The Jewish Humanist, November 1986
November is the month when we think about books we should be reading, especially books about Jewish history and Jewish culture, philosophy and ethics.
During the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services I either used or made reference to books which many people subsequently wanted to read. In response to their request I am presenting the following recommended reading list. Some of the books are easy to read. Others are painful. All are important.
Shcharansky by Martin Gilbert – This is a powerful biography of one of the genuine Jewish heroes of this century. As the son of a devoted communist, Shcharansky repudiated the life of comfortable conformity and became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents. Fearlessly challenging the Soviet government on human rights issues and demanding the right of emigration for himself and all Russian Jews who wanted to leave. Shcharansky was ultimately imprisoned and subjected to torture and humiliation. The story of his personal resistance – with its extraordinary courage and with its intensification of his Jewish identity is inspirational reading. Gilbert, the historian of the Holocaust, relied heavily for his information on the letters Shcharansky wrote to his wife Avital while in jail.
The Affair by Jean-Marie Brevin – Brevin is a successful French lawyer who is fascinated with the famous Dreyfus Affair and the political drama which surrounded it. When an obscure Jewish officer is convicted in 1894 of giving military secrets to the German enemy, France explodes into a mighty confrontation between those who think him innocent and those who think him guilty. The Anti -Dreyfusards want to use his conviction and the anti-Semitism which accompanies it to overthrow the fragile Third Republic and replace it with the elitist rule of monarchy, army and church. The Pro-Dreyfusards, like Emile Zola, want to use the case to promote a secular democratic state. The details of the story are so compelling that you cannot put the book down once you start reading it.
Shoah, a documentary with Claude Lanzman – No film has more devastatingly revealed the horror of the Holocaust than this production by this eccentric French Jewish director. Using none of the usual “body scenes” of most Holocaust presentations, Lanzmann relies only on the verbal testimony of victims and observers. The imagination of the viewer takes over from there. The most powerful scene – recorded in this book version of the movie script – is the interview with the barber from Czestochowa who is spared at Treblinka to cut the hair of other victims before gassing. The Jews were turned into the executioners of their own people.
Arab and Jew by David Shipler – Few books have revealed the di lemma of modern Israel more than this powerful commentary by the former New York Times reporter in Jerusalem. Two nations – Arab and Jew – live within the boundaries of the Jewish state. How do they see each other? How strong is their mutual fear and anger? What are the possibilities for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Shipler attempts to answer these questions through his assessment of dozens of Jews and Arabs from every walk of life and from every political and religious persuasion. The revelations are startling and frightening. The most pathetic story is the tale of love between a Palestinian radical woman and a Jewish right-wing Likudnik who discover that there is too much hate to allow for their love. No book has presented the problem of mutual intolerance more vividly and more dramatically.
Falling in Love by Francesco Alberoni – This Italian classic, recently translated into English, allows sociologist Alberoni to explore the meaning of love. He makes a very sharp distinction between falling in love with all its anguish and euphoria and love itself. Falling in love he regards as a disease. It happens to people who are experiencing strong senses of personal inadequacy and who project unrealistically on to the beloved what they themselves do not think they have but want for themselves. The result is that most romantic- love, like most revolutionary fervor, ends in disappointment. Or it may resolve itself into something healthier and realistic, which he calls love. Alberoni’s exploration is a unique assessment of an important emotion.
World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A novel by Doctorow is always a treat, especially when it is a nostalgia trip. A Jewish boy in New York in 1939 (most likely Doctorow himself) is taken to that wondrous vision of the future called the World’s Fair. The naive excitement of an enthusiastic child allows the wonder and innocence of the reader himself to reawaken.