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Jewish Journal

Eight books to light your Chanukah season

by Jonathan Kirsch

November 27, 2013 | 12:12 pm

The early arrival of Chanukah coincides with Jewish Book Month, which suggests a convenient shopping list for gift-giving. Here are eight books I am planning to give this year to the book lovers among my family, friends and colleagues. Some of these books already have been reviewed at greater length in these pages over the past year.

My sentimental favorite for Chanukah is Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).  Solomon approaches the Broadway musical from her perspective as a theater critic, journalist and scholar, but she also helps us understand the unlikely process by which the works of the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, first published in the 19th century, were artfully reinvented as a cultural artifact for American Jews in the 1960s, eventually transcending their Jewish origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. While Solomon does not avoid the controversies about the authenticity of “Fiddler” as a Jewish tale, her book is richly ornamented with Yiddishkayt, theater lore and cultural politics, all of which only deepen the reader’s appreciation for the familiar tunes. As for me, I played the Broadway cast album as I read “Wonder of Wonders,” and I took pleasure from both. 

The debut novelist who won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Literature is Francesca Segal, a young writer who was inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to tell a tale of star-crossed love set in contemporary London. In her prize-winning “The Innocents” (Hyperion, $14, paperback), we are introduced to the betrothed couple, a pair of Jewish Londoners who met in Israel while still teenagers and who seem to be fated to marry, but a shadow is cast over their romance by the bride’s cousin, a seductive woman with a lurid past who quickly catches the fiance’s eye and then his heart. It’s an age-old tale of temptation on the eve of marriage with Jewish 20-somethings cast in the principal roles.

If you’ve ever caught a set by stand-up comedian Marion Grodin, you already know that she is smart, sharp-edged and laugh-out-loud funny. If not, you can find out in “Standing Up: A Memoir of a Funny (Not Always) Life” (Center Street, $23). The daughter of the iconic comic actor Charles Grodin, she is capable of telling both inside stories and intimate secrets, starting with her “inappropriate relationship with Haagen-Dazs” but also her bouts with cancer and divorce, always with a sly sense of humor. Hers is an American life, and a Jewish one, that is capable of provoking both laughter and tears. 

Sexuality and psychoanalysis have long been bedmates, but eros takes on new meanings in “Freud’s Mistress,” the new novel by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, $25.95). It’s a fictionalized account of a forbidden love affair based on flesh-and-blood figures — Sigmund Freud, of course, and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. The authors have brilliantly conjured up Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, a place where a woman’s nightclothes were equipped with “a tedious number of buttons” as a disincentive to sexual adventure. We readily imagine how unsettling it would have been for Minna to be seduced by her brother-in-law, but with Freud himself as seducer, the love affair achieves a critical mass. This novel also includes a bibliographical essay and a lucid discussion of the scholarly basis for believing that Freud and Minna were, in fact, lovers. By the end of the book, however, we are already convinced that the story rings true. 

Alan Dershowitz set out to write a classic lawyer’s memoir in “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law” (Crown, $28), but he accomplished much more. To be sure, he reveals how an under-achiever from Brooklyn ended up as a Harvard law professor, and he writes candidly about his controversial work on behalf of such infamous clients as Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. But he also shows us how he achieved the status of an activist, a gadfly and a public intellectual on a global scale. Indeed, Dershowitz may be an insistent name-dropper, but he has earned the right to tell stories about his encounters, some friendly and some hostile, with politicians, statesmen, authors and celebrities of every variety in the United States, Israel and around the world. Like Dershowitz himself, “Taking the Stand” is a provocative book, but for sheer chutzpah, no one beats “Dersh.”

Like millions of American Jews, I can trace my roots back to Poland, a place that we recall nowadays only as ground zero of the Holocaust. But Louise Steinman has performed an act of redemption in “The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation” (Beacon Press, $26.95), which reminds us of the Jewish blood that was spilled on Polish soil but also explores the possibility that Jews and Poles in the contemporary world can find a way to understand each other by remembering — or discovering for the first time — the suffering that each of these two peoples underwent during the second world war. “The Crooked Mirror” is a poignant family memoir, the moving tale of a personal journey of discovery, and an opportunity for all of us to reconnect to a place and time that mostly have been overlooked in our own family histories.

Boyle Heights is the setting for Janice Steinberg’s novel “The Tin Horse” (Random House, $26), a family saga that focuses on the troubled bond between estranged twin sisters to tell a larger story about the rough edges of the American immigrant experience. Readers who recall the neighborhood that served as the point of entry for a whole generation of Jews from Eastern Europe — or who know of Boyle Heights only by word of mouth — will find “The Tin Horse” to be a nostalgic tale, but it is also one that penetrates to the innermost secrets of Jewish families and fleshes out the stereotypes with compelling realism.

The controversy that flared up on publication of Reza Aslan’s “The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, $27) — and made it an instant best seller — focused on the fact that the author is a Muslim who chose to write about the foundational figure of Christianity. Yet there’s an irony at work here: “The Zealot” is actually a book about Jesus the Jew, and it shows how Jesus can and should be understood as a Jewish visionary whose message was borrowed and repurposed by some of his fellow Jews to create a daughter religion of Judaism. Aslan writes with perfect clarity about complex historical and theological issues, but his book is suffused with an ironic subtext about religious intolerance in our own times.

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