Yesterday, as the Jewish year 5777 moved ever closer to its end, The New York Times published a piece in its travel section titled “What to Read Before a Jewish Heritage Trip.” But anyone hoping for an erudite and comprehensive list was quickly disappointed. After a brief introduction informing us that “Jewish culture in Europe and Israel has been explored deeply in literature”—not much of a revelation to Jews, readers, and Jewish readers in particular—the paper of record bestowed on us three titles to explore while exploring the various corners of the Jewish world.
Readers learned that these three books “look at Jewish heritage, the Holocaust, and what has followed.” Indeed, two of the recommendations are novels deeply connected with the Holocaust and its legacy: Aharon Appelfeld’s 1998 The Iron Tracks (translated by Jeffrey M. Green) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 Everything Is Illuminated. Devotees of Appelfeld’s work might argue over which one of his many books merits such spotlighting. (My kind of argument!) And some readers may prefer other American writers’ explorations of Holocaust legacy to Foer’s. (For some of my own reading recommendations on writings by descendants of those who were either chased out of Nazi Europe “just in time” or somehow survived the Holocaust, see my essay in this book.)
But if you’re going to recommend a mini-list of titles that convey a sense of “Jewish heritage,” particularly insofar as “Jewish culture in Europe” may be concerned, these choices are eminently justifiable ones. What’s more problematic is the single selection that is presumably intended to inform would-be travelers about Israel: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, an anthology edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman that was published earlier this year.
You can read more about Kingdom of Olives and Ash right here on Tablet. And you may well opt to devote further time to the Chabon/Waldman project. As Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz noted in June, it’s “a meaningful book that deserves to be read, if not always for the reasons its editors had imagined,” and perhaps less for what it may say about Jewish culture than for its portraits of the Palestinians whom “Chabon, Waldman, and their friends profile” throughout.
But if you’re truly interested in discovering Jewish culture in Israel—and how its history, richness, complexity, and challenges can be explored in fiction and in fact ahead of any actual voyage—please consider some other titles. As we embark on the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you might opt to place to these possibilities on your reading list for the new year 5778.
BEST “JERUSALEM NOVEL”
Ruchama King Feuerman, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (2013)
It’s not easy to capture the marvels, the mysticism, and the connections of multiple peoples to this amazing place. But this book does an impressive job of it.
BEST NOVEL ABOUT LIFE DURING SUICIDE BOMBINGS
Orly Castel-Bloom (trans. Dalya Bilu), Human Parts (2004)
Published in its original Hebrew in 2002, this novel was hailed as among the first (if not the first) novel to address the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada. Believe it or not, you will likely laugh a few times as you read—a tribute to Castel-Bloom’s famous comic talents.
BEST PORTRAYAL OF LIFE IN A SETTLEMENT
Assaf Gavron (trans. Steven Cohen), The Hilltop (2014)
You may even laugh a few times during this one, too. Become acquainted with it via Adam Kirsch’s review.
BEST NOVEL SET ON A KIBBUTZ
Jessamyn Hope, Safekeeping (2015)
Full disclosure: I was working for Fig Tree Books LLC in 2015 when that company published Hope’s debut novel. But I’d have been trying to convince others to get to know Hope’s characters and the kibbutz where so much of the book takes place even if I hadn’t been thus employed.
BEST DEPICTION OF THE EX-SOVIET INFLUX
David Bezmozgis, The Betrayers (2014)
Yes, a great number of those Jews who sought to emigrate from the then-Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s ended up in North America (Bezmozgis among them). But many also landed and remained in Israel. In this novel, with the fictional Baruch Kotler, Bezmozgis evokes memories of the ordeal of perhaps the most famous Soviet refusenik-turned-Israeli: Natan Sharansky.
BEST BOOK ABOUT BUDDIES ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE CONFLICT
Jeffrey Goldberg, Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide (2006; re-published as Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror)
Long before he was The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Goldberg earned my admiration with this account of how a nice Jewish boy from Long Island—a student at the University of Pennsylvania, no less—ended up at Ketziot, an Israeli military prison camp in the Negev. More importantly, it’s an account of what happened once that nice Jewish boy arrived there.
BEST SINGLE-VOLUME HISTORY YOU CAN READ BEFORE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR
Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016)
Want a preview? Check out what Gordis shared as the book was beginning to reach its readers.
BEST BACKGROUND TO THE KOTEL CONTROVERSY
Elana Maryles Sztokman, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom (2014)
Those of us who love Israel know that, much like the rest of the world, it’s an imperfect place. And we know that not all of its challenges are connected to Arab-Israeli conflict. This book throws light on some of the other tensions you may be noticing in the news—and inspires support for all the vibrant efforts toward equality and pluralism.
BEST BOOK I HAVEN’T YET READ
Francine Klagsbrun, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (2017)
I’ve seen a few pre-publication reviews for this biography that will be out early in 5778, and they are excellent. And come on—it’s a biography of Golda Meir. How can I not mention her?
BEST SINGLE COUNTERPOINT TO THE KINGDOM OF OLIVES AND ASH
Yossi Klein Halevi, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (2013)
You want to know about the defensive war that led to what is routinely lambasted as “the occupation”? You want to know what Israelis were thinking about that war in 1967 (and what they’ve thought since then)? To paraphrase the immortal Jack Nicholson, can you handle these truths? Yes?
Then by all means, read on.