The Jewish Preview of Books—December 2018

Each month brings scores of new books of Jewish interest. Here are a few we can’t wait to read this December. And who knows, maybe you’ll find the perfect last-minute Hanukkah gift here as well!

Renowned scholar and critic Robert Alter has spent a lifetime thinking and writing about the literary techniques of the Bible, and the last two decades creating his own 21st-century equivalent to the King James translation—something “simple yet grand.” The result, the only full Bible translation in 500 years created by a single author, will be published this month by Norton. Expect a full symposium on Alter’s translation—with contributions from Adele Berlin, David Bentley Hart, Shai Held, Ronald Hendel, Adam Kirsch, and Aviya Kushner—in our Winter issue.

This month we look forward to several new books on American Jewry. James L. Moses’s Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926–1963 (University of Arkansas) offers a biography of a rabbi who moved, not without trepidation, from New York to Little Rock, AR where he fought against Jim Crow and served that community through troubled times, including the Great Depression and the Holocaust. He several times addressed the Arkansas legislative bodies, using a shared language drawing on the Hebrew Bible, but also making pleas that sound surprising coming from the mouth of a rabbi—like the following from 1957:

When Jesus died on the cross, He repeated those immortal words: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Legislators! May future generations reading the statute books of Arkansas laws not be compelled to say these words to you.

Moving a bit further south and east, Leon Waldoff’s A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi (Academic Studies Press), is a personal and historical exploration of the author’s Russian-Jewish family that made its home in the south where they and their fellow Jews feared Klan violence, fought racism, negotiated intra-Jewish conflicts, and ultimately made themselves at home.

Meanwhile, in Hasia Diner’s edited collection Doing Business in America: A Jewish History (Purdue), scholars tackle a subject previously avoided by many academics because it has so often been a trope of anti-Semitic canards—Jewish business in America. And if you enjoyed our breezy summary of Michael Hoberman’s article about the 19th-century Jewish photographer-turned-adventurer Solomon Nunes Carvalho, you might want to look into his new book, A Hundred Acres of America: The Geography of Jewish American Literary History (Rutgers). The essays within examine Jewish American literary writing about different kinds of places, usually in pairs: Carvalho and Israel Joseph Benjamin on the American West, Philip Roth and Allegra Goodman on the countryside, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Jonathan Safran Foer on distinctly American reminiscences of the shtetl.

There are also several new books coming out about Israel. We are particularly looking forward to feminist and education activist Alice Shalvi’s autobiography, Never a Native (Haliban), as well as Nick Reynold’s The War of the Zionist Giants: David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann (Lexington) about Israel’s first prime minister and first president, who fought bitterly over 32 years. Yael Zerubavel’s Desert in thePromised Land (Stanford) explores the use of the desert—a symbol of exile, trial, romantic self-discovery, and self-determination—in Zionist and Israeli culture. She has collected some fascinating pictures from historical newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, Gideon Sapir and Daniel Statman’s State and Religion in Israel: A Philosophical-Legal Inquiry (Cambridge) uses the Jewish state as a test case for the notion of division between “church” and state in a modern liberal society. Finally, you might think from the title that Süleyman Şanlı’s ethnographic study, Jews of Turkey: Migration, Culture and Memory (Routledge) is about Jews in Turkey, but it’s actually about Turkish Jewish communities in Israel, with a focus on reconstructing the lives they led in Eastern Turkey—which were highly integrated with the Muslim population (“Eastern Jews were different from the people they lived together with only in terms of religion . . .”)—before making aliyah.

It’s not only Turkish Jews that receive special attention this month; Houman Sarshar’s The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World (I. B. Taurus) promises a new understanding of the history of Jews in Persia and Iran, first under Zoroastrian and then under Muslim rule—a field of inquiry that received a boost in no small measure thanks to the work of the recently-departed and much-missed YaakovElman.

In fiction, we anticipate that perhaps this December we’ll get lost in a new book by Curt Leviant—who has translated many Yiddish writers and produced not a few novels of his own —Katz or Cats: Or, How Jesus Became My Rival in Love (Dzanc Books). Lior Samson’s forthcoming Distant Sons (Gesher) is an inspired-by-real-life intergenerational saga about a mother and daughter, Miriam and Magdalena (guess which one is from a 19th-century European Jewish ghetto and which from the early 20th-century American Midwest?). Meanwhile, playwright and poet Susan Hahn’s Losing Beck: A Triptych (Red Hen), promises an emotional family drama set against the backdrop of 20th-century Jewish history.

In graphic (as in novel, not violent) news, R.Crumb, the celebrated cartoonist whose illustrated Genesis Harvey Pekar reviewed, in comic form, in our inaugural issue, will see publication of his heretofore private—and reportedly revealing—illustrated dream diary (Elara Press). Last month we lost Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber, a Jewish kid from Depression-era New York), creator of some of the Marvel universe’s most memorable heroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk. A new biography by Bob Batchelor, Stan Lee: The Man behind the Marvel (Rowman & Littlefield) promises to shed new light on the man who is sometimes credited with bringing the comic book industry to prominence in popular culture.

Finally, if you miss the regular columns written by political pundit Charles Krauthammer, who passed away this past June, you might enjoy picking up a new collection of his work The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors (Crown Forum). Selected and compiled by Krauthammer during the illness that ultimately took his life, this volume is meant to complement his previous collection, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics (Crown Forum). Completed by his son, who wrote a moving introduction and closing elegy, this collection includes more personal pieces (Krauthammer famously eschewed use of the first-person pronoun and almost never wrote about himself) and new work, including pieces that were written in preparation for an unfinished book on foreign policy. “The Authoritarian Temptation,” a long essay that was meant to be the core of that book, addresses the effect of current populist movements on the future of global democracy.


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