Jewish Journal

If I had just one Jewish book to read . . . .

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

Posted on Nov. 7, 2008 at 4:04 pm

The Jewish Journal asked several authors appearing at Sunday's Celebration of Jewish Books to answer a question that, at least for writers, has existential overtones: "If you were stranded on a deserted island, what Jewish book would you want to have with you, and why?"

The answers below reveal not only the enormous pull of rich, traditional sources, but also the idiosyncratic and wide-ranging tastes of contemporary Jewish authors.

Novelist Nora Baskin
Clearly, if I were stranded on an island, I probably would not have much time for reading. In fact, if my survival depended on it, I might have had to burn any dry book in my possession. Though, perhaps like Tom Hanks in [the film] "Castaway," a book would become my "Wilson," the soccer ball that represented hope. In that case, I might have to choose "The Collected Stories" by Grace Paley. For the over 20 years I have been reading and re-reading Paley's work, I never feel finished. There is always more wisdom to be found within her words and sentences.

For simple beauty and faith, I would choose "The White Ram: A Story of Abraham and Isaac," a magnificent picture book by Mordicai Gerstein.
If I were looking for a little heat on those cold, lonely nights I might like to have Barbara Cohen's "I Am Joseph."

But for the pure power of language and story I would have to pick Rebecca Goldstein's "Mazel." Or Amy Bloom's "Away." Or "The Chosen." Or....

Nora Baskin is the author of five novels, including "What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows" (Yearling, 2002), "Basketball (or Something Like It)" (HarperCollins, 2005) and "All We Know of Love" (Candlewick, 2008). Her most recent novel, for middle-schoolers, is "The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah" (Simon and Shuster), a 2008 Jewish Book Council Network selection. She grew up in Brooklyn and New Paltz, N.Y., and currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and two sons.

Novelist Nathan Englander

I'm very bad at fantasizing for a question like this, because I take it literally, and the question becomes a very serious matter for me.

Maybe I would choose "Job," because it's an elegant, wonderful read. I know I could read it forever, and maybe it would make me feel better about being stranded on the island.

Then there's the cheesy answer, which I'm kind of shy about listing, but I'd want the Torah. If you're talking about a life of aloneness, I'd want to be reading something that is living and that will weave back on itself. And I know it would get me through the cycle of one year at least ... if I pace myself.

As far as a contemporary book, I'd choose "The Manor" and "The Estate" by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Even though these were first published as two separate books, Singer wrote it as a single work, so I'm going to consider it one book for my island. It's epic in scope, spanning a whole chunk of European Jewish history. I think you'd want a book that would give you a whole world, if you're going to have to read it again and again for infinity. Or at least for the rest of your life.

Nathan Englander grew up as part of the Orthodox community in West Hempstead, N.Y. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and numerous anthologies, and he was selected as one of "20 Writers for the 21st Century" by The New Yorker. Englander's collection of irreverent stories set in the Chasidic community, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (Knopf, 1999), became an international bestseller and earned him a PEN/Malamud Award. His first novel, "The Ministry of Special Cases" (Knopf, 2007), follows the Kafkaesque travails of a Jewish family in Buenos Aires during Argentina's "dirty war."

Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer
I would take Charlotte Salomon's "Life? Or Theater?," perhaps the greatest book (Jewish or not) of the 20th century -- despite the fact that virtually no one (Jew or not) has heard of it. A kind of counterpoint to "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Life? Or Theater?" was written in anticipation of World War II. (Salomon, four months pregnant, was killed at Auschwitz.)

The book is not a book in any traditional sense, but is comprised of more than 700 "textual paintings." As a work of visual art, it is a triumph. As a novel, it is a triumph. I've read the book many times over many years, and it always has more to offer up, which makes it very good company. Alas, it is out of print. But the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco will have an exhibit of the work in 2011. Unfortunately, I'll already be on my island by then....

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the international bestseller "Everything Is Illuminated" (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) published when he was only 25. The book has won numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, has been translated into 35 languages and was the basis for a 2005 film of the same name starring Elijah Wood.

Foer's stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. His second novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) has been on national and international bestseller lists. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, writer Nicole Krauss, and their son.

Journalist/Essayist Stephen Fried

My first thought was "Kaddish" [by Leon Wieseltier], just because I would finally have time to finish it. My second thought was [Abraham Joshua Heschel's] "God in Search of Man," the first book I was assigned in a course at Penn with Art Green -- which changed my life and helped me become a grown-up Jew. It's a book I pick up again every year during the last, ecstatically un-caffeinated hours of Yom Kippur.

But, ultimately, how can you not pick the Tanakh? I'd take a Hebrew-English one, so maybe I can finally learn to actually understand Hebrew (rather than just being able to recite it quickly aloud), and one with commentaries so I'd have someone to argue with.

Stephen Fried is an award-winning investigative journalist and personal essayist. He is the author of several books, including "Bitter Pills: Inside the Hazardous World of Legal Drugs" (Bantam, 1998), "The New Rabbi" (Bantam, 2002) and most recently, "Husbandry: Sex Love amp; Dirty Laundry -- Inside the Minds of Married Men" (Bantam).

A two-time winner of the National Magazine Award, Fried has written frequently for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post Magazine, GQ and Rolling Stone. An adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Fried lives in Philadelphia with his wife, author Diane Ayres. www.stephenfried.com

Journalist Sharon Waxman
If I were stranded, I'd want to have Maimonides' "Guide of the Perplexed" with me.
I read it when I was a teenager, and I remember that it is filled with issues that Jewish and thinking people of faith have grappled with for centuries.

