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.
Michael Feinstein, an American maestro in his own right, celebrates the Gershwin songbook in a sumptuous memoir, “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs” (Simon & Schuster: $45). (As I sing the praises of Feinstein’s beautiful book, I am listening to the recording of the author’s performance that accompanies it, a delightful companion piece.) Feinstein spent six years working with Ira Gershwin, and he writes not only with a unique personal knowledge of the Gershwin brothers but also with the ardor of someone who recognizes the enduring power and importance of their music. “I deeply care about doing what I can to help keep the Gershwin name alive,” Feinstein explains. “Why? Because my life would be poorer without their legacy, and it gives me immense pleasure to look at the face of someone discovering a Gershwin song for the first time.” At this self-appointed task, Feinstein succeeds magnificently.
There’s nothing unusual about a rabbi who writes an inspirational book, but I cannot recall one that quite compares with Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz’s “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (Jewish Lights: $18.99). Here you will find the rich and exotic history of chocolate-making, a guide to particularly enticing chocolate museums and plenty of recipes to satisfy the craving for chocolate. But Prinz also describes a journey of discovery as she and her husband (also a rabbi) follow the “heretofore unexplained links between religion and chocolate,” a delightful subtext of Jewish history in the Diaspora. The first Europeans to see cacao, for example, included the Jews and Conversos who sailed with Columbus, but even today, “One could say that Israelis are meshuga (crazy) for chocolate.” By the end of the book, we fully understand why one congregant penned a note to Deborah Prinz: “When I see chocolate …When I eat chocolate …When I read chocolate, I think of you.”
Secrets abound in “El Iluminado” (Basic Books: $24.99) by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin, a noirish graphic novel that opens with an enigmatic death scene in New Mexico and quickly morphs into a thriller about the crypto-Jews who fled the Inquisition and found shelter in the Southwest. “Crypto-Jewish families remained loyal to their faith in an age of oppression,” explains Stavans, who appears as a character in the comic book. “They are rebels with a loyalty to tradition, underdogs with an incredible story to tell.” Sheinkin is the author of the beloved Rabbi Harvey series, and Stavans is a professor of Latin American culture at Amherst; together, they embroider the mystery with plenty of history and not a little wry humor, too. The hero is Rolando, raised as a Catholic in Santa Fe, N.M., whose curiosity drives him ever deeper into a labyrinth where secrets that have been kept for centuries begin to emerge into the light.
“Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe” (Andrews McMeel: $18.99) by Lisa Alcalay Klug is a high-spirited self-help book for Jewish women that draws deeply on the tradition of the Jewish joke. “You know you’re a Hot Mamalah,” writes Klug, “when the word ‘free’ is almost better than sex.” She offers a recipe for the Mamalita Margarita (“Alliterative cocktails,” she explains, “always promote a deep sense of well-being”) with a slight Jewish twist: “Kosher salt to coat rim.” Her prescription for “PMS, periods, pregnancy, and postpartum depression” is “a distraction in the shape of a power tool. Waterproof, cordless, (mildly) scandalous.” The best place to find a husband? “Israel Defense Forces” tops her list. And she is always supportive of her readers, whose anxieties and coping strategies she knows firsthand. “Inside me lives a skinny woman crying to get out,” goes the caption of one photograph, “but I can usually shut the bitch up with cookies!”
And then there’s the Jewish joke about the shortest book in the world: “Jewish Sports Heroes.” But quite a different version of the old joke is told in “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (Twelve: $26.99), edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, a glorious collection of essays by some of America’s most accomplished Jewish writers on the subject of sports in the very broadest sense. Here you will find David Remnick on broadcaster Howard Cosell, Simon Schama on pugilist Daniel Mendoza, Jonathan Safran Foer on chess master Bobby Fischer, Jane Leavy on Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, Deborah Lipstadt on the massacre at the Munich Olympics and much else besides. “Jewish Jocks” is the kind of sports book that only a Jew could or would write — it’s the sporting world as seen by public intellectuals, and they are less concerned with stats than with the heart and mind. “Jewish Jocks is, of course, a Jewish joke, but not in the way you might have thought,” explain the editors, both staff members of The New Republic. “The joke, rather, is that our pantheon includes people who, in some cases, couldn’t even run the bases: the gangster who helped fix the World Series; the idealistic ping-pong player; the nerdy general manager. They get to be counted too: not only as Jews, which is perhaps the most obvious thing about them, but as Jocks, which perhaps isn’t.”
Maggie Anton earned her crown as the queen of Jewish historical novelists with the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy, and now she has conjured up another compelling Jewish woman in “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery” (Plume: $16). The richly told story is set in Babylonia in the third century, where even pious Jews were tempted to dabble in magic, an overlooked fact of Jewish history that figures crucially in the story that Anton tells. The heroine — a gifted woman named Hisdadukh, who knows the Torah by heart — discovers for herself that the ancient Jewish texts include some darker passages, and she is confronted with a choice between sanctity and sorcery. At a time when rabbis endorsed the use of amulets and incantations, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is not always clear, but the remarkable young woman eventually finds her own path through these temptations.
A best-seller in Israel, “Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service” (Ecco: $27.99) by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal is a real-life spy thriller that features the world’s most celebrated intelligence operatives. “The unnamed warriors of the Mossad are its lifeblood, men and women who risk their lives, live away from their families under assumed identities, carry out daring operations in enemy countries where the slightest mistake can bring their arrest, torture or death,” write Bar-Zohar and Mishal, who have selected and explored some of the most compelling exploits of Mossad. Sometimes they add new and unsuspected details to familiar operations such as the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and the rescue of Ethiopian Jews in “Operation Moses.” At other times they subtly confirm what has been the subject of speculation; the recent assassinations of leading Iranian nuclear scientists, they suggest, was the work of Mossad: “While a fanatic Iran threatened it openly with annihilation, the rest of the world recoiled from any vigorous action,” they write. “Israel was left with no choice but to launch an all-out undercover war against the Iranian nuclear program.”
The saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been written and rewritten since the remarkable writings were first retrieved from the caves at Qumran, and the whole story can be found in “The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography” (Princeton University Press: $24.95) by John J. Collins. Collins, a Yale professor and a distinguished scholar of the Hebrew Bible, is uniquely qualified to untangle the knot of conspiracy and controversy in which the Scrolls have been tied up. “Our purpose is to ask what difference the Scrolls have made to the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity,” he explains, “and to probe what has been at stake in the debates that have been so acrimonious.” And he brings clarity and acuity to a subject that has often attracted myth-makers and special pleaders. While he quotes Henry Kissinger’s quip that “academic disputes are so bitter because there is so little at stake,” Collins also allows us to see that the acrimonious debates about the origin, meaning and significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls are actually quite consequential to any reader who wonders how the Bible itself and the Bible-based religions actually entered the world.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.