It’s Jewish Book Week and I thought I would take the opportunity to share three of the books I’ve enjoyed this past year.
Sacred Trash – by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole – is really two stories. It’s the story of the detritus of a society dumped in an attic in a Synagogue in Cairo over hundreds of years, partly works of religious significance, but also scraps of poetry and receipts for oil purchases that when taken together paint the clearest picture we have of life in pre-Mediaeval Cairo Jewry. It’s also the story of the discovery of this bin, or ‘geniza,’ a story that begins over a hundred years ago when some Scottish explorers gathered some scraps from a street-seller and showed them to a Cambridge Professor. The tales of the scholars who have worked to piece together the morass of documents – told against the backdrop of a horrendous and then miraculous century for Jews of Europe and Israel is just as compelling. The book is written by poets, and it shows. It’s fabulously readable, beautiful and oddly moving. It’s published as part of a new collaboration between Nextbooks and Shoken which has also published Shimon Peres’ biography of David Ben Gurion and Elie Wiesel on Rashi, it’s a fabulous new series and I’ve read nothing in it that hasn’t been terrific.
Dead Funny – by Rudolph Herzog – is so dangerous it feels like it is about to combust. It’s a book about humour during the Third Reich. Jewish humour is covered, but it’s largely the humour of Germans, some of whom went to their death, for poking fun at a murderous vile regime. It asks this question – what difference does humour make, what power can humour wield in the face of jackboots and gas canisters? Some of the humour is staggering, you just can’t read it on the tube. I started it with tremendous trepidation but ultimately felt Herzog pulls off the tightrope walk in a way does no disservice to those who suffered horrors without laughter.
The Frozen Rabbi – by Steve Stern – would suit anyone who enjoyed Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – it’s the tale of a seventeenth century Chassidic Rabbi who meditating by a lakeside is frozen by flood waters. His carcass is excavated from the ice and becomes a talisman for a family over time eventually being transported to C20 Lower East Side. Eventually the family’s freezer fails and he emerges from his ice block to begin life as a wandering charlatan guru of the soul. It’s funny, brisk and a little too salacious for my rabbinic taste. But still well worth reading.
Happy Book Week to all,