TRADITION’s 2024 Book Endorsements – Part II

Tradition Online | July 3, 2024

TRADITION concludes this year’s installment of our Editorial Board’s selections for recommended summer reading.

Read the second round of recommendations below (and see Part I here).

Congratulations to Steven Smith of Scarsdale, NY, for correctly predicting the highest number of books to appear on this year’s list. Enjoy your prize winnings – a subscription to TRADITION (join him!).

Nicola Lacey, A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream (Oxford University Press)
David Shatz

H.L.A. Hart (1907-1992), Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford, among other positions, was the most important philosopher of law of the 20th century. He is credited with reinventing this now bustling, densely-populated field, infusing it with methods and insights of analytic philosophy. As one obituary put it: “Then, there was only him. Now, a hundred flowers bloom. This is his lasting contribution.” Lacey’s biography elucidates both the pages of Hart’s oeuvre and the inner life of the man behind them, quoting at length from numerous letters and diary entries. The arresting subtitle is taken from a lecture Hart gave about a conceptual dilemma for philosophy of law, but is meant to capture his life as well.

Readers of Hart’s works see a confident, assertive, and powerful mind, and rightly surmise that he attained the pinnacle of academic and social success. But “Herbert” (as Lacey calls him throughout) often felt insecure. He harbored doubts about his abilities and about how others viewed him—“a long-standing sense of not being what he actually was.” He also struggled with sexual identity and Jewish identity. Emotionally, he was torn between “his sense of being English and his sense of being Jewish,” the latter heightened at times by antisemitism. Philosophically, he was torn between secular liberalism and an appreciation of cultural heritage. Not surprisingly, he experienced ambivalences vis-à-vis Israel.

Hart suffered through periods of depression, one of them brought on by false accusations that his wife Jenifer (herself a prominent intellectual) was a Soviet spy, and perhaps he an abettor while he worked in British intelligence. His condition curtailed his replies to the speakers at a conference in his honor at Hebrew University in 1984. Ever anxious (even in “panic”) about his projects, he spent over ten years working on a full reply to critics, especially his student and arch-critic Ronald Dworkin, who had become his successor at Oxford at Hart’s behest. His energy waning, and frustrated by Dworkin’s becoming a moving target, Hart died without completing the response, and it fell upon others to construct and publish a reply based on drafts and notes. Although complexity of character, public-triumph-despite-private-turmoil, and the impostor syndrome are hardly novel motifs, Lacey develops them keenly.

For those who know only Hart’s writings, the book affords an enriched context and perspective. It explains the process behind the product—how Hart worked and what was going on in his life to facilitate or inhibit particular scholarly projects. And there is much of interest concerning Hart’s interactions with (and opinions of) colleagues, friends, students, and intellectual adversaries. I learned also that Hart was descended from a rabbinic family, regularly joined Isaiah Berlin’s Seder, and bequeathed his library to the Hebrew University, all the while bearing negativity to religion. Biography aside, Lacey’s robust philosophical summaries will draw readers into Hart’s immensely impactful thought world and into philosophy of law more broadly. That is a boon, because philosophy of law is of massive relevance to today’s debates in America about constitutional interpretation—and to philosophy of halakha.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission: A Novel (Grand Central Publishing)
Erica Brown

When this novel opens, Portia Nathan had been working in higher education admissions for sixteen years at two Ivy League universities: Dartmouth, her alma mater, and Princeton. She had read thousands of applications and visited hundreds of schools, yet she still nursed doubts about her fitness for the job. This had nothing to do with competency and experience and everything to do with the foundational nature of the work: “sometimes I feel as if it isn’t fair that it’s me making those decisions.”

Portia fixated on the pain of rejection and the way that it can bruise a hard-working, excellent student forever. She focused less on her role in opening doors for all the fortunate students armed with the confidence of a congratulatory letter and more on the aftermath of a “no” for an anxious student. For her, “They all have different agendas, but the one thing they have in common is that they’re angry at you.” Portia is unsure her colleagues feel this way. She wishes she could toughen up.

“It wasn’t a question of who deserved,” Portia observed. Portia’s problem wasn’t that there were high school students who didn’t merit an education at Princeton but that nearly everyone applying did. Who was she to select one over another? When she reflects on the judgment inherent in her career, she becomes overwhelmed, “the very delicate balance between ambition and accomplishment, daring and security, made more volatile still by the essential adolescence of the average college applicant, made these decisions of massive – but unknowable – personal impact.”