It deals with questions of faith and reason -- a particular conundrum that is every bit as relevant in today's society as it was when Maimonides wrote centuries ago. In a lot of ways these question dominate politics and policy issues today -- What is the proper role of faith? What is the place of religion in a thinking person's universe?

It's also one of those books that, as I remember it, demonstrates the depth and the complexity that Jewish religion embraces. I often cite it to people who want to dismiss religion offhand as something shallow and superstition-based, something for people who want easy answers.

And it's a book I've always wanted to go back to if I really had the time, which I never seem to have.

Sharon Waxman is an author and award-winning journalist who has written about the entertainment industry for the Washington Post and The New York Times since 1995. Her bestselling "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System" (HarperCollins) was published in 2005.

Waxman began her career as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem in 1988, after earning her master's degree in modern Middle East studies from Oxford University. She later covered culture, politics and the economy in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Her recently released book, "Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World" (Times Books) examines the illicit trade of smuggled antiquities and the ensuing battles for restitution. For more information, visit http://www.lootbook.com.

Cookbook Author Judy Zeidler

I always seem to find time to read cookbooks, and -- this is kind of hard to admit -- I'm not a big reader of other books. But when I'm in the synagogue and the rabbi is giving a sermon -- whether it's a Friday night, or Rosh Hashanah or any other time -- and he recites the stories from the Bible, I'm always so interested.

The stories are just so amazing -- I always promise myself that I'm gong to take time to read them. They are fascinating; so rich and so complicated -- for example, the story of the burning bush. You really need to sit and read them carefully, to study them.

So if I were stranded, I'd hope to have the Bible with me, because then I would finally have time to read it.

Of course, my second choice would be one of my cookbooks, in case I found some greens or other things to cook....

Judy Zeidler is a well-known food authority, restaurateur and author of several cookbooks, including "The Gourmet Jewish Cook," "30-Minute Kosher Cook" and "Master Chefs Cook Kosher," which is based on her syndicated television show, "Judy's Kitchen." She consults at Zeidler's Cafe, which is located in the Skirball Cultural Center, and her articles appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times and Jewish Journal.

She and her husband spend several months each year in Italy and France, finding inspiration for new recipes. She is currently working on a cookbook based on her adventures in Italy.

Comedy Writer Alan Zweibel

When I first thought about this question, I thought about Philip Roth -- who is maybe my favorite writer in the world -- and Woody Allen, and so many others who have written in the Jewish realm. So where I landed surprised me.

There is a thin book by David Mamet, "Passover." I guess you'd call it a novella.

It's not one of his most prominent books, or what you usually think of as Mamet (whose work I love). Even though I read it years ago, I remember and cherish it.
It's about a grandmother and a granddaughter preparing for the seder. The grandmother is giving her granddaughter family recipes, handed down over the generations.

At the same time, it's about the Passover story, about how we've been persecuted, how there have been pogroms and inquisitions through the years, and about us being the chosen people.

At the end of the story, there is a knock at the door, and another form of persecution enters the world of the grandmother and granddaughter -- it's a modern-day version of what had happened in Egypt. And it happened while they were preparing the seder together.

It's almost like a fable, though it's not written in fable form. The writing is so uncomplicated, so simple, but the book is multifaceted and profound, capturing the spirit of the relationship, the spirit of the moment. It embodies the whole Jewish story -- the humor, relationships, history -- and the ongoing threat of Jewish persecution.

And ultimately, it's so pro Jewish life, pro Jewish culture -- thematically embracing everything that's important to Jews to survive and the way we pick ourselves up whenever somebody knocks us down.

An original "Saturday Night Live" writer, Zweibel has won multiple Emmy, Writers Guild of America and TV Critics awards for his television work, which also includes "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (as co-creator and executive producer).

Zweibel's theatrical work includes his collaboration with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play "700 Sundays."

In 2007 he won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his novel "The Other Shulman" (Villard, 2005). His humor has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Op-Ed page. Zweibel's collection of short stories and essays, "Clothing Optional: And Other Ways to Read These Stories" (Villard) was published in September.

Meet, eat, listen and learn at American Jewish University's Celebration of Books

Sun., Nov. 9
A panoply of Jewish literary talent will be on hand to meet, chat and sign at numerous presentations. Stock up on reading material at the Oasis of Books tent, snag a bite at the glatt kosher food court and treat the kids to storybook entertainment with "Steve's Songs" and "Ralph's World." 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $15 (adults); Free (children under 12). AJU Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246. For a complete schedule of events, visit wcce.ajula.edu/cob.

Mon., Nov. 10
"Let's Debrief," a post-election political discussion with William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. 7:30 p.m. $45. AJU. (310) 440-1246.

Tue., Nov. 11
"Let's Eat," a gourmet dinner demonstration featuring Judy Zeidler, Max and Eli Sussman, Jayne Cohen and Jennifer 8. Lee. 7:30 p.m. $45 (three-course meal included). AJU. (310) 440-1246.

Wed., Nov. 12
"Let's Debate" features Rabbi David Wolpe, author of "Why Faith Matters," and Christopher Hitchens, author of "God Is Not Great," moderated by Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman. 7:30 p.m. $45 (admission plus books), $100 (preferred seating plus signed books). Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 440-1246.

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