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‘Unusual’ Jewish books

Check out these titles on chess masters, beards, and the relationship between Zionism and mathematics.

by Donald Altschiller/JointMedia News Service

December 20, 2011 | 1:08 pm

During the 1978 Frankfurt Book Fair, an enterprising bibliophile conducted a meticulous search of the vast exhibit hall with an unusual purpose: to find the oddest book title.  Inspired by this valiant quest, the British trade magazine, The Bookseller has been publishing annual lists of the contenders and winners of the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year.

Some titles receiving this dubious distinction include: How to Write a How to Write Book by Brian Piddock (Neil Rhodes Books, 2007); So Your Wife Came Home Speaking in Tongues!  So Did Mine! (Revell, 1973); Dining Posture in Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press, 2006); and Design for Impact: 50 Years of Airline Safety Cards (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003). (The magazine did not include a favorite title, probably because this book was published in 1938: The Romance of Proctology.)

Among all the nominated Diagram Prize titles, there are surprisingly few that deal with Jewish themes. Perhaps, if you really stretch your imagination, you could find a few that seem to do so, such as: Circumcisions by Appointment: A View of Life in and Around Manchester in the Eighteenth Century (Reword, ca. 1999) and the 120 Year Diet (Simon and Schuster, 1988).

But this is clearly not enough.  Isn’t it about time for a contest devoted solely to Jewish titles? While the description “unusual” or “odd” is a subjective judgment, somebody has to make these hard decisions, so I humbly offer the following nominations:

Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps by Felix Berkovich (McFarland, 2000) is a lavishly illustrated book on this often overlooked topic. One critic declared that it might be the best book ever written on the subject. 

The Beard in Jewish Law by Rabbi Sholom Yehuda Gross (Mosad Brochas Tova, 1981) is easily accessible through a Google search. After perusing this work, some historians of German Jewry may need to reconsider their previous theories. According to the author, “it is plainly seen that one of the main reasons that assimilation, heresy and non-Jewish ideas were so rampant in Germany, was because they had entirely done away with the wearing of beards (p.17).”

• A search of the Harvard University Library catalog using the compelling subject heading, “Running Races in Rabbinical Literature” will bring up the following title: Sport bei den Juden im Altertum: die Rennbahn des Konigs Salomo: nach einem handschriftlichen Midrasch der Staatsbibliothek Munchen, cod. 222 fol. 50a-56b. (Sports among the Jews in Antiquity: King Solomon’s Running Race).

• Another search using the subject heading “Weather—Religious Aspects—Judaism” will yield the catalog record on a Hebrew-language volume on the flaky topic of snow and halacha: ha-Noten sheleg: be-inyene ha-sheleg, ha-barad ve-hakerah ba-halalkha  by Yishai Mazlomyan.

• A published lecture entitled Views on the meaning of Zionism and of applied mathematics fifty years ago and now by Sydney Goldstein (Leeds University Press, 1973) demonstrates the remarkable scholarly skill of relating a Jewish theme to almost any academic topic.

Quite apart from their titles, the contents of some books reflect rather odd contrasts. The following two books could aptly be compared to the stark contrasts of the joy of a wedding coupled with the sadly resonant ritual of the breaking of the glass under the chuppah.

Simon Wiesenthal’s Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom (Henry Holt, 1987) takes the lachrymose conception of Jewish history to its utmost extreme. Wiesenthal writes that this book “commemorate(s) horror arranged by date … the calendar relates the atrocities committed against the Jewish people over two thousand years.” 

A very different sort of book, Day by Day in Jewish Sports History by Bob Wechsler (Ktav, 2008), is an exuberant work inspiring readers to revel in the athletic achievements of the People of the Book. But if you read these two volumes in tandem, you may be struck by the following unusual juxtaposition: 

June 24: In 1096, Crusaders approach the town of Neuss near Cologne and slaughter 200 Jews who are hiding there.  But on the same date in 1956, Al Rosen collected his 1,000th career hit, a home run in the Cleveland Indians’ 7-2 six inning win over the
Washington Senators. 

Optimists who reject the lachrymose theory of Jewish history may take heart: Perennial optimists might point out that the sports volume boasts 404 pages while the calendar of Jewish martyrdom has only 320 pages. So the future may be promising!

Donald Altschiller is a librarian at Boston University.

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