Portia also understood what a “yes” could do for a student not nurtured on elite academic ambitions. She was smitten with an autodidact raised by two parents who work in a grocery store. Jeremiah failed out of public school because he was bored and thought his teachers idiots; Portia knows that admission will change the entire trajectory of his life: “And this alive kid, this hungry kid, shouldn’t he have the broadest possible range of brilliant outcomes?” But Portia herself is stuck in a life without brilliant outcomes. In the novel, she reaches the age when she could have given birth to an incoming Princeton student but has remained unmarried and childless. She mourned a broken relationship by staying in her office for hours on end opening and closing orange folders and ignoring the basic needs of food and sleep. She gave her best years to other people’s children. The axis of her own future will depend on an important romantic shift and confrontation with her own complex past.

Two of Hanff Korelitz’ other novels, The Latecomers and The Plot, share university life in the background and offer satisfying and unexpected twists and turns. In each of these books she creates an immersive universe. In Admission, she begins each chapter with a snippet of a mediocre college essay mired in clichés. She recognizes the fault lines in the genre because she worked in Princeton’s Office of Admission for two seasons. She also knew that she had found gold in those Princeton orange folders.

Gatekeepers who are complete strangers judge us for the entirety of our lives. Admission grows us. Rejection shrinks us. Admission knows us all too well. What could be more interesting and morally thorny than those who have the power to determine someone else’s presumed happiness?

Avishai David, The Warmth and Radiance: of Gedolei Yisroel: Personal Accounts, Encounters, and Experiences (Mosaica)
Menachem Genack

For me, this book of personal stories about rabbinic figures from the past that Rabbi Avishai David has encountered throughout his life is deeply moving, filled with nostalgia and charm. It contains anecdotes about well-known figures alongside those whose place in our memory has been insufficiently preserved; their inclusion here serves as a partial corrective.

Some of the stories are classics, albeit R. David’s involvement is often unknown. For example, he reports that when he began YU’s high school, he asked “a Torah scholar with a fiery red beard” to watch his belongings while he went to play basketball, entirely unaware of the individual’s identity.

When I approached him with this request, he responded in English with a European accent, ‘What is my status? Am I a shomer chinam, a shomer sachar, a socher or a sho’el?’…. He then proceeded to learn with me the laws of the varying and diverse shomrim of Parshas Mishpatim …. Essentially, all my plans for the day were foiled and scrapped by this extended peroration, but I was happy I found a shomer to take care of my things.

Over the day, R. David “noticed that the rabbi carried his Gemara in one hand and my briefcase in the other wherever he went.” After a few days of this, R. Dovid Lifschitz saw what was going on and informed the ninth grader that it was absolutely inappropriate to use R. Ahron Soloveichik as a bag carrier! “The next day, [R. Ahron] saw me and asked me why I hadn’t given him my briefcase that day. ‘I can assure you that I carried out my responsibilities as a shomer chinam. I wasn’t guilty of peshi’ah or negligence whatsoever.’”

R. David reminisces about other figures we both knew – such as R. Nisson Alpert, R. Noach Borenstein, and R. Yerucham Gorelick. R. Alpert was a talmid muvhak of R. Moshe Feinstein, and would stay up all Thursday night studying with R. Dovid Feinstein in preparation for R. Moshe’s Friday shiurim I also fondly remember discussing the events of the day with R. Nisson at The Greasy Spoon, the restaurant then adjacent to YU, and his sharp sense of humor and down-to-earth attitude.

R. Borenstein and R. Gorelick were both students of R. Velvel Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav. R. David recounts that when he asked R. Borenstein for advice about attending yeshiva in Israel, he responded that it was not necessary because at YU he could hear the shiurim of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the finest embodiment of the “Torah of Bavel” which is deeper than that of Eretz Yisrael. I similarly remember asking him about the possibility of teaching us Kodshim; he responded that there was no need because we already had the opportunity of studying with the Rav, who he said was even greater than his uncle.

Another episode involves R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who encouraged his students to rally for famine-ravaged Biafra. R. Borenstein and R. Gorelick berated him for taking his students out of the beit midrash for what they considered to be an insufficient cause. R. David watched as R. Lichtenstein “stood there silently listening and accepting their fiery mussar.” When he asked R. Lichtenstein if he agreed with his critics, R. Lichtenstein replied in the negative. “I then asked him why he didn’t respond.… He answered in his typical purity and righteousness, ‘When you have the merit of being given mussar by two of the greatest talmidim of the Brisker Rav, you are quiescent and listen to them attentively and assiduously.’”

