Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s novel in three parts explores yearning and betrayal

With the passing of Meir Shalev this year and A.B. Yehoshua last year, few stellar writers remain from the generations that created and grew up alongside the State of Israel and formed Israeli literature as we know it.

For those of us who engage with Israel largely through its culture, it’s important to know the literary landscape as it stands today, beyond the shadow cast by the nation’s formative authors.

‘The World and All That It Holds’ traces the tragic journey of a gay Jewish refugee from Sarajevo

“The World and All That It Holds” is surely one of the more audacious titles of any book I’ve read. But Aleksandar Hemon’s sprawling novel, which traces the long and tragic journey of refugees displaced by conflicts that stained the first half of the 20th century, has an epic quality that justifies the title.

The novel’s central character is Rafael Pinto, a Sarajevan Jew with a penchant for poetry and opium. He feels distanced from the traditional Judaism in which he has been steeped, and his alienation is compounded by the fact that, while his family attempts to find him an appropriate bride, he is sexually attracted to other men.

New book explores ‘magical philosemitism’ in modern-day Poland

Poland’s relationship to Jewishness remains a fraught issue that stimulates much debate. (I know, having witnessed some of those heated arguments.)

In “Resurrecting the Jew: Nationalism, Philosemitism, and Poland’s Jewish Revival,” Geneviève Zubrzycki, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and a faculty member at the school’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, provides deep insights into the contemporary picture, drawing from a decade of fieldwork and close study.

Unconventional Torah commentaries add valuable perspectives to the mix

For those of us whose primary encounter with the text of the Torah is reading along in synagogue with the aid of English translations, we are missing a key dimension of traditional Jewish engagement with the sacred text.

The Torah has long been studied alongside commentaries that have enabled us to deepen our understanding — and two newly published books add some valuable perspectives to the mix.

New novel from ‘Family Secrets’ podcast host explores aftermath of tragedy

Unspooling long-held family secrets has become a specialty of Dani Shapiro’s. She has hosted the popular “Family Secrets” podcast for several years, and her five published memoirs have often explored suppressed knowledge within her own family. With “Signal Fires,” Shapiro returns to fiction for the first time in 15 years, but she has not strayed far in terms of subject matter. Her new novel probes the long-term cost of secrets, as viewed through the Wilfs, a nonobservant Jewish family in a New York suburb.

Pertinent Perspectives on Jewish Holiday Traditions

By Howard Freedman, Director, Jewish Community Library

As we approach the New Year, Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (Fig Tree Books, 2017) can be a good point of entry to the upcoming holidays and their possibilities. As someone who grew up with a very limited repertoire of observances, Pogrebin decided to immerse herself in the entire holiday cycle from Elul to Tisha b’Av and chronicle her learning journey. Her book is a deeply personal reflection on her, peppered with wisdom from the many rabbis and teachers she consulted. I found it a particularly striking book to revisit at this moment, as the highly experiential and communal dimensions of holiday celebration that were essential to Pogrebin’s path of discovery have represented a great challenge during our pandemic era. I have become especially cognizant of the impact of the broken rhythms in my own life, and I’m inspired to make this year one of returning to some of the practices I’ve let go.

Particularly because few books on Jewish holidays depict the varieties of observances across regions, Esther Shkalim’s generously illustrated A Mosaic of Israel’s Traditions: Unity Through Diversity (Devora Publishing, 2006) remains a unique resource. It highlights the rich holiday traditions of many lands—ranging from special clothing to ceremonial meals to ritual practices—as collected by Israeli students from their families. The book gives the reader a valuable window on the tremendous diversity within the Jewish world.

Both books can be borrowed from the Jewish Community Library. My Jewish Year can also be read as an eBook or audiobook through the Library’s electronic collection, available at no charge to Bay Area residents. 

Debut short-story collection by young Israeli writer is One Bay One Book choice

The short stories that make up Omer Friedlander’s “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land,” this year’s selection for the Jewish Community Library’s One Bay One Book program, are tightly written, intimate portraits of lives lived in Israel. Not accounts of larger-than-life heroic lives or devastatingly tragic lives bound up in the constant political violence, but beautifully crafted tales of individuals from many backgrounds reaching out for love and connection across ethnic and religious boundaries.

New books shine light on sexual abuse in Jewish world

It can be difficult to recommend books one finds deeply upsetting. But as I call attention to two new books that cast light on sexual abuse in the Jewish world, I’m cognizant of the importance of not looking away when it comes to this extremely difficult topic.

Stephen Mills, the author of “Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood,” experienced hardship from the beginning of his life. His father, a World War II vet, had developed multiple sclerosis and died when Mills was 4 years old. When Mills’ mother remarried, adjusting to the new situation was painful.