With a vast literature reaching back some three thousand years, it’s no wonder the Jewish people are known as “the people of the book.” What qualifies as the best of this impressive body of literature is a matter of opinion, of course. But a new book by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman narrows down the field. “One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation” (BlueBridge, 2011) allows the reader to listen in on the Jewish conversation as it has expanded — from the Hebrew Bible and the pivotal period of the rabbis all the way to the pressing topics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It covers the Middle Ages, explores the intellectual Enlightenment of the 1700s and political emancipation a century later, and pays special attention to American Jewish life and the two most critical events in modern Jewish history — the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. It includes works written by artists and poets, historians and theologians, women and men, advocates of every kind of Judaism imaginable. Each of the entries features one work in its historical and cultural context, provides a summary of content and author, and reflects on its relevance for today’s readers..
Here is a brief look at just a few of Hoffman’s picks:
The Book of Isaiah — No prophet matches the influence of Isaiah, son of Amoz, who inhabited Jerusalem during the last half of the eighth century BCE. The book that bears his name is filled with lines that have become commonplace today – such “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
From Politics to Piety – One of the earliest books by Hartford native Jacob Neusner, the son of the founder of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, and one of the most prolific and influential Jewish scholars of the last century. The book is a sterling study of the Pharisees, central to the foundational narrative of both Jews and Christians.
The Zohar — When people today speak of Jewish mysticism they usually have in mind Kabbalah, a catchall phrase for a set of doctrines and practices that first emerged in 12th century Provence. A century later, kabbalistic beliefs crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, where they found their most formative expression in the Zohar.
In My Father’s Court – This book of fiction that relives a series of cases brought to the Eastern European court of Jewish law presided over by the father of Isaac Bashevis Singer is much more than a reminiscence and more than a chronicle of Talmudic justice; it is a first-rate story by one of the world’s most celebrated Yiddish writers.
Poems (1891 – 1934) – When it comes to modern Hebrew poets, it has been said that there is Hayyim Nahman Bialik…and then there is everyone else. For insight, artistry, and influence, no one matches Bialik.
American Judaism – Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History, won the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year Award for this book, praised as “the single best description of American Judaism during its 350 years on American soil.”
Awake and Sing! (1935) – Clifford Odets’s first full-length play is a moving memorial to the Great Depression and the Jewish family. Its bold presentation of Jewish American life in the 1930s, is hardly a pretty picture – and, perhaps, something Jews today would rather overlook.
The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (1975) – Hundreds of books provide overviews of the enforced descent into the Nazi hell. But for over 35 years, Lucy S. Dawidowicz’ book has stood out. Perhaps no other single book better captures the facts of the horror, alongside the imponderable: how was it possible that human nature and civilized society let it happen?
Only Yesterday (1945) – Shmuel Yosef Agnon followed in the footsteps of Bialik as Israel’s leading literary figure. This work is his gifted tale of the way life really was back when the Zionist settlers built up the homeland.
My Name is Asher Lev (1972) – The story of the fictitious Asher Lev is , in part, that of its author Chaim Potok. But equally, it is the story of anyone faced with a compelling religious heritage on one hand, an artistic search for truth on the other, and no easy way to resolve the tension between them. It stands out because it is not just another trite example of the struggle between traditionalism and secularism. It is the conflict between the particularism of tradition and the universalism of art.
Jewish Literacy (1991) – A marvelous compendium of everything you need to know about Judaism to claim basic literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. A single-volume, encyclopedic dictionary of Jewish life, broad enough to say something about pretty much everything Jewish, yet deep enough on every page to make it all worth reading. The choices are spectacular, and the style is compelling.
The Puttermesser Papers (1997) – The heroine of Cynthia Ozick’s novel typifies the ideal that most American Jews embrace; an intense search for justice; a virtual worship of culture; a passionate love of the arts; a fierce (some say neurotic) faith in education; and an insistent hope for a better day – even if life doesn’t usually work out that way.
Bee Season (2000) – Can institutional Judaism survive if its very essence as an institution is extrinsic to the direct experience of the spiritual? It is this larger question that Myla Goldberg’s novel addresses – and it does so brilliantly.
Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) – Linda Hobson’s novel explores an insidious system in which anti-Jewish bias has become embedded deeply enough so that even those who hold it are unaware of it. The book is testimony to the many Jews who filtered prophetic consciousness into active opposition to the evils of their day.
The Mishnah: Pirkei Avot (ca. second to third centuries CE) – The small portion of the Jewish legal code known as the Mishnah is Pirkei Avot (literally, Chapters of the Fathers) – a book that one reads again and again, going from commentary to commentary, to get ever deeper insight into the philosophy of being Jewish. As Pirkei Avot itself says of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”
Guide for the Perplexed (ca. 1200) – This book is a presentation of the philosophical beliefs of Moses Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), one of the most towering intellectual figures of the Middle Ages. Ever since the Guide appeared, thoughtful men and women have been devouring it for guidance.
The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (1910) – This lyric and at times messianic collection of short stories by Alberto Gerchunoff recalls the arrival of Jews escaping from czarist Russia in Argentina.