The longest chapter is about our shared rebbe, the Rav. One anecdote captures the duality of the Rav who did not suffer fools gladly, and thereby ensured that his students did not speak up without proper forethought. And yet, two students in the shiur were given great indulgence to speak their minds without fear of the Rav’s retribution. R. David writes that he was puzzled by the Rav’s uncharacteristic forbearance, until he discovered that the two students were converts, and the Rav displayed toward them a heightened sensitivity.

R. David did not heed R. Borenstein’s advice and went to study in Israel, which gave him the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with additional Gedolim. In particular, his memories of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach are fascinating. To anyone who knew the figures in the book and wants to relive the experience of their presence, or anyone who did not know them but wants to gain a glimpse of the bygone era of these larger-than-life Gedolim, R. David’s memoir is a must-read.

Marilynne Robinson, Reading Genesis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Chaim Strauchler

Marilynne Robinson is a great modern novelist. Her Housekeeping and Gilead series delicately paint the human struggles of her midcentury midwestern characters to reveal timeless truths. In charting their sorrows, she recalls biblical themes, including reckless sin, determined righteousness, patient faith, and heroic forgiveness. John Ames’ cautious wisdom carries something of the patriarchs within his ruminating sense for time; generations past and future are pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. It is therefore not surprising that Robinson’s readers anticipated the recent publication of her book on Genesis with such great excitement.

As with her novels, nothing is without disappointment. Jewish readers should approach Reading Genesis with caution. While bringing her highly attuned literary sensitivities, she reads the Hebrew Bible from within a tradition not our own. Most fundamentally, she reads the work as a human creation – admittedly that of divinely inspired humans. Yet, subtle differences might go unnoticed. She does not read Genesis with basic interpretive strategies of our Sages. She reads Lemekh the descendant of Cain (4:18) as identical to Lemekh descendant of Seth (5:24). In referencing traditional Jewish views of the text, she does not delve beneath the JPS translation. She fails to make use of classic rabbinic works and complexities that Jewish readers take for granted. She makes a villain of Rebecca. Her Calvinist faith enters her reading of the patriarchs. For her, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not paragons of virtue. Rather, they are embodiments of a divine selection that relies upon grace and not inherent worthiness. God, for reasons all God’s own, selects the prodigal over the righteous.

Robinson frames her analysis in her books’ first lines, ”The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil. It must acknowledge in a meaningful way the darkest aspects of the reality we experience, and it must reconcile them with the goodness of God and of Being itself against which this darkness stands out so sharply.” For her, Genesis reconciles evil by preferring mercy over justice. Repeatedly, despite dire warnings of punishment, God forgives. For Robinson, the Bible claims, “Mercy is nearer than justice to Godliness, and that mercy can release an abundance far exceeding whatever might come of attempting to impose justice as we mortals understand that word.”

Robinson makes use of Ancient Near Eastern texts by way of contrast to Genesis’ humanism. “Let us say that God lets human beings be human beings, and that His will is accomplished through or despite them but is never dependent on them. The remarkable realism of the Bible, the voices it captures, the characterization it achieves, are products of an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature.” It is this love of the human with all its foibles and heroism that ultimately joins her work as a novelist and theologian. She sees within God the novelist’s love for human frailty and its beauties. As a novelist loves human imperfection, God loves His imperfect creatures. While a Jewish reader might enjoy the neatness of such a theology – it is not our own. In sharing Robinson’s work, we must make careful distinctions for ourselves and our students. 

Haim Sabato, Beshafrir Hevyon (Yediot Sefarim)
Isaac Selter, Managing Editor

Rav Kook writes about the lofty spiritual value of culture, which provides expression for deep concepts that are hidden in the recesses of an artist’s soul. Therefore, says R. Kook, an authentic Torah society in Eretz Yisrael demands genuine Torah culture—including art, poetry, and literature—produced by artists grounded in Torah and kedusha. Rav Haim Sabato, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder Birkat Moshe and winner of prestigious literary prizes, is one of these artists. Sabato himself sees his works—overflowing with faith-oriented poetic expression—as a fulfillment of Rav Kook’s word. Both in Beshafrir Hevyon and in his earlier work, Ti’um Kavvanot (Adjusting Sights), Sabato’s seamless weaving of pesukim, ma’amarei Hazal, piyyut, together with raw emotion and experience (both religious and simply human) are what contribute to a still-burgeoning Religious Zionist culture, already filled with religiously moving music, poetry, and literature.

