Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is the Paul Revere of our era, and his latest call to arms is “Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet” (Palgrave Macmillan: $27). Co-written with Internet law expert Christopher Wolf, the book alerts us to the sewer of hatred that runs through cyberspace and exhorts us to do something about it.
The ongoing public conversation about the future of American Judaism is embodied in a small library of recent books, many of which have been considered here. None of them, however, offers quite the same potent brew of courage, clarity, passion and expertise as Shaul Magid’s “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society” (Indiana University Press, $40), a scholarly but also visionary book about what it means to be a Jew in America today.
Poetry is a literary enterprise with enormous allure to the amateur, and yet it is an art form that one can study for a lifetime. And who is a better teacher than Robert Pinsky? The former poet laureate of the United States — and perhaps the most familiar face among working poets, thanks to his frequent television appearances — offers instruction and inspiration to his fellow poets in “Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters” (W.W. Norton, $25.95), an annotated anthology of poetry that ranges from Sappho to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath.
On an otherwise unremarkable day in 1938, a chubby but charming student at John Burroughs Junior High in Los Angeles “cracked the code of his comic gift and discovered his life’s work,” as we learn in “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman” by Mark Cohen (Brandeis, $29.95), a penetrating biography by a savvy observer of show business.
The big question in Detroit in the fall of 1934 had nothing to do with the troubled state of the world. Rather, the fans of the Detroit Tigers wanted to know whether their star first baseman, Hank Greenberg, was going to play on the Jewish High Holy Days. After all, the Tigers were in first place and they were contesting the New York Yankees for the pennant.
Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.
I met Lillian Faderman last Saturday when we both appeared on a panel titled “Holocaust Lives” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. To be sure, the Holocaust figures crucially in her new memoir, “My Mother’s Wars” (Beacon Press, $25.95), but her book is more than a testimony of the Holocaust — it is a love story, a family memoir and, above all, an American tale.
"For far too long, Jay Neugeboren has been known as a writer’s writer and as the nurturing teacher of future writers,” Sanford Pinsker wrote in the Forward about one of Neugeboren’s earlier books. “It is high time for a wider audience.”
For visitors to the Fowler Museum’s recent exhibition, the show’s catalog, “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” edited by David Yeroushalmi (Beit Hatfutsot/Fowler Museum: $30) will be a keepsake. For those who missed the exhibition, the book captures the sumptuous images and the resonant historical narrative that were on display at the Fowler. Either way, the book is a sumptuous and illuminating work of history.
A new biography of California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk opens with an apt quote from the late and much-loved Jewish Journal columnist Marlene Adler Marks: “Mosk,” Marks wrote in these pages in 1997, “is California history with a heartbeat.”
Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Much has been written about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but “anti-Judaism” is something else again.
From generation to generation, starting in 1950 and continuing today, one of the most important sites on the map of the Jewish community in Southern California was a stretch of rolling hills in Simi Valley. The story is richly told in the pages of “The Brandeis-Bardin Institute: A Living History” by Jenna Leventhal (American Jewish University, $30), an “official” history. Published by the university that now owns the property, it is predictably upbeat but also, at moments, candid and forthright about the birth pangs and growing pains of a Jewish institution.
On display in my office is a globe that captures a perilous moment in time — the world as it existed on very eve of World War II.
The argument over Israel’s presence in the territories beyond the Green Line has recently come to focus almost exclusively on security issues, but there is literally no aspect of life in Israel that is not affected by its settlement policies. Indeed, the Jewish identity of Israel, and even the prospects for its continued existence, are called into question.
Sometimes the human mind seems inadequate to understand and explain the enormity of the Shoah, which may explain why Freud is so often invoked by writers of Holocaust literature, ranging from D. M. Thomas in “The White Hotel” to Primo Levi in “The Drowned and the Saved.”
The making of a memorable book requires the skills of an alchemist. Every author starts with the raw material of his or her own experience and expertise, but it can take a certain secret ingredient — passion, vision, inspiration — to transform the dross into gold.
“Seinfeld” was never really “a show about nothing.” Rather, not unlike the Bible, it was a work of the imagination that had something to say about nearly everything.
