Porchlight's Owner, President & CEO Rebecca Schwartz shares a reading list for Jewish American heritage month.
Increasingly, individual months are designated for the celebration of a particular group, cause, or behavior. I don’t love the implications of this trend. We should be active allies and celebrants of LGBT pride every month, not just in June! Breast cancer awareness should be the dialogue all year long, not just in November! When it comes to literature, calling attention to underappreciated authors or genres is essential – but we should, for example, read poetry all the days of the year, not just in April! My general skepticism established, I have recently discovered that April is also designated Jewish American heritage month (and, poetically, Arab American Heritage Month). And so, as I am happy to take any opportunity to talk about books that I think are important or enjoyable, I heartily recommend the following. While these titles all have to do with Jewish history or being Jewish (or wanting to be), they are a mixture of nonfiction and novels and vary considerably in tone – from deadly serious to delightful. Most were published some time ago. There are hundreds of other worthy choices that could be included in such a list; this is simply one disparate collection that came together as I surveyed my bookshelves at home.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel by Michael Chabon, Random House
A “towering, swash-buckling thrill of a book” (Newsweek), hailed as Chabon’s “magnum opus” (The New York Review of Books), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a triumph of originality, imagination, and storytelling, an exuberant, irresistible novel that begins in New York City in 1939.
A young escape artist and budding magician named Joe Kavalier arrives on the doorstep of his cousin, Sammy Clay. While the long shadow of Hitler falls across Europe, America is happily in thrall to the Golden Age of comic books, and in a distant corner of Brooklyn, Sammy is looking for a way to cash in on the craze. He finds the ideal partner in the aloof, artistically gifted Joe, and together they embark on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, and the heart of old-fashioned American ambition. From the shared fears, dreams, and desires of two teenage boys, they spin comic book tales of the heroic, fascist-fighting Escapist and the beautiful, mysterious Luna Moth, otherworldly mistress of the night. Climbing from the streets of Brooklyn to the top of the Empire State Building, Joe and Sammy carve out lives, and careers, as vivid as cyan and magenta ink.
Spanning continents and eras, this superb book by one of America’s finest writers remains one of the defining novels of our modern American age.
Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah Lipstadt, Schocken
Over the last decade there has been a noticeable uptick in antisemitic rhetoric and incidents by left-wing groups targeting Jewish students and Jewish organizations on American college campuses. And the reemergence of the white nationalist movement in America, complete with Nazi slogans and imagery, has been reminiscent of the horrific fascist displays of the 1930s. Throughout Europe, Jews have been attacked by terrorists, and some have been murdered.
Where is all this hatred coming from? Is there any significant difference between left-wing and right-wing antisemitism? What role has the anti-Zionist movement played? And what can be done to combat the latest manifestations of an ancient hatred? In a series of letters to an imagined college student and imagined colleague, both of whom are perplexed by this resurgence, acclaimed historian Deborah Lipstadt gives us her own superbly reasoned, brilliantly argued, and certain to be controversial responses to these troubling questions.
Beyond Belief: The American Press And The Coming Of The Holocaust, 1933- 1945 by Deborah Lipstadt, Touchstone
This most complete study to date of American press reactions to the Holocaust sets forth in abundant detail how the press nationwide played down or even ignored reports of Jewish persecutions over a twelve-year period.
The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, Pantheon Books
The bestselling first installment of the graphic novel acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” (Wall Street Journal) and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” (The New Yorker) • PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • One of Variety’s “Banned and Challenged Books Everyone Should Read”
A brutally moving work of art—widely hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever written—Maus recounts the chilling experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats.
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale, weaving the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into an astonishing retelling of one of history's most unspeakable tragedies. It is an unforgettable story of survival and a disarming look at the legacy of trauma.
Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen, Vintage
In these pages, acclaimed author Gish Jen portrays the day-to-day of American multiculturalism with poignancy and wit, introducing us to teenaged Mona Chang, who in 1968 moves with her newly prosperous family to Scarshill, New York. Here, the Chinese are seen as "the new Jews." What could be more natural than for Mona to take this literally—even to the point of converting? As Mona attends temple "rap" sessions and falls in love (with a nice Jewish boy who lives in a tepee), Jen introduces us to one of the most charming and sweet-spirited heroines in recent fiction, a girl who can wisecrack with perfect aplomb even when she's organizing the help in her father's pancake house. On every page, Gish Jen sets our received notions spinning with a wit as dry as a latter-day Jane Austen's.
A job interview goes awry for the exiled patriarch of Israel's First Family in this riotous novel from one of contemporary fiction's most brilliant and audacious writers.
Corbin College, not-quite-upstate New York, winter 1959-1960: Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian—but not an historian of the Jews—is co-opted onto a hiring committee to review the application of an exiled Israeli scholar specializing in the Spanish Inquisition. When Benzion Netanyahu shows up for an interview, family unexpectedly in tow, Blum plays the reluctant host, to guests who proceed to lay waste to his American complacencies. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, the campus novel with the lecture, The Netanyahus is a wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy of blending, identity, and politics—“An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family” that finds Joshua Cohen at the height of his powers.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb, Knopf
Review by Lauren Kohlenberg
Bess Kalb’s debut memoir, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, is a delightfully honest and heartfelt homage to the life and legacy of her beloved grandmother, Bobby.
Covering the tales and secrets of four generations of women, Kalb writes from Bobby’s perspective, detailing everything from life advice to painful accounts of rarely discussed family truths.
Kalb expertly recounts the influence each generation of women had on the next, both good and bad, and details the notion that an unbreakable bond can skip a generation without losing any of its gusto.
With clarity and poignancy, Kalb relays the years of unsolicited (but always lovingly given) advice from her grandmother. From declaring that “San Francisco is for people who wear polar fleece to restaurants and convince each other to go camping," to “Everyone needs the dress that makes her feel like she's able to do anything she wants,” Bobby’s advice was honest, endearing, and everlasting.
This memoir threw me back into memories of my own trio of greats, Clara, Rochelle, and Faye; a group of women three generations my senior. As I read, I thought of them often, with renewed clarity and understanding through Bobby’s perspective. I recalled their own advice (a whole onion is the secret to a good matzoh ball soup) to me and reflected on their influence in my formative years. I can only hope to carry their stories with me as Kalb did with her own grandmother’s, to pass along to generations to come. (LEK)
People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks, Penguin Books
The bestselling novel that follows a rare manuscript through centuries of exile and war, from the author of The Secret Chord and of March, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity by an acclaimed and beloved author. Called “a tour de force” by the San Francisco Chronicle, this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultranationalist fanatics.
The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945 by Lucy Dawidowicz, Bantam
“Books about Nazism are endless, but The War Against the Jews comes to us as a major work of synthesis, providing for the first time a full account of the Holocaust. . . . Dawidowicz has produced a work of high scholarship and profound moral impact.”—Irving Howe, front page review in The New York Times Book Review
Here is the unparalleled account of the most awesome and awful chapter in the moral history of humanity. Lucid, chilling and comprehensive, Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s classic tells the complete story of the Nazi Holocaust—from the insidious evolution of German Anti-Semitism to the ultimate tragedy of the Final Solution.
Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth, Vintage
Now in his mid-thirties, Nathan Zuckerman, a would-be recluse despite his newfound fame as a bestselling author, ventures onto the streets of Manhattan in the final year of the turbulent sixties. Not only is he assumed by his fans to be his own fictional satyr, Gilbert Carnovsky ("Hey, you do all that stuff in that book?"), but he also finds himself the target of admonishers, advisers, and sidewalk literary critics. The recent murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., lead an unsettled Zuckerman to wonder if "target" may be more than a figure of speech.
In Zuckerman Unbound—the second volume of the trilogy and epilogue Zuckerman Bound—the notorious novelist Nathan Zuckerman retreats from his oldest friends, breaks his marriage to a virtuous woman, and damages, perhaps irreparably, his affectionate connection to his younger brother...and all because of his great good fortune!