In Beshafrir Hevyon, Sabato’s series of vignettes captures the autobiographical aliya and kelita stories of Sabato’s family, friends, teachers, and students. The anecdotes tell of the human suffering, idealism, and bravery that drove children and adults alike to leave the exile, which was speedily and violently closing in on its Jewish communities, and escape to what they saw as the emerging redemption. However, Sabato’s writing touches on the delicate historical juncture of the hester panim of the exile and Holocaust, and the he’arat panim of Jewish sovereignty and kibbutz galuyot. In relaying the miraculous stories of return, Sabato can leave his readers with the feeling that God no longer conceals Himself; but, in almost the same breath, Sabato conveys that God may still yet be “be-shafrir hevyon – in a canopy of concealment” reflected by both the fresh wounds of diaspora life and, most notably for Sabato, the Yom Kippur War. [Read a translated chapter from the book in TRADITION, Summer 2023.]

Fifty years on from Sabato’s war experiences, Beshafrir Hevyon is ever so relevant. This ratzo va-shov movement of God’s concealment and revelation is still part and parcel of national-religious life in Israel. October 7th, and all that has come in its wake, reminds us that redemption can be a painfully slow process—but one that advances forward, nonetheless. Israel’s current multiple military and socio-political battlefronts, like Sabato’s stories of olim’s inconceivable courage, remind us to never take Medinat Yisrael for granted. And, perhaps most poignantly, Sabato’s unique artistic expression gives us hope in imagining a culture infused with deep religious spirit in Eretz Yisrael.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Moses and Joseph (Ktav)
Sarah Rudolph

It’s possible that my favorite part of Vision and Leadership is the way the Rav’s reflections and memories of his own childhood, and even his personal struggles, are frequently woven into the text. For instance, I was quite taken with this relatable tidbit: “Many times I could not understand what was so great about our household. I was brought up in a house of rabbis, in a scholarly home, but I used to find fault with my father, with my grandfather, and so forth.” There are also anecdotes in which the reader is quickly reminded, like the young Yoshe Ber himself when he finally understood the character of his upbringing, that we are encountering greatness: “I was very envious as a child…because they did not consider me a bright child” (!) – so far, eminently relatable, but then the Rav continues – “my father called me in once and told me that envy is a middah megunah, a deplorable trait, a bad habit… I began to train myself to overcome my envy, and I succeeded. Now there is no envy in my heart.” If only it were that easy for us all!

Chock full of philosophical as well as psychological insights, Vision and Leadership nevertheless reads much more like a story than a treatise, and it is natural for a storyteller, especially one devoting so much attention to characterization, to enrich the telling with anecdotes and observations on human character that come from the writer’s own experience.

Vision and Leadership also does not read like an exegetical work, despite the focus on the biblical narrative. While there are analyses of words, verses, etc. – and certainly many ideas are pulled from midrashim, which (despite common misperceptions) are often deeply rooted in text – exegetical analysis is not the goal here. This is a work that strives to imagine the biblical characters – not just Joseph and Moses, despite the subtitle, but many who surrounded them as well (even the section entitled “Joseph and Moses” is really more about Levi) – as “real” people. It seeks to use the text as a springboard to dive into the characters, including but not limited to the question of what makes what kind of leader.

For instance, the Rav offers a fascinating twist in understanding the nature of gevura, epitomized by Judah, in contrast to Joseph’s hesed, and why the character of the former won out as the paradigm for future kings. The Rav suggests that it is partly because gevura on a personal level implies the ability to overcome desires – which means one understands the pull of desire and can have compassion for others who struggle. Perhaps this is really just a different model of hesed, one derived from gevura rather than contrasting with it – thus creating a multifaceted depth of character that is just what we expect from the Rav and that makes for an enjoyable, engaging, and enlightening summer read.