Blue and white are the traditional colors of the tallit, and, for that reason, the colors of the flag of Israel. And yet the ancient craft of making blue dyes for use in sacred garments was lost to the world for centuries.
When Theodore Ross was just a boy, his mother took something away from him and never gave it back — his Jewish identity.
As Chanukah approaches, there is a plentitude of gift-worthy titles from recently published books. Some are elegant, some quirky, some comforting, but all of them are suitable for one or another of the readers on your list.
Jews have long been called the People of the Book, but the fact is that we elevate words and even letters to the realm of the sacred.
Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.
Nothing says more about the unsettled state of American publishing than the fact that Jonathan Adler is the only author who will be presenting a book event at the Skirball Cultural Center during Jewish Book Month.
The single most hotly debated (and often heartbreaking) issue of Jewish identity is whether and to what extent we carry our Jewishness in our blood.
Yoram Hazony opens his new book, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (Cambridge University Press: $24.99), with a challenging question: “Is there something crucial missing in our understanding of what the Hebrew Bible is all about?”
Every four years, the same question is asked in America: Which candidate will win the Jewish vote? With the 2012 presidential election teetering on a razor’s edge, however, the question takes on new importance and even a certain poignancy. That’s exactly why it caught the attention of political reporter and analyst Shmuel Rosner in “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Voter’s Guide” (Jewish Journal Books: $9.99 paperback, $8 Kindle edition). After all, as Rosner sees it, as many as 5 million Jewish voters may go to the polls next month, and that could be enough to make a difference in an election as close as this one.
Michael Chabon, the literary wunderkind, won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which conjured up the American comic book industry in the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s.
Marni Davis had me with the title of her book, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition” (New York University Press: $32). But the book itself, an academic monograph that is also highly readable, is an eye-opener.
Among the most-played songs in my iTunes library are four immortal (and often-covered) compositions by Leonard Cohen: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah” and, of course, “Suzanne.” Significantly, “Hallejujah” is a meditation on the “sweet singer of Israel,” King David, although Cohen himself is, famously, a Buddhist monk and, not so famously, a former student of Scientology with a “Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release” to show for it.
Fall is high season for the publishing industry. Jewish Book Month, which arrives in November, may have a little something to do with it, and so does the stirring of activity that always follows Labor Day.
Of all the incendiary books that have been written about Israel over the last year or so, none is quite as fiery as "Israel: The Will to Prevail" by Danny Danon (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).
Paul Auster is best known and often praised for his postmodernist novels and short stories, including "The New York Trilogy" and "Sunset Park," but his lifetime of literary achievement actually began with a 1982 memoir, "The Invention of Solitude," his first published work under his own name.
Meyer Harris Cohen was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia, immigrated with his family to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and reached Los Angeles' Jewish point of entry in Boyle Heights in 1915. Up to this point, the spare details of his biography are unremarkable. But Meyer was later nicknamed "Mickey," and his name still echoes with the larger-than-life reputation he acquired on the mean streets of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.
"If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world,” Albert Einstein quipped in 1922. “Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
Madeleine Albright and Christopher Hitchens are two famous figures who discovered their Jewish ancestry only in adulthood. The discovery did nothing to temper Hitchens’ harsh view of religion in general or the State of Israel in particular. For Albright, by contrast, the belated disclosure of her Jewish identity has prompted a remarkable work of self-revelation.
Ira Fistell is a familiar and even beloved figure in the Los Angeles radio market, where he long served as an exceptionally amiable, thoughtful and well-informed talk-show host on subjects ranging from politics and religion to vintage trains and Mississippi steamboats. Along with Dennis Prager, he was a host of "Religion on the Line," a Sunday evening colloquy that brought clergy of various faiths together and proved that theological shoptalk could be compelling to a general audience.
Michael Walzer frankly announces at the outset of “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible” (Yale University Press: $28.00) that he is approaching the Scriptures not as a biblical scholar but as a political thinker. “The Bible is, above all, a religious book,” he argues, “but it is also a political book.”
The biblical reference in the title of Stephen Prothero’s “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation” (HarperOne: $29.99) is purely metaphorical.
