10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5777
Each year produces a fresh crop of #JewLit addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5777!
- 1.Fascinating: The Life of Leonard NimoyEven diehard Trekkies might not know the full extent of the Vulcan Salute’s Jewish origins, but Richard Michelson’s new children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy takes young readers straight to the source. Edel Rodriguez’s glowing illustrations of Cohanim with their hands raised during Rosh Hashanah services depict the images Nimoy would conjure from his childhood memories when he came up with Mr. Spock’s iconic gesture and greeting, “Live long and prosper.”
- 2.Among the Living: A NovelThe protagonist of Jonathan Rabb’s novel, a young man named Yitzhak Goldah, survives the Holocaust and lands in Savannah, Georgia, where cousins and their Conservative Jewish community welcome him with open arms. But Yitzhak’s discomfort among them becomes mutual when he courts a widow belonging to the neighboring Reform temple, and tensions between the two congregations come to a head over tashlich services held on the same beach. Things get even more complicated for Yitzhak from there...
- 3.White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in BetweenSome of the most pivotal moments of Judy Batalion’s memoir occur on the Jewish High Holidays: she invites the man who will become her husband to her apartment for the first time for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends; she meets his parents ten days later, ending Yom Kippur in their Hampstead home, where Judy discovers that her bashert’s mother, too, is a hoarder much like her own—a moment she recalls years later to the day, returning home from services with her husband and daughter as a family.
- 4.Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious RitualsWhy do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah? Why does it fall at such an awkward time on the calendar? Why is the mood for the Jewish New Year supposed to be one of “fear and trembling,” and how do we interpret its definition in Leviticus as a remembrance of of the shofar blowing, zikhron truah, as the Jewish New Year? Could it be that Yom Kippur was intended as a joyous celebration? Rabbi Nathan Laufer addresses these and other questions in clear, text-based explanations for readers of all backgrounds.
- 5.Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New YorkRobert Weldon Whalen’s study exposes how American popular culture has been—and continues to be—influenced by the 1940 – 1941 series of trials prosecuting members of Abe Reles’s Brownsville gang for murder, torture, and essentially any “illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived.” The hearings and their outcome sparked a fascination with organized crime and its arbiters as a gritty but glorified symbol of moral evil.
- 6.Good on Paper: A NovelRachel Cantor’s second book is the first novel she ever wrote, and a little less zany than the first one published—but every bit as steeped in Jewish history and ideas. But the strongest Jewish quality of the story, as Cantor highlighted in an interview about the novel, is the centrality of forgiveness in Shira’s development: “My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey."
- 7.One of These Things First: A MemoirSteven Gaines’s memoir begins on a purposeful route through his grandparents’ lingerie shop, slipping out the back door and attempt to kill himself at fifteen years old. Admitted to the famed Payne Whitney clinic, Steven delivers a note confessing “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” to a young resident and begins treatment to “cure” himself of his sexual orientation. The story ends with a difficult apology delivered fifty years later, which Steven struggles to accept.
- 8.Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About LifeRabbi Harold S. Kushner’s succinct reflections on over half a century of Jewish faith, practice, and leadership is indeed an “essential” read for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with lessons including “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook” and “A Love Letter to a World That May or May Not Deserve It.” Kushner’s chapter on forgiveness—as “a Favor You Do Yourself”—draws upon stories from a wide range of religious and secular sources as well as personal anecdotes.
- 9.Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken WorldUnderlying Susan Silverman’s story of raising a family of biological and adopted children is a continuous theme of renewal and fulfillment, rooted in reflections on Jewish values, rituals, and proverbs. This memoir is a great selection for readers looking for an accessible, feel-good meditation on Jewish faith and spirituality for the High Holidays—just make sure to keep a pack of tissues handy.
- 10.Good People: A NovelIsraeli author Nir Baram’s Novel follows two characters at the time of World War II, a German in Poland and the daughter half-Jewish daughter of intellectuals in Russia, each working for their country’s government and intent on survival and success at any cost—even betraying those who saved them. Only in encountering each other will they repent, but what does redemption look like in a time when nations and individuals alike seek only power and the destruction of their enemies?