David Silverstein, Heartbeat: An American Cardiologist in Kenya (Independent)
Dov I. Frimer

While this book is subtitled An American Cardiologist in Kenya, it should have been An American JEWISH Cardiologist in Kenya. This work tells us the fascinating story of Dr. David Silverstein who made Kenya his home for over 50 years (he still lives there). Having grown up in a prominent and well educated – both Jewishly and secularly – home in north Chicago during the late 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s (his maternal grandfather was a renowned Orthodox rabbinic figure, R. Moshe Z. Kahn, author of Responsa Tiferet Moshe), Silverstein’s thirst for adventure took him to the Far East and eventually to Kenya. There he gradually emerged as one of East Africa’s foremost cardiologists. In that capacity, he made the acquaintance and forged firm friendships with some of the leading personalities that shaped the development of Kenya and its history. Among these personalities was former President Daniel Arap Moi. Beginning in 1983, Silverstein served as President Moi’s personal physician. The two men became close personal friends (Silverstein publicly eulogized Moi at the latter’s state funeral in 2020), bound by their mutual love of the application of the Bible to the modern world, international politics, and Israel. Traveling around the world with President Moi—including to Israel—Silverstein acquired a unique understanding and perspective of many of the seminal events in recent Kenyan and African history. These insights fill the pages of his memoir. But his role as President Moi’s Jewish doctor also afforded Silverstein the historic opportunity to be instrumental in creating a bridge between the young State of Israel and one of the fastest-growing and influential countries in Africa.

This fast-paced and often humorous book describes in detail the people and politics of Kenya. But Silverstein also describes his own personal and professional journies rather honestly. He shares with the reader the pivotal role Judaism played in his life, leading him to take on the role and responsibilities of Rosh Kehilla of the small Kenyan Jewish Community. And he gives his unique perspective on Israel’s 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda—known at the time as “Operation Thunderbolt”—designed to rescue nearly 250 hostages. He also describes at length President Moi’s reaction to the assassination of his close friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and what prompted Moi’s decision to come to Israel for Rabin’s sheloshim rather than his funeral.

Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy, A Book Addict’s Treasury (Frances Lincoln)
Michael A. Shmidman, Editor Emeritus

Readers of TRADITION are likely to accept the moniker of “book addict” with pride. If so, they may well appreciate—as I do—a charming, quirky, and insightful volume titled A Book Addict’s Treasury, edited by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy.

The editors have collected, in an obvious labor of love, approximately two hundred pages of quotations and extracts from over three hundred authors, spanning more than two millennia of (primarily Western) literature. The quotations are arranged in fifteen categories including, for example, “Adventures in Reading,” “The Qualities of Books,” “Settling Down to Read,” “Bookish Behavior,” and “Rapacious Readers,” with delightful entries like: “To read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of past centuries and, moreover, a studied conversation in which these authors reveal to us only the best of their thoughts” (Rene Descartes); “In a very real sense, then, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read…. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish” (S.I. Hayakawa); “I am not at all afraid of urging overmuch the propriety of frequent, very frequent, reading of the same book. The book remains the same, but the reader changes” (Matthew Browne); “The love of books cannot be acquired. It must be born in one, like the love of music, the love of horses, or the love of the sea (or, to take a humbler instance, a taste for olives)” (George W. E. Russell); “Outside a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read” (Groucho Marx).

The editors’ compilation could be significantly supplemented by relevant citations from Jewish sources as well. Among numerous possible examples, love for books pervades the ethical will of the twelfth century scholar and translator, Judah ibn Tibbon, who instructs his son Samuel: “Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh.” R. Hai Gaon, writing in eleventh century Babylonia, advises: “At all times, let your book be on your person, and intelligence will always cling to you; keep it attached to you, and it will prove your source of healing.” The twelfth century Spanish Jewish poet, Moses ibn Ezra, adds: “A book is the most delightful companion. If you crave entertainment, its witty sayings will amuse you; if you wish for counsel, its prudent words will gladden you. Within its covers it holds everything: what is first and what is last, what is gone and what still is… in all the world, there is no friend more faithful, no companion more compliant, and no teacher more instructive.” Or, in the succinct words of Rashi, commenting on the Mishna’s exhortation to “acquire for yourself a companion” (Avot 1:6): “[Acquire for yourself] books!”

Yaacov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone: Speeches and Writings (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
Rivkah T. Blau

Every year is a good year to read Yaakov Herzog’s collection of speeches and writings, A People That Dwells Alone. Today, as we face a flood of misinformation and a tsunami of anti-Semitic propaganda, his accurate history and incisive analysis are lifesavers. Herzog (1921-1972), son of Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, brother of President Chaim Herzog, was a distinguished Israeli diplomat and ambassador, and was director of the Prime Minister’s office during the administrations of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.