Ever since Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize, no apologies need to be made for the aspirations of comic book artists to enter the realm of literature. R. Crumb, for example, recently rendered nothing less exalted than the Book of Genesis as a graphic novel. And Marjane Satrapi applied the same techniques to a best-selling work of memoir in “Persepolis.”
"What Irving Berlin did for the modern musical theatre," Alan Lerner once quipped, "was to make it possible."
Journalist and filmmaker Ruth Broyde Sharone is an activist and a visionary in what she calls “interfaith engagement,” but she is also a realist, which makes her something of a rarity among those Jews who still hold out hope for rapprochement between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
Summer is here, and the time is right for touring authors. Here are the highlights of the season for poolside and airplane reading, including some local appearances by the authors themselves.
Not long ago, I reviewed Peter Longerich's benchmark biography of Heinrich Himmler in these pages -- a work of meticulous and compelling scholarship about the master architect of the Final Solution, a mostly ordinary human being whose claim on history is that he succeeded in putting Hitler's apocalyptic fantasies about mass murder into operation on an industrial scale.
Anne Frank, the single most famous name among the six million victims of the Shoah, entered the realm of history and literature with the posthumous publication of her own diary and has been used — and, some would argue, abused — by others who have depicted her on the stage and screen, in novels and comic books. So much so that the flesh-and-blood Anne Frank has wholly disappeared under the accretion of myth and magical thinking.
Much heated conversation is conducted in these pages and elsewhere in the media about Israel. We debate every aspect of Israel’s present and future — the ups and downs of its political leadership, the role of religion in the Jewish state, the path to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, the security risks that threaten its very existence, and much else besides.
For me, no genre of literature is quite as enchanting or enriching as the travel memoir. Indeed, two of the titles on my own shortlist of favorite books — Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines” and Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” — are essentially travel books that have aspired to and achieved greatness. Among the books I read again and again, several fall into this same category: Graham Greene’s “The Lawless Roads,” Lawrence Durrell’s “Bitter Lemons of Cyprus,” Jan Morris’s “The World of Venice” and Reyner Banham’s “Scenes in America Deserta.”
Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire.
Among the many Roths who figure importantly in Jewish letters — Henry, Cecil and Philip are only the most famous — perhaps the least celebrated is Joseph Roth. As a novelist (“The Radetzky March”) and an essayist (“The Wandering Jews”), but even more crucially as a foreign correspondent for German newspapers during the 1920s and early 1930s, Roth was an eyewitness to the great events of the 20th century.
Much has changed in the book business since the Los Angeles Times launched its Festival of Books 17 years ago, but the FOB — as it is fondly known — remains the premier event of the literary calendar for the more than 100,000 readers and writers who never miss it.
The victims of the Holocaust are most often recalled at their moments of agony and death. But it is also our duty to recall the richness of their lives before Europe fell under the shadow of Nazi Germany. What Hitler sought to destroy, after all, was not merely 6 million human lives but also the whole vibrant culture that they created and sustained.
Over the many years I've spent bumping around the book business, I have introduced my wife, Ann, to a great many literary lions and lionesses, but nothing quite compares to the evening when we first met Dora Levy Mossanen at a book-signing for John Rechy at Dutton’s in Brentwood.
Investigative journalists do not tend to make good storytellers. After all, they are trained to write in the taut prose of a daily newspaper, and they are constrained by the discipline of fact-checking. As a result, sometimes they cannot see the forest for the trees when it comes to a charming and cherished fiction that fixes itself in a family’s collective memory.
Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Sony Bono, George Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger are all entertainers who launched their political careers in California, and they are all Republicans. Indeed, aside from Al Franken, no prominent Democratic officeholder on the scene today started out in the entertainment industry.
Around our house, Irvin D. Yalom is a familiar name, and for more than one reason.
Imagine a private conversation - at moments, an intimate conversation - between two public intellectuals whose careers have been devoted to understanding the wider world in which we find ourselves. One is facing imminent death, and the other is recording the conversation in a valiant effort to preserve the dying man’s final thoughts.
Angella M. Nazarian's rich but provocative irony suffuses her latest book, “Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World” (Assouline: $45).
