthwhile read.
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Jonathan Schneer has produced an extremely detailed study of the events leading up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. It is packed with fascinating material surrounding one of the most turbulent yet formative moments in modern Jewish history. Schneer’s thesis is that the root cause of the current Arab-Israeli conflict is that the British government promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs. The book is unecessarily complicated, and is poorly written and oddly edited in places (there are some irritating and amusing infelicities in the English), and I found some sections hard to follow; it is overly long and jerky in its narrative direction. Yet I learned a great deal from the book, enjoyed it and feel that its thesis is cogent and important.
Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands
Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss, Highgate Synagogue
Celebrated author and historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s latest book is an interesting and enlightening read. Adorned with photos, maps and appendices, the book is essentially divided into two – the first half deals with pre-19th century history (i.e. pre-Zionism and Jewish aspirations to return to the Land of Israel), the second from the late 19th century to today. It covers every facet of Muslim-Jewish interactions from the inception of Islam and the dhimma to the fate of Jews in Arab lands post 1948. While Gilbert certainly includes accounts of awful persecution and intolerance towards Jews, he also refers to touching episodes of mutual co-operation and friendship between Jews and their Muslim hosts. As with the other Gilbert books I’ve read, he packs lots of information into a readable and accessible text. Recommended, particularly for those Ashkenazim like me whose knowledge of pre-State Muslim-Jewish relations is rather fuzzy.
Recommended by Clare Goldwater, Washington
David Hazony’s idea is very simple: take the 10 Commandments one by one and show how they can inform the values of a modern, spiritually healthy and ethical society. Hazony weaves together traditional and modern sources into an engaging read that will appeal to beginners and scholars alike. His contention is that taken in an almost chronological way, the 10 Commandments can form the basis for a better world. I was particularly taken by Chapter 2, in which Hazony addresses idolatry through the lens of ‘Morality and Loneliness’, making a cogent case against the allure of our own creativity to explain a modern manifestation of an ancient prohibition. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to read it again.