Herzog shows how Arabs, who endured centuries of serving conquerors, were rewarded in the last century with becoming eight separate nations covering millions of square miles. How strange that the assignment of 8,000 square miles to a Jewish homeland became labeled the “Nakba,” a catastrophe.

He demonstrates that our history of fall and ascent has molded the spirit of our people. When R. Akiva encountered foxes at the ransacked Temple in Jerusalem, he reasoned that if the forecast of desolation came true, the promise of restoration will also be fulfilled. We are a unique nation, cherishing our land through the years, and caring for each other. He points out, “There is no other people who preserved the spiritual ties between the branches despite all the geographical distance, and the differences of background and culture.”

When fifteen Christian theologians visited Israel in 1969 to report on spiritual life in the Middle East, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was a problem. They had believed the Jewish exile was permanent; how did Israel become a powerful nation? Herzog asked whether any nother nation carried a prophecy that it will “dwell alone”? They replied no. Then he asked, “Has Balaam’s prophecy [Numbers 23:8-9] been fulfilled?” He named every international group—today we would add the U.N.—to show we have never been accepted in the family of nations. “We are a people that will dwell alone not as a paradox but perhaps as the only natural phenomenon in human history that succeeded in existing above time.” This is as reassuring as reciting Psalm 83; it has always been this way.

Misha Louvish provided us with spiritual reinforcement when he assembled and published Herzog’s writings almost 50 years ago. What a gift to the coming generation who will find wisdom and relevance in them now as much as when he wrote them

Yael Unterman, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim)
Hayyim Angel

I recently began learning Nehama Leibowitz’s Iyyunim with my daughters in an effort to initiate them on a life-long engagement with Torah and parshanut through the eyes of the greatest Tanakh teacher of the previous generation. This course of study gave me impetus to reread Yael Unterman’s illuminating biography and intellectual history of Nehama.

This volume paints a multifaceted portrait of Nehama by exploring her life, religious ideology, and learning methodology through her writings and an impressive array of interviews with many of her leading students. These oral traditions and anecdotes deepen and broaden our understanding of the master who composed the written corpus that has guided and shaped generations of students and teachers.

Unterman expresses a great reverence for Nehama, without slipping into hagiographic tones. Each issue is presented judiciously, often from a multiplicity of perspectives from those who best knew her. Readers learn about Nehama’s upbringing, the history of her Gilyonot and Iyyunim, and her core values. The book highlights Nehama’s emphasis on integrity, honesty, living simply, personal responsibility, and humility.

In the section on learning methodology, Unterman discusses Nehama’s approach to the peshat and derash continuum, and her relationship with the classical commentators and contemporary critical scholarship. There is also an extensive discussion devoted to Nehama’s literary approach to Tanakh. More significantly, there are important studies exploring the more complex and nuanced positions Nehama held on subjects such as Zionism, shades of Orthodoxy, humanism, feminism, and a number of other critical areas. Unterman devotes attention to Nehama’s pedagogical strategies, and peppers the volume with anecdotes that illustrate how she drew students into the learning process and ultimately a life-long engagement with Torah. One of my favorite anecdotes charmingly highlights Nehama’s desire to make Tanakh come alive for students:

Nehama as a young teacher was assigned to teach Hebrew composition to some elementary school students. She asked them to write an essay on the topic, “What person would you want to be if you could become somebody else?” Most chose Jewish biblical and historical figures—King David, R. Akiva, etc. But one student wrote that he would become an owner of a kiosk in the Sinai desert at the time that the Israelites were encamped there—“because imagine how many cups of soda I could sell!” Nehama was effusive in her praise of the teacher in that school for making the Torah so real to this student.

Yael Unterman has done us a great service by composing this biography and intellectual history of Nehama Leibowitz. The careful engagement and analysis of written and oral teachings about Nehama bring her personality, religious worldview, and learning methodology to life.

Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World (HarperCollins)
Yona Reiss

This elegantly written book has a Jewish soul – it is both relentlessly sad and persistently upbeat, much like the Jewish experience throughout the ages. The author, the youngest daughter of an Egyptian Jewish family headed by a boulevardier father born in Aleppo, recounts in this 2008 memoir of her father the forced departure of her family from Cairo to Brooklyn via France in the early 1960s when President Nasser turned against the longstanding Jewish community of Egypt.