M. G. Lord is a cultural critic with a sharp eye for the hidden meanings in American pop culture. Two of her previous books, for example, considered the enduring influence of the best-selling doll in the world (“Forever Barbie”) and the semiotics of rocket science (“Astro Turf”).
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been accused of nothing less than apostasy by at least one of his fellow rabbis, all thanks to his newly published book, “Kosher Jesus” (Gefen Publishing House: $26). And I am confident some Evangelical Christians will reach the same conclusion if only because Boteach insists that Jesus was not “holier than any other human being and certainly not divine.”
No matter how much is written about Nazi Germany, there is always some new horror to behold and some new paradox to ponder. That’s how I felt when I opened a remarkable and wholly fascinating new book by Peter Longerich, a German historian who is among the world’s leading scholars of the Holocaust and the Third Reich.
Fred Weintraub is not merely an eyewitness to the history of American pop culture. As we discover in his wholly winning memoir, “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me: From the Man Behind a Half-Century of Music, Movies and Martial Arts” (Brooktree Canyon Press: $28.95), he was a featured player.
In addition to our prizewinner, we also want to honor some of the other exceptional books that came to our attention in 2011, each of which is accomplished and provocative.
Since 2009, when I was first given the opportunity to serve as book editor and chief reviewer for The Jewish Journal, and thanks to the extraordinary vision and support of Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman and Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim, we have been able to significantly increase The Journal’s coverage of the literary world, including biweekly reviews in the newspaper and weekly reviews on jewishjournal.com. We also have created a book blog, 12:12, and we publish additional reviews by a group of esteemed authors and reviewers.
Pico Iyer conjures up Graham Greene in the title of his new book, “The Man Within My Head” (Knopf: $25.95), and that’s why it caught my attention. Greene is a writer
whom I have read with admiration and pleasure, over and over again, throughout my adult life. Iyer, too, sparked my interest years ago with his travel memoir, “Video Night in Kathmandu,” and I have been following (and reviewing) him ever since.
One way to mark the chronology of the counterculture, a pastime that is beloved by the baby boomers, is by reference to rock festivals. Woodstock and Altamont, for example, are now fully transformed into transcendent symbols of life and death, good and evil, the beginning and end of something. But the real starting point, the uber-festival, was Monterey.
Jerusalem is always in the headlines, or so it seems, but the same city on a hill has commanded the attention of the Western world without interruption since biblical antiquity.
No book is regarded with more fear and loathing in the West than the Qur’an, the fundamental religious text of Islam, and yet I am confident that most people who are anxious about what is written in the Qur’an have never actually held a copy in their hands, much less opened it and read it.
No book review I’ve written for The Jewish Journal has prompted as much feedback as the one I wrote about “A New Voice for Israel” by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street. His argument that Israel must make uncomfortable compromises and take dire risks in order to secure peace with the Palestinian Arabs is clearly unsettling to a great many Jews, both in Israel and America.
From novels to memoirs to movie reviews, and much in between, here are a few standout books for Chanukah gift giving.
“Israel’s existence is in fact threatened by a progressive, terminal illness,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J Street, writes in “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation” (Palgrave Macmillan: $26). According to his diagnosis, the illness is a kind of willful blindness that prevents both Israeli and American leaders from seeing a way out of the dire predicament that the Jewish state now faces.
A joke was told about U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign. Not only was Lieberman the first Jew to run for vice president, but he was a famously observant one. “If you elect Joe Lieberman,” the joke went, “he will be on the job 24/6.”
Among the gifts of the Jews, to use Thomas Cahill’s flattering phrase, perhaps none is more stirring and enduring than the biblical call to social justice. We are reminded of the Jewish injunction to seek justice in a couple of new books from Jewish Lights, each of which shows us how do more than pay lip service to one of the bedrock principles of Judaism.
Ariel Sharon was a figure of controversy throughout his long career in war, politics and diplomacy, but no one can deny that he looms large in the making of the Jewish state.
Jennifer S. Hanin was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man.
Art Spiegelman shattered the conventions of comic books and Holocaust literature with the publication of “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel
My first encounter with Jewish genealogy came when I was invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies on the question of whether any living Jew can plausibly claim to have descended from King David.
