Ask Unorthodox: What’s the Perfect Jewish History Book?

A perplexed Jew looking for a guide that’s not too dense and not too flimsy. We asked the experts, and put together the perfect reading list.

May 4, 2018

Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to [email protected].

Let’s say you have a little bit of Jewish knowledge, a bissel, but wish you had more. Let’s say, in other words, that you are like pretty much every other Jew since the beginning of time: however much you know, it never seems like enough. You always feel like the ignorant Jew in the room. What can you do about it?

We received an email from a Tablet reader who was in this very crowded boat. “Is it possible,” he asked, “for you to recommend a good book on Jewish history for a Jew who has lots of knowledge but with some gaps. There are so many books out there that it is hard to find one that is not overlong, academic, or disdainful of religion.”

We couldn’t agree more. So many books, so few that are right for the occasion. Of course, because we feel your pain, no books immediately leapt to mind. So we asked around the office. One Tableteer recommended the classic A History of the Jews, by the non-Jew Paul Johnson, while another volunteered A History of the Jews in America, by Howard M. Sachar. Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, from 2014, also got a plug: “It’s certainly long but SO well-written, and not so academic. And while Schama’s interests lie more in culture than in faith, he’s not disdainful of religion.”

We also reached out to Tablet contributing editor Adam Kirsch, one of the best literary critics working (and himself the author of a work of Jewish history). He recommended a bunch of books: Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, by Donald Harman Akenson; Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman; The Jews of Islam, by Bernard Lewis; Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, by Paul Kriwaczek, and, finally, Israel: A History, by Anita Shapira.

To that list we’d add Max I. Dimont’s dated but excellent Jews, God and History, a favorite of one our grandpop’s, and the astonishing if boringly titled The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine, which takes as its task figuring out what would have happened to Tevye’s daughter Hodl (from the Sholem Aleichem stories, and Fiddler on the Roof), the one who married Perchik the revolutionary: in other words, what became of Jews who threw over their tradition and became Soviet true believers. How did it work out for them in 20th-century Russia?

Well, you ask Unorthodox, you get. There’s a good bit of reading. No Netflix or HBO for you, at least for the next six months. Your life will be all reading, except for weekly breaks to listen to a certain podcast. Write to us and let us know how our recommendations panned out.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep reading your letters. If you have a question, about anything, write to us at [email protected]. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.

Unorthodox is a smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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