((JR)) — When I spoke with novelist Elizabeth Graver in August about her novel “Kantika” — inspired by her own Turkish Jewish family — I asked her how she managed to breathe life into a tired genre like the Jewish family saga.
“I want the characters to be flawed and complex, and for the turns that they take to come out of their intersections with both history and their own very particular circumstances,” she told me.
The flawed and the complex; the historic and the particular. These are the qualities that I look for in a good book. Below are some of the Jewish books I read and enjoyed in 2023. Nearly all reflect Jewish reality before Oct. 7; I suspect next year’s list will include a slew of books dealing with the crisis in Israel or will be read through the lens of the war.
Jonathan Rosen’s memoir, “The Best Minds: A Story Of Friendship, Madness, And The Tragedy Of Good Intentions,” deserves all the accolades it has received. The former arts editor of the Forward writes about his friendship with Michael Laudor, a Yale Law School graduate whose brilliance and schizophrenia made him a sort of poster child for the successful mainstreaming of the mentally ill until it all went tragically, shockingly wrong. It’s also a beautifully told story about growing up precocious and Jewish in suburban New Rochelle, New York, and how Judaism can be both a balm and an astringent for those under the throes of psychosis.
In “Happily,” fairy tales are the prompts for a series of dreamy and rigorous biographical essays by Sabrina Orah Mark on “motherhood, and marriage, and America, and weather, and loneliness, and failure, and inheritance, and love.” And, as the New York Times noted, Mark deals with raising two “Black Jewish boys in a time of rising antisemitism.”
I also enjoyed another collection of biographical essays, “Immigrant Baggage,” by Boston College professor Maxim Shrayer. A former Soviet refusenik who immigrated to the United States in 1987, Shrayer writes about life as a “translingual” father, husband and writer who finds wisdom and the absurd in all the languages that he speaks.
“Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History” is a page-turning literary detective story by Benjamin Balint, exploring the all-too-short life and unlikely legacy of enigmatic Polish-Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Balint’s book prompted me to finally read Schulz’s best-known book, the hallucinatory “The Street of Crocodiles,” and two contemporary works of fiction that draw on Schulz’s biography: “The Prague Orgy” by Philip Roth and “The Messiah of Stockholm” by Cynthia Ozick.
In “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature,” Joshua Lambert debunks the myth that Jewish intellectuals had an iron grip on what was read and reviewed in the post-war years — even as he celebrates the era’s undeniable burst of Jewish creativity and influence. One of those influential figures was Robert Gottlieb, the legendary editor at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, whose charming, gossipy memoir, “Avid Reader,” I avidly read (actually, listened to: Gottlieb narrated the audiobook) after he died in June. That led me to Gottlieb’s 2013 biography, “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt,” which helps the reader understand the appeal of the beloved French Jewish actress in the context of the theatrical conventions of her day.
Bernhardt’s florid stagecraft couldn’t have been more different from the naturalistic acting style that Isaac Butler describes in “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.” The Jewish acting teachers Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Harold Klurman play central roles in Butler’s engaging history of the modern theater.
And just before the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, I read “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama” by the Jerusalem-based Jewish writer Nathan Thrall. The book, a challenging account of a deadly school bus crash in East Jerusalem, is a forensic examination of the inequalities and indignities that stateless Palestinians face on a daily basis. You don’t have to agree with Thrall’s politics to learn from the realities and complexities that he describes.
Many of the short stories in Iddo Gefen’s collection “Jerusalem Beach” start with a high concept — What if a start-up could manufacture dreams? Or a radio could pick up the thoughts of passers-by? — but they are always grounded in the Israeli reality. Indeed, one of his concepts, about a geriatric soldier who returns to the front, foreshadowed a real-life event, when retired general Noam Tibon raced from Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Nahal Oz to rescue his son’s family from Hamas terrorists.
James McBride’s “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” was inspired by his own Jewish grandmother, who ran a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1930s and ’40s. McBride’s recreation of the place and time is a rollicking story of two communities coming together around a common, racist enemy.
I love how “The Golem of Brooklyn” starts with a summary of a novel that Adam Mansbach decided not to write, then literally lurches into a hilarious imagining of an avenging Jewish Frankenstein’s monster coming to life in one of the less-hip neighborhoods of Brooklyn. It’s a Jewish road trip novel that confronts the persistence of antisemitism.
If you are yearning for a sprawling satirical novel about a liberal Jewish family making spectacularly bad choices, then “Hope” by Andrew Ridker is the book for you. Set in Brookline, Massachusetts, “Hope” has good, smart fun with synagogue social justice committees, Birthright Israel trips and Obama-era optimism.
I interviewed a number of authors this year about their books:
Eric Alterman took a deep dive into the political and personal relationships between American Jews and Israel in “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.”
Jenny Caplan’s book, “Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials,” deals with the way North American Jewish comedy has evolved since World War II, with a focus on how humorists relate to Judaism as a religion.
In “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew,” Jeremy Dauber describes the parody Brooks mastered as “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.”
In “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” the religion reporter and writing professor Jeff Sharlet chronicled his recent journeys across America interviewing QAnon acolytes, Christian nationalists, proud misogynists, unrepentant January 6ers, armed militia men and strict anti-abortion activists — all still in thrall to Donald Trump.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book, “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” is about a generation of Jews and new Americans “bent on saving face and determined to be, if not exemplary, at least impeccably respectable.”
Rabbi Diane Fersko wrote “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism” in response to congregants who were experiencing anti-Jewish hatred as they never had before.
In “Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair,” art conservator Rosa Lowinger, uses the tools and materials of her profession — stone, tile, metal, marble — as metaphors to tell how her Jewish family came to Cuba and fled after the revolution, and what they found and lost when they settled in Miami. “Try as I might,” she writes, “I can never get my mother to understand that conservation is not about repairing what is old. It’s about sustaining all fabric of human endeavor, what people treasure, where we live, and what we honor, no matter when it was made.”
is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of (JR) or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.