Favorite Jewish Non-Fiction?
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My first example, and a book that was very moving for me, is Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea. The memoir material on his childhood in pre-war Romania was fascinating.
I have the Elie Wiesel book in my home but haven't read it yet. I'm glad to hear it's such a good read.
what's with these not-working Touchstones, here's a link: Tanakh
I didn't know Singer had memoirs out. Now I'll defintely get that.
One Palestine Complete by Tom Segev - here is my review:
A superb account of the background to and implications of the British rule in Palestine 1917-1948. Completely unbiased in his appraisal, Segev doesn't shy away from either the Zionists own failings, the Arabs' misguided ineptitude, or the British accountability for the mess which still obviously needs resolving in Israel-Palestine today. Very thorough and briliantly written. If you want a good understanding of how this lengthy conflict really began, this is the book to read.
2 excellent books covering similar ground are The Avengers: A Jewish War Story by Rich Cohen and The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and WWII by Howard Blum. The former covers the subject of those suffering and subsequently escaping from ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe to join or form partisan groups in the woods. The story develops to their post-war actions within Germany itself... enthralling. I have a review of Howar Blum's book below:
Artfully written account of the Jewish Brigade's history during the Second World War fighting as part of the British Eighth Army in the Italian campaign against the Germans towards the war's end. I found this to be a real page turner as the book's exciting episodes unfolded.
Blum's skill lies with his merging of both the Brigade's own history and the individual stories of three of its members. All of which is based on extensive and painstaking research of published and unpublished histories as well as interviews with the surviving protagonists. There are really 3 or 4 book's worth contained within the one volume as the Brigade's story only really gets going once the war comes to an end in May '45.
The central figures of Carmi and Peltz become deeply involved with the underground campaign to smuggle out Jewish war refugees and camp survivors against the wishes of the British authorities. The other main figure of Pinchuk meanwhile, sets off towards finding his lost sister Leah who he hasn't seen since leaving pre-war Poland for Palestine. Over the course of the book they all become involved in the people-smuggling as well as a fair share of gun running and acts of vengeance on those they hold responsible for the crimes of the Reich. Altogether a very exciting read, and a very well written book of modern history.
SUPERB!! Unexpectedly brilliant! So glad I got this book on a whim during a rare mosey around Foyles. Iftach Spector has written the best military auto-biog and maybe the best auto-biog I've ever read. His writing is at once intimate and warm as he confides in his reader. The early chapters and the dominant thread is obviously about his impressive career as a fighter pilot and later expands on the fascinating events during the wars of 67, 68-70, and 73. Those sections alone would make a very good book. General Spector's originality is the way he expands on his professionalism and integrity through his evolving life-view as he ages. Integrity is the dominant trait that comes across.
His description of how he gradually fell out of step with the strategic thinking with his own radical ideas and exceptional foresight is the beginning of his self-disciplined, and self-respecting 'opposition' - which culminates where the book begins: his signing of the Pilots' Letter to the Israeli Air Force command in late 2003 following the IDF's indiscriminate bombing of a terrorist target in Gaza. I salute him for making that small but important sacrifice.
The chapters come thick and fast as the ace pilot becomes a ground-breaking squadron leader and first class leader of men. A frightening episode on the way to Damascus during the Yom Kippur war is retold breathtakingly. As are countless others - a disastrous dog-fight with the ethereal 'Hasan' over Jabal Druze is edge of your seat stuff, and a virtually fuelless getaway through the wadis of south Sinai is almost unbelievably dramatic right to the last word of the chapter. All the aircraft he flies from the Mystere to the Mirage, the Phantom to the F-16, come alive with their own personalities in the author's thoughtful words.
I was ready to give this book 5 stars before the final chapters, but they just exceeded everything up to here. The reunion evening 20 years after the raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor is incredibly moving, especially the passages about the personal fears and the tragedy of astronaut Ilan Ramon. And then, to finish we're taken back to the beginning and the reason he signs the Pilots' Letter. His assessment of where Israel has gone wrong, and why, is spot on, and his proposals for their remedy are exactly how I see it and would want the leaders of Israel to see it. Israel needs men of Iftach Spector's integrity and calibre right at the very top. A great book and a great man.
An intriguing and artful glimpse at the early years of independent Israel is Robert Capa: Photographs from Israel, 1948-1950 by Robert Capa the famous co-founder of Magnum photographic agency. His eye is wonderful and he had a knack of finding himself at the heart of the key events of such a stormy era.
A second book of photogrpahy, combined with autubiography, is the charming Israel Through My Lens by David Rubinger - Great insight and terrific photos of Rubinger's life's work. The man is an inspiration.
One final recommendation of particular interest to those whose families lived in turn of the 20th century London is Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block, 1887-1920 by Jerry White. It is a very illuminating and evocative look at the urban culture of Jewish immigrants to London at that time and how they lived. After reading it I passed it to my Grandma only months before she passed on. She knew relatives who'd lived there and remembered tales of the places described. It was one of the last books she read and it brought her a lot of pleasure.
Rodger Kamenetz, its author, has a new book out on Kafka and Rebbe Nachman. I just got hold of it, but have not yet read it. There is a wonderfully funny letter out on the internet, purporting to be a response by Rebbe Nachman (now dead some 200 years) to the author of a critical review of the book.
Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff
(First published 1972)
If you've ever wandered through the back streets, alleyways, and courtyards of old Spitalfields and Whitechapel in London's East End; sensing the dim and now somewhat distant presence of a bygone era and an old world Jewish culture now all but vanished* from its precincts, and wondered what life would really have been like for the working class immigrant families who lived and worked there - this book will draw you as vivid a picture as any other book or film I've yet encountered.
Emanuel Litvinoff was born and raised in the heart of that London - when the community there was at its inter-war period 'zenith' (if such a word were appropriate) of the 1920s and '30s. His stories convey wonderfully, with vigour and laconic humour the sights and sounds and smells of that lost world. Having grown up and served in the army during the Second World War, he moved out of the neighbourhood he'd grown up in. Across the decades following the war so too would most of the other Jewish neighbours - Londoners established enough by then to move away from the grotty tenements and filthy market streets, out to the suburbs and beyond.
In the opening pages' "Author's Note" Litvinoff explains how early in the 1970s he found himself revisiting the old streets again with a friend. The cover photo above was taken at that time:
...In Old Montague Street, the very heart of the original Jewish quarter, nothing was left of the synagogue but a broken wooden doorcarved with the Lion of Judah.
The tenement I grew up in had somehow survived shrunken by time but otherwise unchanged - the same broken tiles in the passage, the same rickety stairs, the pervasive smell of cats. I took my friend up to the first floor landing window to show him the small yard with its overflowing dustbin. That, too, had not changed. Quite suddenly, a vivid memory returned. I was twelve years old: the news had come that once again I had failed the scholarship. Outside it was raining. I sat on the window ledge and carved my initials in the wood. When I looked they were still there, jagged and irregular, 'E.L.'
The door of my old apartment opened and for one moment I expected to see that same unhappy, resentful boy emerge to wander disconsolately into the street. A shabby, elderly man came out carrying a bucket full of refuse. He stared at us mistrustfully.
'Are you gennelmen from the Sanit'ry Department of the Tahn 'All?' he asked.
I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past. That evening, when I returned to Hertfordshire I began a memoir, 'My East End Tenement'. This book has grown out of that beginning.
With chapters with headings such as "Uncle Solly's Sporting Life", "The God I Failed", and "A Charity Pair of Boots", Litvinoff charmingly weaves his coming-of-age tale amid the poverty and the 'sweating shops', and the ever-present fug of stale cigarette smoke and the smell of pickled herrings and frying onions.
The tenement was a village in miniature, a place of ingathered exiles who supplemented their Jewish speech with phrases in Russian, Polish or Lithuanian. We sang songs of the ghettoes or folk-tunes of the old Russian Empire and ate the traditional dishes of its countryside. The news came to us in Yiddish newspapers and was usually bad...
The tales of Emanuel's childhood pass and he soon must join the working masses, and make a contribution to the household. He finds employment at Dorfmann's "rat-infested fur workshop":
'Don't you want to improve yourself anymore?' my mother said in her suffering voice.
She stood at the stove ladling soup into my plate, the latest baby squirming in the crook of her arm. A man's cardigan hung shapelessly on her body, but her belly was seen to be big again. We were ten already, the largest family in the buildings, and nothing helped - not whispered conferences with neighbours, nor the tubes and syringes concealed among the underwear at the botttom of the wardrobe, and certainly not Fat Yetta, who sometimes lifted the curse of fertility from other women but only left my mother haggard with pain and exhaustion.
'Manny,' she said, 'I'm talking to you!'
I loved this book, and the imagery that was brought to my mind by Litvinoff's atmospheric writing. This is the real world that existed behind such stories as Wolf Mankowitz's A Kid For Two Farthings, and the tales of characters who my grandparents probably knew. It was a pleasure to visit this particular small planet.
*Witness some increasingly rare old retail and trade 'ghost signs' in the Victorian brickwork mostly up above ground floor level, and the two last Yiddisher-style all-night beigel bakeries in the East End (at the northern end of Brick Lane) all of two doors apart. According to a cheery London taxi driver idling in traffic when Darryl and I ventured up there famished for lunch - both have long since passed from their original Jewish owners on to an Israeli entrepreneur and since passed again into the hands of an Iranian business... Whatever would Bibi say?!
A vivid and evocative collection of Alan Dein's 1988 Spitalfields shopfront photos can be found here.
The late Emanuel Litvinoff's 2011 obituary from The Guardian can be found here.
I just finished reading Peony by Pearl Buck. It is about a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China. Apparently this city has a long history of Jewish settlement dating back to the 800s. This work is about the tension between assimilation = peace and understanding with your neighbors vs. maintaining your traditions, which puts you at a distance. At least that was the premise of the book and written, interestingly, by the daughter of a Christian missionary. The book is written from the perspective of a Chinese "bond maiden" purchased by this family when she was very young. Beautifully written in my humble opinion.
ETA: oops, I forgot this was about nonfiction. sorry!
Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (Texts and Contexts)… by Ilan Stavans
I have been familiar with Ilan Stavan's work for several years. Essays and stories often about the Latin American Jewish experience is his life's work and there are few others who till this soil.
This book would be a joy for anyone who is interested in this subject. He writes in detail about IB Singer and the yiddish language and how it also informed his own upbringing in Mexico City. There, he belonged to a small insular community of 35,000 Mexian Jews. Most of his family still lives there. His father is a famous soap opera actor who had a significant role in My Mexican Shivah, a film based on a story by his son, Ilan Stavans.
Yet at an early age Stavans was attracted to the Jewish community in the United States; he writes of how this world is where the jews of the diaspora have reached full potential, free of religious persecution, able to flourish culturally, educationally and in all areas of secular life.
Stavans, now Director of Latin American Studies at Amhearst University, is a rich resource who writes easily as an essayist and fiction writer. ( )