New and Noteworthy Books

Tradition Online | December 29, 2020

Jonathan Boyarin, Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side (Princeton University Press)
Part memoir, part anthropological field study, Boyarin documents his time as an insider/outsider at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, and the role of yeshiva study within Judaism and American culture more broadly. Along the way he offers insight to the concept of Torah Lishmah, “study for its own sake.” [Read introduction or listen to the author on the engaging NBN podcast.]

Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, edited and translated by Miriam Udel (New York University Press)
This thematically arranged anthology of Yiddish children’s literature in translation brings to the readers of English an eye-opening array of often little known authors and their beguiling stories. If all you (or your students) know of Yiddish culture is “Fiddler on the Roof” in this book you’ll discover stories, fables and folklore from New York and Latin America in addition to he expected shtetl tales. The book would be excellent for an intrepid younger reader, as well as a rich resource for educators and researchers.

V’Shamru and The Search for Meaning, edited by David Birnbaum and Martin S. Cohen (New Paradigm Matrix)
These two volumes are recent titles in an ambitious series of essay anthologies on central ideas in Jewish thought. The first organizes itself around themes in Shabbat observance and the holy day’s role in Jewish life; the second is presented as an homage to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Esther in America: The Scroll’s Interpretation in and Impact on the Unites States, edited by Stuart W. Halpern (Maggid Books)
This engaging anthology explores the role that the Book of Esther has played in the American imagination and political culture (from colonial days and on), as well as within American-Jewish life and literature. With the Megilla’s focus on Jewish access and proximity to political power, and the complexity of protecting Jewish self-interest amidst a larger, often welcoming, sometimes hostile host society, the most well-known of biblical books serves as both a lens and mirror to consider these topics. Of interest as well are the sections on Esther (and its themes) in pop-culture, as a touchstone for contemporary Jewish feminism, and within the discourse around moral society. 

Tova Ganzel, Ezekiel: From Destruction to Restoration (Maggid Studies in Tanakh)
In the latest installment in Maggid’s Studies in Tanakh series, Tova Ganzel, of Bar-Ilan University, puts her finger on the uniqueness of Ezekiel as a prophet of dichotomies: He resides in Babylonia but focuses on Jerusalem (and its destruction); his prophecies range from furious rebuke to comforting consolations of future redemption. As with many of this series’ volumes, Ganzel focusses on literary style and historical context. [Read introduction and chapter 1 here.]

Adam Kirsch, The Blessing & The Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century (Norton)
Having secured his place as one of our generations’ premier literary critics, Adam Kirsch continues his guided tour of the Jewish bookshelf – following his review of the Daf Yomi, and his readings of the classic Jewish canon, The Blessing & The Curse brings us to a survey of Jewish literature (in various languages) of the previous century. The book’s essays are organized around four centers of gravity in 20th century Jewish literature and culture: Europe, America, Israel, and the worldwide endeavor to reimagine Judaism within modernity. Whether you are already an avid reader of Kafka, Phillip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Yehuda Amichai, S.Y. Agnon (or about 25 other authors whose work is sampled and analyzed), or are in search of an excellent primer to be introduced to these classics, Kirsch is your best available guide.

Rachel Manekin, The Rebellion of the Daughters: Jewish Women Runaways in Habsburg Galicia (Princeton University Press)
Historian Rachel manikin did a years-long deep dive into often unexplored archives to produce this portrait of the flight of young Jewish women from their Orthodox, mostly Hasidic, homes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In extreme cases, hundreds of these women sought refuge in a Kraków convent, where many converted to Catholicism. Manekin organizes her story through case studies of three distinct girls, each of whom made the break from their homes for a distinct reason—theological, in search of forbidden romance, or in the hopes of attaining a worldly education. In each case, we learn of the struggles of the families to recover and reconnect with the wayward daughters. An engaging chapter discusses how such stories were portrayed in Hebrew and Yiddish literature and theater, and serves as an excellent demonstration of using fiction and works of the imagination to enliven historical study. [Listen to the author discuss this title on the NBN podcast.]

Hayyim Angel, Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology (Kodesh Press)
In another installment in his prodigious output of Tanakh studies, Angel’s most recent collection focuses on the intersection between the rigorous textual analysis readers of TRADITION have grown to expect from this author, and engagement with larger issues in religious life and thought. 

Swimming Against the Current: Reimagining Jewish Tradition in the Twenty-First Century – Essays in Honor of Chaim Seidler-Feller, edited by Shaul Seidler Feller and David N. Myers (Academic Studies Press)
This rich collection of essays covers four categories of special interest for the volume’s honoree, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director: Bible and Talmud, Jewish Thought and Theology, Modern Jewish History and Sociology, and Zionism and Jewish Politics.

Hasidism: Writings on Devotion, Community and Life in the Modern World, edited by Ariel Evan Mayse and Sam Berrin Shonkoff (Brandeis University Press)
This source anthology spans Hasidic literature from the earliest generation of the mass spiritual movement through present-day writers, all occupied with a set of central questions. Principally: What is the relationship between God and the world and between God and humanity and the human individual? The final section is to be noted for its inclusion of more recent Hasidic women writers.

Cedric Cohen-Skalli, Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography (Brandeis University Press)
Few medieval Jewish figures lived lives as fascinating as Abravanel—so the first new full-length biography of this rabbi, exegete, philosopher, and statesman in almost 70 years is itself noteworthy. The book weaves between his activities in different European centers in the aftermath of the 1492 Expulsion, analyzing his most significant literary and philosophical works in each time and place.

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