A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews by Sherwin T. Wine (IISHJ, paper, $24.95). The late author was a founder of the Humanistic Judaism movement, dubbed the “atheist rabbi” in a 1960s Time magazine article. In this overarching history, mixed, as the introduction explains, with some opinion, Wine draws on secular sources, emphasizing that humanism give no credit to any supernatural powers in the actions of people. Probably his most interesting assertion is that the roots of European anti-Semitism are not in religion, but in the strong Jewish role in commerce that dates back to ancient times.
Holy Wars: 3,000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land by Gary L. Rashba (Casemate, cloth, $32.95). The author is a career defense-industry writer with an expertise in the Middle East. He turns to a more general audience here with 17 readable chapters, each covering a significant battle in what is now Israel, from biblical times to the 1982 Lebanon war. Rashba, who has lived in Israel for 20 years, demonstrates that today’s conflicts are just part of a series of almost unending conflict in that region.
Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights, cloth, $24.99). A variety of rabbis, cantors, teachers and communal leaders have contributed these commentaries specifically for high school students. For Parashat Noah, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin asks teens to be the “un-Noah” and speak up in the face of the world’s wrongs. In Shelach-Lecha, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman uses the line “we looked like grasshoppers” to encourage readers not to shy away from a challenge. Clear, short and to the point, these writings are ideal for bringing Torah relevance to teens.
Two recent Holocaust-themed books focus on those who resisted and those who escaped. Doreen Rappaport’s Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust (Candlewick, paper, $22.99) is written as a textbook for students ages 10 and up, but still makes for interesting — and chilling — reading. Tens of thousands of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe resisted during World War II, demonstrated here by individual portraits of courage in the face of death. The award-winning author based her writing on personal interviews and extensive research for this book that took six years to complete.
Professor Steve Hochstadt of Illinois College brings us a collection of interviews with Jews who managed to get out of Europe in Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (Palgrave, paper, $28). Sixteen thousand European Jews were able to get visas to enter the one place that permitted free entry, at least until 1939. While the stories Hochstadt has collected provide a fascinating look into this chapter of Jewish history, his initial discussion of how an interviewer melds the randomness of a conversation into a cohesive narrative was equally interesting. The book is part of the publisher’s “Studies in Oral History” series.
Trusting Calvin: How a Dog Helped Heal a Holocaust Survivor’s Heart by Sharon Peters (Lyons, cloth, $19.95). As a teenaged prisoner in a Nazi work camp, Max Edelman witnessed a horrific dog attack on a fellow prisoner. He then suffered a brutal beating by prison guards that left him blind. How he managed to survive the camp is an incredible story on its own. Then, at age 68, he was forced to overcome his terrible fear of dogs when his wife’s crippling arthritis made it clear he would need a guide dog to maintain his independence. Peters describes how Max and Calvin, a chocolate lab provided by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, work around their mutual difficulties in a touching and entertaining fashion.
Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, by Lela Gilbert (Perseus, cloth, $25.99). The author came to Israel for a pilgrimage six years ago and is still there. She arrived at the height of a war, already fascinated by a land of international conflicts of epic proportions, and found a country of “warm-hearted, smart and lively people.” A writer and a poet, she turned to journalism, writing about visits to Mamilla Mall and bomb shelters, and her conversations with Israelis, Jewish and Arab. She hopes this collection of her writings will promote understanding and harmony particularly among Jews and Christians.
Gefilte Fish for Neshama by Anna Shvets (Neshama Books, paper, $15.99). Here’s my dirty secret: I like jarred gefilte fish and never even had homemade gefilte fish until well into adulthood. Shvets’s well-crafted short book — part memoir, part cookbook — is filled with color photos of Israel where the Russian émigré spent her formative years before she moved to Vancouver, BC and opened Neshama Books. Her grandmother’s detailed gefilte fish recipe is illustrated with step-by-step photos and tempted me to try it. But I was deterred. Not by the live carp to be gutted and scaled after swimming in the bathtub, or even the popping out of the eyeballs so the sockets can be a handhold to secure the head while pulling out the spine with a pliers. It’s the smell that will linger in the house for a week after two hours of simmering the fish on the stove. (After reading this, you should read or re-read the classic children’s book, “The Carp in the Bathtub.”)
A Wedding in Great Neck by Yona Zeldis McDonough (New American, paper, $15). Relying on cultural stereotypes to propel its story forward, this light, but entertaining book errs more on the side of sitcom than literature. A wealthy Great Neck matron hosts a wedding at her mansion for her type-A, go-getter daughter while her type-B hippie daughter languishes in the background. Unruly teenagers, well-meaning grandmothers, and an impulsive act that threatens the entire wedding are some of what you’ll find here.
The Other Shore by Fred Skolnik (Aqueous, paper, $21). This saga-length novel follows a motley cast of Israeli types through the 1980s between the Lebanese War and the outbreak of the first intifada. Skolnik, editor of the award-winning second edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, has lived in Israel since 1961 and is a skillful writer and entertaining observer of Israeli society. The story illustrates the decade that saw the final shift in Israel from a Zionist-Socialist society to a Western-style consumer culture.