(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
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On the Bookshelf

Back-to-school edition

Josh Lambert
September 20, 2010
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

School already started weeks ago, but thanks to the holidays, many Jewish members of the class of 2015 are only now beginning to find their footing on their respective college campuses. Two recent handbooks aim to help them do so. Scott Aaron’s newly updated Jewish U: A Contemporary Guide for the Jewish College Student (URJ, May) and David Schoem’s College Knowledge for the Jewish Student (University of Michigan, July) address timely dilemmas like “Should I go home for Rosh Hashanah?” and “I’m older but newer: After the gap year in Israel.” Students themselves may protest that a guidebook is the last thing they would consult during what can be a genuinely difficult transition; in fact, three New Voices writers have all explained that Aaron’s book isn’t what they want. But they miss the point: Such books are more or less consciously designed to ease the minds not of students, but of the anxious parents who purchase them, even if the books inevitably sit unopened at the bottom of a dorm room closet for eternity. This is illustrated perfectly by a Northwestern junior’s recent review of Schoem’s guidebook that has elicited exactly three comments to date, two of which are from the reviewer’s mother and grandmother, promising to send her care packages this fall.


That’s not to say, of course, that fresh-faced college students cannot benefit from adding a couple titles to their personal libraries, along with the obligatory Principles of Macroeconomics and MLA Handbook. Sharing bathrooms and swapping considerable amounts of spit, collegians can always, for example, use help staying healthy. Jennifer Ackerman’s Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold (Twelve, September) explores the mysteries of the common cold, offering advice on how to avoid and treat it. A science journalist, Ackerman tends to be sensible, even if not always strictly scientific. While calling most over-the-counter cold remedies junk, she does recommend hot chicken soup, which she has referred to elsewhere as “Jewish ampicillin.” It’s a thousand-year-old remedy that, she says, recent “research has suggested … actually really does have some medicinal value.”

College students might also benefit from reading Lara Marks’ 2001 Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill (Yale, September), newly available in paperback. Those who take a birth control pill themselves should know how it works and whence it came—including the record of testing the pill, during its development, on human subjects in Puerto Rico, where standards were much more flexible than here in the United States—while aspiring science majors might consider how an adventurous Jewish biologist from Woodbine, New Jersey, named Gregory Pincus could play a central role in transforming the sexual practices of hundreds of millions of people.

Even more relevant to college students busily trying to figure out who exactly they are, perhaps, would be the graphic memoir by Tablet contributing editor Vanessa Davis, Make Me a Woman (Drawn & Quarterly, September). Davis’ work should be very familiar to readers of this site—but such readers should still pony up, because comics this lovely deserve to be enjoyed on paper. Davis bumbles into maturity one watercolor panel at a time, encountering challenges ranging from fat camp to bat mitzvah preparations, and, setting an excellent example for the yunge leyt, she never quite figures out who she is or what she’s supposed to be doing.


For those parents still looking ahead to the college years as a welcome respite from their current entrenchment in adolescent angst and emotional pyrotechnics, Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers (Simon and Schuster, October) presents strategies for dealing with the junior-high and high-school set. Following up on her surprise hit, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel draws as much from contemporary psychological research and frank common sense as from the Jewish pedagogical tradition: Don’t expect her, for instance, to endorse the Vilna Gaon’s advice to his wife and daughters that “every amusement is worthless” and so “the main thing is to remain at home.”


If publishers’ lists are any indication, it isn’t just students, or their parents, who could use a little guidance. Steven Lowenstein offers up For the Love of Being Jewish: An A-to-Z Primer for Bubbies, Menschs, Meshugies, Tzaddiks, and Yentas! (Triumph, September), a bit of illustrated whimsy in the subtitle of which “A-to-Z” signifies not “comprehensive,” but “alphabetical”: Lowenstein riffs on a Jewishy word for each letter of the English alphabet—might we suggest “narishkeyt” for N and “shmaltz” for S?

David Hazony, former editor of Azure—a journal published under the auspices of the Shalem Center in Israel—would presumably respond to Lowenstein’s project by pointing out that Jews already have a memorable little primer of ten easy-to-remember rules. (Easy to remember, that is, if you’re a graduate of Jewish day school, but apparently not if you’re one of those Christian politicians who wants the rules posted everywhere.) Hazony’s first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life (Scribner, September) promises to advise its readers on how to get into the “spirit of redemption,” using the commandments as a blueprint for modern morality—not just for Jews, but for everyone. Which raises a question: If non-Jews can look to the Ten Commandments for their moral precepts, who, then, are the Seven Laws of Noah for?


If you encountered any foodstuffs over the holidays that you could not identify, Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, September) will learnedly enlighten you. With entries and recipes for everything from “adzhapsandali” to “zalabia”—but no references to the cheeseburgers that used to be served in the Hebrew Union College cafeteria, or to Henry Roth’s innovative use of the word “knish”—Marks’ impressively thorough volume will either help to educate a new generation of Jewish gourmands, or it will signal to future food historians that ours was the period in which Jewish cuisine went from being something you cooked and ate to something you read about in a reference book.

One reason that it’s not always easy to eat like a traditional Jew? Everyone knows parve desserts are pretty much terrible: A decent babka can be tolerated, but most of us can believe it’s not butter, and, no, no, sorbet is not just as good as gelato. Which means that Paula Shoyer’s The Kosher Baker: 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy (Brandeis, September) is either a hopelessly utopian fiction or a heroic triumph against the laws of nature. Recipes for tiramisu and key lime pie sound promising, but seriously: Can any parve dessert manage to taste even half as good as a well-frosted cupcake or even just a simple scoop of farm-made ice cream?

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.