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Jewish Journal

Notable books of 2011

by Jonathan Kirsch

January 11, 2012 | 4:11 pm

In addition to our prizewinner, we also want to honor some of the other exceptional books that came to our attention in 2011, each of which is accomplished and provocative.

The headlines in The Jewish Journal and other newspapers serve to confirm the acuity and even the prescience of Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, who sounds an alarm about the threat to both the democratic values and Jewish character of Israel in his very personal history of his homeland’s past and present, “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins: $25.99).

“For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes,” he concludes. “First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue. … Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

[‘What They Saved’ wins first Jewish Journal Book Prize]

Some of the same dire issues were given a rather more optimistic treatment by another Israeli journalist, Hirsh Goodman, in “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival” (PublicAffairs: $26.99), a lucid, lively, utterly fascinating and ultimately surprising take on the strategic predicament of the Jewish state. Goodman, for example, concedes that a nuclear-armed Iran is a worst-case scenario for Israel — and not only for Israel — but he also argues that it is “the ‘simplest’ to deal with.” The greatest danger, according to Goodman, is to be found among the Palestinians as a people, both as a result of the Arab birth rate and the strategy of “de-legitimization” that has been adopted by the Palestinians and their supporters. And yet, at a time when so many commentators are reduced to fatalism and despair, he sees a path to peace and security, even if he always reminds his reader that the way forward is treacherous.

History, as James Joyce once wrote, is a nightmare from which we struggle to awaken. But literary journalist Erika Dreifus is courageous enough to confront the terrors from deep within that nightmare in her debut work of fiction, “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio: $13.95), a deeply affecting collection of short stories that contemplate how the long shadow of the Holocaust falls across the lives of men and women who come alive in her work. She works in a lapidary prose, every word considered and chosen with care, and yet the writing is always clear and compelling. But Dreifus does not confine herself to the kind of character studies and slice-of-life sketches that are the stock-in-trade of so many short-story writers. Rather, she cares deeply about history — her own family history and the larger history that we all inhabit — and that’s what makes her stories both engaging and consequential.

Two big books on the history of Jerusalem, each one by an accomplished author and each one magisterial in its ambition, were published in 2011. James Carroll, author of the best-seller “Constantine’s Sword,” calls Jerusalem “the magnetic pole of Western history” in his “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28), and seeks to explore what he calls “the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires.” Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf: $35), is written by a descendant of Moses Montefiore, one of the great Jewish benefactors of Jerusalem in the 19th century, but the author captures the sweep and detail of Jerusalem’s long history. “For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic,” Montefiore concludes, “and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.” Precisely because Jerusalem is holy to three religions, as both authors agree, it remains a battleground.

Art Spiegelman wrote himself into history — and won a Pulitzer Prize — by telling a tale of the Holocaust in the form of a comic book titled “Maus.” Now, a quarter-century after the publication of “Maus,” Spiegelman allows us to glimpse the origins, making and enduring impact of his courageous masterpiece in “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus” (Pantheon: $35). The book is an eye-catching and highly kinetic book-and-DVD package of art and text, conversation and reminiscence, photos, drawings and audio clips, all of which add up to an intimate family memoir, a detailed account of how a great work of art and literature came into existence, and a lively version of the kind of literary deconstruction that is ordinarily conducted in the dry prose of academic journals.

“The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” by Joseph Braude (Spiegel & Grau: $26) may read like an elegant Levantine version of hard-boiled detective fiction, but it is a rich and wholly remarkable work of nonfiction by an American journalist of Iraqi- Jewish descent. While spending four months as a reporter embedded in the Judiciary Police of Morocco, Braude was eyewitness to a criminal investigation that penetrates the innermost secrets of a tumultuous Arab country. As Braude delves ever more deeply into the case, he comes across “a kaleidoscope of confusion” that touches on satanic magic, sexual scandal and “a lewd, dark story” about the victim and his murderer.

The undeniable affinity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people is very much in evidence in “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating With China’s Other Billion” (Holt: $15) by Michael Levy, a funny, endearing and fascinating account of his sojourn in China, where he quickly earned the nickname of “the Friendship Jew.”

The Peace Corps sent Mike Levy to China in 2005 to teach English in the city of Guiyang, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if Levy is playing for laughs or if his experiences in China were as comical as he makes them out to be. He is still working as a schoolteacher, but he would make a gifted sitcom writer.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a leading figure in Holocaust studies, offers an urgent, intimate, discerning and wholly compelling study of a trial that became an artifact of popular culture in “The Eichmann Trial” (Schocken: $24.95). In a real sense, Lipstadt’s book is a parallel narrative that touches on the famous war crimes trial in Jerusalem and her own experiences in a courtroom when she was sued for libel by Holocaust-denier David Irving. We may think we know a lot about Eichmann and his trial, but Lipstadt is capable of surprising us. Still, Lipstadt’s conclusion is unsurprising: “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember,” she quotes one Holocaust survivor. “And we who were there must tell them.” For Lipstadt, “[t]his may be the most enduring legacy of what occurred in Jerusalem in 1961.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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