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.
David Shields, author of the hotly debated “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” has bewitched us once again with his innovative genre-bending meditation “How Literature Saved My Life” (Knopf, $29.95).
I’m noticing a trend among my coreligionists-who-write: arguing against being “labeled” as Jewish writers — especially when they are simultaneously speaking in Jewish-sponsored lecture/reading series, blogging for the Jewish Book Council, and/or benefiting from awards given specifically for works deemed to have Jewish significance. These writers protest too much as they engage in a variation of that proverbial activity: biting a hand that feeds them.
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.
The ups and downs of everyday life, the many dramatic struggles woven into the fabric of life, provide writers—this group of shameless voyeurs and hoarders of stories—with invaluable ideas for our novels.
"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.
The madness always calls him back. You only have to glance at Elie Wiesel’s tortured face to know that he is always at risk. Even after the countless novels and the Nobel Peace Prize.
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.
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.
Each time I officiate at a marriage, I perpetrate a small fraud. I read the ketubah, the marriage contract, in its original Aramaic and then I read the “translation."
The rich and satisfying story of peanut butter is told by Jon Krampner in “Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food” (Columbia University Press: $27.95), a serious work of scholarship that is enlivened by the author’s irrepressible love for all things peanut-related.
When Theodore Ross was just a boy, his mother took something away from him and never gave it back — his Jewish identity.
Something disturbs me about the way Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize winning author of “The Finkler Question,” navigates the rocky road of his fluctuating 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?”
It’s hard to imagine anyone else’s reality. We pretend we do in order not to feel so helpless. But usually, we’re just guessing or faking it. Thus, it is incredibly rare and spectacular to find an author who possesses the literary talent to transport us so completely and persuasively to an utterly foreign realm.
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.
Perhaps nobody who reads book reviews in The Jewish Journal would ever ask herself or himself, “Am I a Jew?” Perhaps the act of reading The Jewish Journal answers the question. After all, would somebody unsure of her or his Judaism seek out such a publication? On the other hand, maybe seekers are attracted to The Jewish Journal looking for clues, if not definitive answers.
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.
A cantata is a musical composition typically composed of solos, duets, and other forms for voice, sung with instrumental accompaniment. Thus framed, the title of Jeffrey Lewis's latest novel, "Berlin Cantata" (Haus, $15, ISBN 978-1-907822-43-8), aligns nicely with the book’s structure, since nearly every chapter is presented as a monologue voiced by one of 13 characters.
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.
A pervasive Jewish mythology has always idealized the mother-son relationship. But Proust knew better. Shortly after his mother’s death, he wrote an article in Le Figaro about a man who bludgeoned his mother to death and attempted to speculate what might have ignited this man’s descent into madness. Proust discussed the crippling dependence and blurred poisonous boundaries that sometimes overtake mothers and sons.
Joshua Henkin, author of “The World Without You” (Pantheon Books, $25.95), has frequently said in interviews that he first fell head over heels in love with reading and then convinced himself he could become a writer because he intuitively sensed what was missing in other people’s fiction.
“Amazons: A Love Story” (University of Missouri Press: $24.95) is a highly unusual, poignant coming-of-age saga by a half-Jewish writer nearly off the scale in candor and braininess. Her name is E.J. (Ellen) Levy. My bet is that any lover of words who takes the time to read her prose will never forget that name.
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.
As I was reading Dennis Prager’s new book, “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph,” I found myself increasingly frustrated. The words themselves didn’t bother me; rather, it was that silly contraption I was holding in my hands, what’s known as a Kindle.
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.
Generations of readers, theater patrons and movie goers have been touched and moved by “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but perhaps no one was more astonished by the adolescent girl’s deep inner life – while in hiding from the Nazis – than Anne’s father.
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.
A.J. Jacobs waits until the fifth page of his newest book, “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection” (Simon & Schuster: $26), to mention his Jewish heritage. He repeats a line from a previous book of his: “I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. Not very.”
Yesterday at the ophthalmologist I realized my eye doctor was looking deep into my eyes but couldn’t see me; not at all. My husband compulsively takes the same photograph over and over again unaware that no picture looks different from any other.