Suffice it to say, nothing goes well. The author vividly recounts both the devastating injury that her father suffered to his leg in the late 1950s as he headed back from synagogue one fateful morning, and his tragic descent into a life of poverty and indignity living out his life as an invalid within the bland blocks of Brooklyn. This formerly tall and debonair man who proudly wore a white sharkskin suit in Egypt as he hobnobbed with royalty became a subject of scorn and derision in America at the hands of nasty bureaucrats, insensitive social workers, and cruel landlords. There is no happy refuge in the home either, as the author’s parents’ marriage had degenerated beyond repair even prior to their move from Egypt.

Nonetheless, the book sparkles as a love letter from an appreciative daughter to this complex man who turned out to be a pretty good father. Much of what the author admires in her father is the quaintness of his Jewish traditions that he bestowed upon her. Some of the stirring segments of her story include when she describes her excitement as a child waiting for the arrival of Elijah during the Pesach Seder, her recollection of her father’s assiduous search for hametz immediately preceding the holiday, her memories of his patience teaching her to read Hebrew, his constant small gifts of charity to every Jewish cause, his devotion to attending the local Orthodox synagogue with his transplanted Egyptian customs and liturgy every morning and evening, and his remaining there for countless hours poring over his tattered red prayer book and other holy tomes, while reciting the entirety of Tehillim every day. These vignettes serve as a refreshing reminder of the shared bonds that all Jews have with each other, even when cultural differences might otherwise seem unbridgeable. Not every Jewish journeyer can write as lyrically as this author, but every Jew surely has a unique family story and connection to Jewish tradition.

This memoir is also a modest, life-affirming autobiography in disguise. The author writes of her recovery from Hodgkin’s disease at the age of sixteen, and her world-class doctor’s sobering message to her that “it will come back.” Indeed, my research revealed that the author passed away of complications from Hodgkin’s in 2019 at the age of 62, but not before drawing from her past to rediscover Orthodox Judaism.

Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday)
Michal Haber, Editorial Assistant

Lessons in Chemistry is a light novel that draws the reader in from the first page, combining wit and satire with keen social observations to tell the fictional story of a determined female chemist born into the wrong era. Set in the 1960s, the book paints a vivid picture of Elizabeth Zott, a woman whose modern ideas about life clash sharply with the gender norms of her time. As a chemist in a male-dominated field, she is continually misunderstood and underestimated by her peers. Garmus uses dark and lighthearted humor to draw attention to the absurdity of the sexism that Elizabeth faces, exposing the biases and social injustices of the scientific community and broader society. In this challenging world, Elizabeth finds herself in an unexpected relationship and, subsequently, as a single mother. However, her struggles and emotional turmoil reveal her immense depth and resilience.

A surprising twist in Elizabeth’s journey comes when she reluctantly steps into the role as host of a cooking show. Initially, she sees this decision as a departure from her scientific career and a betrayal of her own beliefs. However, much to the producer’s dismay, Elizabeth defiantly uses this platform to educate women across America about chemistry and to empower her female audience to think critically and see their potential beyond their role as confined, obedient housewives. Elizabeth’s interactions with her quirky neighbors, precocious daughter, “anthropomorphic” pet dog, and unconventional love interest add complexity and heart to the story.

At times, I found the story and characters to be a tad cliché. Additionally, Elizabeth’s ability to “accomplish it all” as a single mother considering all her internal and external limitations tends to feel unrealistic. Though it is clear from the book that full-on realism is not a goal Garmus intended in order to get the message across. However, this may leave the reader feeling unable to relate to Elizabeth’s character and how she manages to navigate the challenges before her. The final stages of the book are somewhat underdeveloped, leaving the reader to feel like Garmus did a disservice to a great story, almost as if she sacrificed a cathartic end to meet a deadline. However, despite the book’s deficiencies, for those seeking a light yet conceptual and timely novel, Lessons in Chemistry is both entertaining and thought-provoking, prompting us to consider how far society has come over sixty-some-odd years, and what tones of gender inequality and indoctrination may still exist in today’s society.

Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution (Simon & Schuster)
Daniel Z. Feldman

The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, calls attention to a phenomenon of contemporary society that is at once clear in its danger and yet complex in its relationship to Orthodoxy. Cancel culture, the subject of this important volume, has inflicted much damage on discourse in recent years, and its harm has gone further than that. This book amasses both hard data and extensive anecdotal evidence in documenting the wreckage.

That cancel culture is damaging to the free exchange of ideas and to productive debate is bad enough. In predetermining what views will be deemed acceptable and removing their proponents from the conversation, it is the advance of knowledge that is canceled and the path to truth that is inhibited. The fact that universities are the primary centers of cancel culture—a fact meticulously documented in this book, which provides a detailed ranking of the levels of free speech in various American universities, with the most elite ranking the lowest—will come as no surprise to anyone paying attention over the past few years, or especially the past few months, when antisemitism has been the only permitted insensitivity.

Worse still is the fact that, as its name indicates, cancel culture is not satisfied with destroying discourse; it destroys those who would partake in it, on the most personal level. Cancel culture gives new meaning to the ad hominem strategy; it not only sidesteps logic and argumentation in favor of personal attacks but makes the personal attack the end rather than the means. The goal is not only to prevent dissent on a specific topic but to damage the holder of unacceptable views in every way possible, including when possible depriving them and their family of all means of livelihood. Some appalling examples are included in this volume.

And yet, as noted, the matter is complex when related to Orthodox Judaism, which does have standards both in terms of acceptable beliefs, and regarding those qualified to teach them; in a sense, this is the definition of the word Orthodox. Nonetheless, the poison of cancel culture lies not in the cancelling but in the culture. The phenomenon, as it is has emerged in recent years, is cruel, arbitrary, disproportionate, hypocritical, counterproductive, and often completely incoherent. A significant pushback and resistance is needed, and this book is an important first step.

Joseph Rebhun, Leap to Life: Triumph Over Nazi Evil (Ardor Scribendi)
Hillel Goldberg

Every Holocaust memoir is the same and every one is different. Among the similarities are the sheer degradation of and brutality against Jews, the Nazis’ maliciously clever deceptions that entrap Jewish communities in ever smaller spaces and ultimately in death pits or gas chambers, the (often multiple) odds-defying escapes by the survivors, the inexplicable choices and twists of fate that led some to survive and others to perish, and the survivors’ mixed emotions of profound guilt, elation, and surprise.

Among the uniquenesses of Leap to Life is the author’s capacity for both action and reflection. He hears a rumor of trains packed with human cargo; so, still in the ghetto, he acquires a pocket knife and wire cutters. He learns the best direction from which to jump from a moving train. By the time he must, his wire cutters have been confiscated, yet somehow he manages to cut a hole in the cattle car’s door with nothing other than a pen knife and then to maneuver his hand outside the car and unhitch the handle that locks the door. Action!

Reflection: The author’s fate and the fate of his people make no sense to him when stacked against his faith. However, when he is severely beaten, hardly sensate, elements of his faith planted deep in his soul in childhood emerge unaltered.

“In childhood, I learned a prayer personifying God’s powers in angels, and I now repeat it constantly. On my right side is Michael, on my left Gabriel, in front of me Uriel, behind me Rafael, and above my head the divine presence. . . . I imagine the powers of God enveloping me with a protective mantle.”

Rebhun’s pain softens once for him and once for the reader — rays of light in this riveting, multi-layered memoir. The light for Rebhun: humanity. He recounts the way he, beaten to a pulp, was treated by a Polish physician, Dr. Bylina, who, unbeknownst to Rebhun at the time, knew that his patient was Jewish, and treated him anyway, thus risking his life. Astonishingly, many years later, Rebhun, now a doctor himself, rediscovers Bylina, who asks Rebhun to treat his own daughter. Rebhun had trusted Bylina. Now Bylina trusts Rebhun.

The light for the reader: justice. Rebhun recounts his testimony at Nazi trials. One was charged with the annihilation of 20,000 Jews in Rebhun’s hometown. “I heard my voice answering the questions of the presiding judge. . . . as if I were beaming down to earth a story that I had experienced on another planet, a story that my audience [in the courtroom] found difficult to imagine.” All the Nazis he testified against were convicted.

“Perhaps,” the author thought in court, “[God] bit His fingers in shame for this species that dared to say that a man like the one who sat to the left of me [the Nazi] had been created in His image. My God, I share your shame.” Leap to Life is a descent into horror and an ascent into light.

This is the second of two installments in this feature — read Part I here. Peruse previous lists of TRADITION’s Summer Book Endorsements for 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

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