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a variant of Gresham’s law at work in the arts and letters of the digital age: Is bad writing driving out good? The sheer volume and velocity of the blogosphere, for example, seems to hide the moments of discernment and reflection.
As a rule, a novel speaks for itself and its author, but when it comes to Joseph Heller, we are privileged to have an especially intimate source of information about his life and work.
The long history of the Jews in Poland has been almost wholly eclipsed by the Holocaust. Fully half of the victims of German mass murder were Polish Jews, who numbered approximately 3.5 million on the eve of World War II.
Calvin Trillin, as we are reminded in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff” (Random House: $27), has long served as a polestar in the American literary firmament.
Author tours are not what the used to be, and bookstore closings are reducing the number of venues where you can meet writers face to face. But the offerings for this fall season turn out to be remarkably rich, diverse and likely to prove memorable — an encouraging sign of the sheer vigor of the literary scene in Southern California.
Erik Larson attracted a loyal and appreciative readership — and that includes me — with his potent blend of social history and serial murder in the best-selling “The Devil in the White City,” a work of meticulous research that reads like a thriller. Now he puts the same skills to work in “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” (Crown: $26), an account of the early years of Nazi Germany as experienced by William E. Dodd, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937.
When Hirsh Goodman speaks about the destiny of Israel, people listen.
“The letters of the Jews as strict as flames,” writes Karl Shapiro in the poem titled “The Alphabet,” “Or little terrible flowers lean/Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages/Singing through solid stone the sacred names.”
From the opening passage of “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” by Joseph Braude (Spiegel & Grau: $26), we suddenly find ourselves in an atmospheric scene right out of “Casablanca” — an empty alleyway in the storied Moroccan city, a morning mist, a warehouse where the deep silence is suddenly broken by a squad of soldiers and detectives, and the sight of a mutilated corpse.
Memoir has come to be regarded nowadays as a highly corrupted literary form, but we are reminded of how rich and meaningful a memoir can be in “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16.00). First published in 2010 to great critical acclaim, the book is now available in a handsome paperback edition, and it’s nothing less than a treasure trove between covers.
One advantage of starting a religion in antiquity is that Rolling Stone was not around to ask awkward questions about Moses or Jesus or Muhammad.
It’s hard to imagine a more timely book than “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things” by Dr. Erica Brown (Jewish Lights: $24.99). The book comes too late for Bernie Madoff, but Anthony Weiner needs a copy, and so does DSK. Indeed, all of us who look on public scandals that involve Jewish figures as a “shanda far de goyim” — a shame in the eyes of the non-Jews — will find it fascinating.
The best way to tell if a city has a sizable Jewish population, as my father used to say, is by the number of good Chinese restaurants.
California is defined, both geographically and psychologically, by the fact that the state sits on the ragged edge of the continent — “an ambiguous portion of the whole state,” as Philip L. Fradkin puts it in “The Left Coast: California on the Edge” (University of California Press: $29.95), a superb work of art and text that seeks to understand what we really mean when we casually refer to “the Coast.”
Perhaps the single biggest surprise in “The Synagogue in America: A Short History,” by Marc Lee Raphael (New York University Press: $30), is its sheer entertainment value. Raphael, who holds the Nathan Gumenick chair of Judaic studies at the College of William and Mary, has produced a short, highly readable and wholly illuminating study that will delight anyone who has ever sat in shul and told himself the beloved old Jewish joke that ends with the punch line: “To that one, I never go.”
Now that another presidential campaign season is upon us, you can count on a fair amount of Bible-thumping between now and election day. But if you wonder what the Bible really says about abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment and other contemporary concerns, the real answers are to be found in “The Bible Now” by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press: $27.95).
Let me say right away that I am an ardent and devoted fan of David Mamet. I have only a very small collection of movies on DVD, but two of them are “The Spanish Prisoner” and “House of Games,” both of which I’ve watched repeatedly. My wife, Ann, and I were in the audience for Mamet’s production of “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen and again when he produced a magic-and-memoir show featuring Ricky Jay.
Some beloved and celebrated authors will hit the road in support of their latest books as this summer begins. Here are a few of the most intriguing titles and some of the places where their authors will be reading and signing their books in Southern California: