The People Of The Book

One of my bookshelves

When I first moved to Israel, I had an epiphany about books.  They seemed to be everywhere. Every neighborhood I walked through seemed to have a place where people put their old books for others to read while taking some that they had not read.  I then noticed people would just put books out in front of their house if they were finished with them.  What people never did was throw out a book.

This phenomena with books was one more indication that my wife and I had made the right choice in making Aliyah.  In our house in California, there were book shelves in just about every room of the house. When we made Aliyah, we packed up 80 boxes of books to take with us and that was after donating many, many books to our local library.  Among our first purchase upon arrival was book shelves. Our first apartment was not big enough for all our books, so many remained in boxes in our machsan for a year.  Finally, we moved to another apartment, purchased more book shelves, and have all our books out.  And of course, we have purchased many more books since arriving.

I have always had a wide range of interest in reading; however, over the past few years leading up to Aliyah, and now that I live in Israel, my reading focus has narrowed. Today I mostly read about Israel, Zionism and Antisemitism.  Recently I read an article where top Jewish Leaders and Authors were asked to name the five books that they would recommend others to read.  I of course posted my list as well; however, I have been doing much thinking about this topic for a long time and I believe is the question posed is one that should be rephrased.

First, I don’t believe that we should limit the books to a specific number; I believe we should have categories that every Jew should familiar themselves with in order to understand the world around them whether they live in the diaspora or in Israel. So, I have developed a list of categories that every Jew should be well aware of and provided some suggested readings.

My categories include:
The Peace Process
Israel Today

I must admit, I am better read in some areas and not as much in others.  That said I have over 200 books on my to be read list and it grows with every book I read.

My first category is Judaism.  To me, before you can begin to understand the world we live in, we must understand where we came from and why we do what we do.  Let me first state upfront that I am Datee Leumi, or Modern Orthodox; however, I am not advocating any one approach to this category.  When I first responded to the article, I listed that every Jew should read the Tanach. There are those who could read it and not see where the modern practices of Judaism come from; however, not all will benefit from a straight reading.  Luckily this is a broad category with many excellent choices of books to choose from.  Herman Wouk, a favorite author of mine wrote two excellent books on this topic, This Is My God and The Will To Live On. Hayim Donin wrote the very popular To Be A Jew. One of my wife’s favorite series is entitled The Minhagim by Abraham Chill.  The Conservative movement has come out with popular series, The Jewish Catalog.  Another approach to this is to try to understand the vast spectrum of Judaism.  This can be done by reading books such as Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism or by reading about specific schools such as Hasidut in reading R’ Adin Steinsaltz’s The Longer Shorter Way.  There are also many books on the evolution of the Jewish denominations.

The next category I listed was Zionism. I believe all Jews around the world should understand the history and philosophies of Zionism. Zionism is not simply a desire for Jews to build a nation in the ancestral homeland. It is a philosophy that continue to evolve over time of which every Jew should have a basic understanding. You could of course start with The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl; however, I would not suggest you start with it.  Yes, it opens and closes with the philosophy of Herzl’s Zionism; however, much of the book contains very technocratic solutions to the challenges that Jews would face in building a Jewish State.   I find Herzl’s AltNeuLand, in English, Old New Land, and of course the original translation into Hebrew was Tel Aviv (before the city was ever established), Herzl’s utopian view of the Jewish State to be much more digestible as a first read.

The question is, why would you limit yourself to only one view of Zionism.  Arthur Hertzberg’s the Zionist Idea is a compilation of many different Zionist schools of thought with a 100-page introduction to the history of Zionism.  The newly released The Zionist Ideas by Gil Troy is an update of this classic that included many voices that that original omitted while bringing it up into the current era by including authors talking about current issues in Zionism.  One alternative approach is to select a few of your favorite authors and read their writing.  There is Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion just to name of few of the many Zionist leaders and writers who have left behind a rich collection of essays and books.  Of course, there are modern authors talking about the Zionist condition in the modern day.  I found Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State to be a very interesting response to the Post Zionist movement.

On a bit of a side note, it was not the Jews who first started moving to Israel in the 1800’s.  Many Christians began moving into the territory to lead the way for the Jews to return to their homeland. This is covered quite nicely in Michael Oren’s book, Power, Faith and Fantasy.  You would also be surprised to learn that Benjamin Disraeli also wrote some fictional books that had a Zionist theme well before the modern movement.  There is so much to choose from in this category.

The Shoah as it is called in Israel, or the Holocaust as it is generally known throughout the world, is one of the darkest periods of human history where 12 million people, 6 million of them Jews were exterminated.  Hitler’s Final Solution to “The Jewish Problem” must never be forgotten by the world; especially by Jews.  There are many books to read on this subject and many turn to Elie Wiesel to be the voice of that nightmare in his classic trilogy, Night, Dawn, and Day. His other works are all worth reading; however, it was Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower that had the most profound impact on me.  It talks not only of what occurred but how to continue after the horrors of the Holocaust by exploring forgiveness.

All the categories I mention above must be taught to our children; however, none is more important than the Holocaust. Although it is a sensitive topic, there are many books that can be used to introduce children to the subject from The Diary of Anne Frank to the fictional work The Book Thief.  Unfortunately, the surveys today show that many around the world do not know the Holocaust happened and the extent of the devastation that occurred.  It is sad but perhaps true that the ADL’s mantra of Never Forget has been forgotten.

It is also imperative that every Jew must have a strong understanding of the modern history of Israel starting from the First Aliyah to present.  There are many excellent books on this topic; however, one of the most comprehensive, yet easy to read is Israel A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis.  I found his book to be unbiased and factual. However, there are many many others to choose from. There is the classic The History of Israel: From The Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard Sachar.  Martin Gilbert also has an excellent book Israel A History.

Along with overviews, there are excellent books for specific periods.  O Jerusalem is a classic on the events that happened in Jerusalem between 1947-48 during the War of Independence.  Every Jew should read Jerusalem A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel about growing up in Jerusalem at the birth of the State of Israel.  Michael Oren’s Six Days of War has become the classic work detailing the events of the Six Day War.  There are detail books on every single event that has occurred in Israel’s history. Within this genre there are also some excellent books on emerging Israeli trends such as Start Up Nation detailing Israel’s emergence as a technology powerhouse.

Although I live in Israel today, it is still important to recognize that slightly less than half the Jews still live in outside of Israel. The majority today live in North America; however, there are Jews who live everywhere around the world. I have done much travel in my day and was surprised to find Jews in remote places such as Indonesia.  I think it is important to understand their perspective.  In this genre I focused mainly on my own roots in the United States; however, if you look there are many options out there.  Howard Sachar has an excellent book The History of Jews in America and A History of The Jews in the Modern World. Hasia Diner has also written a book The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 which is part of a series Jewish Communities in the Modern World published by the University of California Press which includes works on The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000, Sephardi Jews, and The Jews of Modern France.

Antisemitism is another topic that every Jews should have a basic understanding of, especially in the Diaspora, so they know how to address and respond to it in every day live. I had the privilege of taking the Anti-Defamation League yearlong training on Antisemitism when I was in the US.  However, there are many books out there for people to read on the subject. This is a topic as old as time.  There are many classic works on antisemitism. Jean Paul Sartre wrote Anti-semite and the Jew.             Another classic is The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy Dawidowicz.  However, it is Abraham Foxman, the National Director Emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League who has written some of the best books on the topic including, Never Again, The Deadliest Lies, Jews and Money, and Viral Hate. It is also worthwhile to read his predecessor’s book Square One by Arnold Forster.

The Peace Process has been an ongoing effort since Israel was founded in 1948.  Then in 1967 Israel captured Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan and, Judea and Samaria known outside of Israel as the West Bank.  Israel has negotiated peace with Egypt and Jordan.  However, the Peace Process that is present every day is the ongoing challenge of peace with the Palestinians that got defined in Oslo as the Two State Solution. There are many books on this topic, but in my estimation, if you can read only one book on this topic it should be The Missing Peace by Dennis Ross. It is a book written not by an Israeli or an Arab, but by the US Mediator who attempted to finalize the Oslo Accords.  It takes no sides and portrays the intransigence of Israel and the Palestinians at different stages of negotiation.  I think it is a clear insight into the reason of why there is no peace today.

Jewish Religion, History, Zionism, the Holocaust, Israeli History, Antisemitism and the Diaspora are all important topics in understanding Israel today; however, I think it is important to understand what is going on in Israeli Society today. Jews in the United States are bewildered at Israel’s apparent move away from liberalism to a more conservative leadership.  The Socialist foundation of Israel is being eroded by a new economy with the emergence of the Start Up Nation.  The war on terrorism is a daily affair as outlined in Harpoon.  Therefore, it is imperative that people learn about what is happening in Israeli society today. One of the most important books in this genre is Yossi Klein Like Dreamers.  In it he shows the divide between the Peace Now movement and the Settler Movement that arose from members of the same unit that liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967.  Another book that is moving Israeli society forward is by the same author called Letters To My Palestinian Neighbors. In this work HaLevi recognizes that we may never agree on the facts that got us to where we are today, but to resolve our differences we must first learn to listen to and respect the others story and second engage in dialogue to move us past where we are today.  The last book which is 11 years older is the bridge to my last subject area.

I think it is incumbent upon every Jew not only to seek out the stories of the Jews and Israelis, but to seek out the story of all the people of this region to better understand and hopefully one day come to a resolution to all the conflicts. One of the first books I encountered to introduce me to this concept was The Israelis by Donna Rosenthal.  Along with featuring the stories of Jews in Israel, it also featured some stories of Arabs living in Israel to show their perspective of their lives.  Israel is a Jewish State and the Jews within have an ethical responsibility for making sure that all peoples regardless of their race, creed, or religion are treated equally. Israel is not a perfect society, I don’t think one exists, but our objectives should never the less be to ensure equality for all our citizens.

In order to do this, and to understand how we eventually will resolve our differences, as Yossi Klein HaLevi emphasizes in Letters to My Palestinian Neighbors, we must listen. That is why his second edition includes responses to his letters from dialogues with Palestinians.  We must not only continue the dialogue, but we must understand the history that has gotten us to this point from all perspectives.   This is a new area of interest for me, so I have not read much on it yet, but I have several books I am planning to read in the future which includes Edward Said’s Orientalism, Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage and Palestinian People A History.  Another book of interest is Side by Side the result of bringing Palestinian and Israeli educators together to see how they viewed the same historical events from a different perspective. These are but a few of the books I plan to read to understand the Arab and Palestinian perspective.

Of all the categories I have gone through, I have left two very important categories off my list:

  • Autobiographies and Biographies
  • Fiction

I greatly enjoy reading about the personalities that helped found the State of Israel and made it possible to be here today. Among my top choices in this genre is The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner.   Yehuda was in the inner circle of four Prime Ministers.  Although from the Labor Party, he also worked under Menachem Begin. His accounts and insights to the critical period between Levi Eshkol to Menachem Begin is some of the most exciting and insightful perspective from the Six Day War to the Egyptian Peace.  Another erudite and prolific writer was Abba Eban. Educated to be a Cambridge Don in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, he was the first US and UN Ambassador from Israel. I have only read Personal Witness; however, I look forward one day to read his many other books. Other figures I have read about biography or autobiography include Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Rav Kook, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Moshe Arens, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.  Israel is an amalgamation of the personalities that created it and to better understand these people, you better understand the where Israel came from and what it is today.

Finally, I must recognize the role that fiction played in my life. Many of the books that I have read recently are more academic than easy reading.  I could not have gotten to where I am today without initially developing a taste for reading about the Jewish Religion, Culture, History, Zionism and Israel.  I credit several books that opened this world to me. The first being Chaim Potok’s classic work The Chosen.  When I first read it at 11 years old, it spoke to me in a way other book did not. Although I was not a child of the 40’s and I was not Orthodox living in Brooklyn, I still recognized many of my own personal experiences in the pages of the book. Over the years I often go back to it to capture that feeling again.  Today I have read all of Potok’s books; some I have enjoyed and others I have criticized; nevertheless, I am always thankful I found him early in my youth to excite my passion for reading.

Another classic fictional work that perhaps no Jew should miss is Exodus by Leon Uris.  This is another author whose entire collection should be read and enjoyed. However, my favorite fictional author, and my favorite fictional book of all times is Herman Wouk’s Inside Outside.  This semi-autobiographical book highlighted the schism of identity of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

There are of course too many authors and too many books to name in any genre.  I have adopted a phrase taught to me by a fraternity brother who loves music.  He always said, “Too little time, too much music.”  To me, there is too little time and too many books to read.  I have merely scratched the surface of the abundance of books available to understand the state of Jews and Israel today.  It is my most fervent prayer that Jews avail themselves of this rich resource to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the world today.

I myself have found the app GOODREADS to be the place where I have begun documenting what I have read and what I want to read. I invite you to friend me on the app so that we can share our thoughts on books and recommendations on what to read. I have also started a group, “Israel – From Ancient to Modern Times; A Forum for discussion on books on, about or surrounding Israel.”

I hope that you will join me, share with me your recommendations, provide me your perspectives, and discuss your thoughts on the books you have read. Because reading is just the jumping off point to evaluate, dissect and build your own thoughts and perspectives on the very important and continuing work of building and sustaining the Jewish State of Israel!

About the Author
Alan was born and lived in the US until he made Aliyah on July 4th, 2017 with his wife and dog to join his three adult children. He is an avid reader of Jewish, Israeli and Zionist history and contemporary issues. He is an active in hasbara on Facebook and in other forums. He currently resides in Jerusalem with his wife, Robin, dog and cat.
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