Books that are especially large or expensive, or have unique subject matter, are rarely purchased on a whim, but they make good gifts. Following are a selection of new releases you might consider as gifts or a special treat for yourself.
In commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America, former Seattleite Rabbi Marc D. Angel, has written the text for Remnant of Israel: A Portrait of America’s First Jewish Congreation Shearith Israel (Riverside, cloth, $50), where Rabbi Angel now serves. This beautiful coffee-table book is well illustrated in color and black-and-white. It includes reproductions of paintings of founding members, along with portraits and photos of others important to the history of Sephardic Jews in New York, as well as artifacts and documents.
The detailed and interesting text illuminates the importance of Sephardic Jews in America, a significance that is sometimes obscured by the dominance of Ashkenazi-descended Jews over most things Jewish in this country.
Also commemorating the anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews is the re-release of Joan Nathan’s fabulous Jewish Holiday Cookbook (Schocken, cloth, $29.95). Recipes are arranged by holiday and include suggested menus and dishes from all Jewish traditions. A mouth-watering glimpse at Rosh Hashanah ranges from "German Sweet and Sour Carp" to "Moroccan Vegetable and Meat Stew with Couscous." There is a short chapter on minor holidays and another on lifecycle events, one on wine - make your own concord grape wine! - and a glossary. Holiday explanations and stories make this worthwhile for reading and cooking.
For the whole family, Grace Ragues Maisel and Samantha Shubert bring us A Year of Jewish Stories: 52 Tales for Children and Their Families (URJ, cloth, $29.95) with illustrations by Tammy Keiser. Stories, as the authors point out, are a great way to teach a love of Judaism and create Jewish values no matter what your level of observance. The stories are drawn from Jewish tradition and include original fables and stories from the Bible, Talmud, midrash and folklore, and are arranged according to the holiday cycle. If you get this book for Hanukkah, you’ll either have to start with page 55, or "cheat" and start at the beginning. It’s unlikely that the young children for whom this book is intended will be satisfied with just one story a week, so you’ll catch up quickly.
With over 700 pages of text and another 100 of notes and index, scholar Alan F. Segal’s book, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (Doubleday, cloth, $37.50) is truly a big book and certainly qualifies for the label of "tome." Don’t be put off by the length, however, because it’s a good read, though not a quick one. Segal gives us a history of each of the major world religions’ views of life after death in the ancient and modern worlds. Judaism and Christianity get by far the closest examination.
Combined with the last chapter on Islam, the reader gets not just a history, but a glimpse at how these shifting views have influenced the current state of world affairs. Book size has nothing to do with book price (have you noticed?), but if you like to look at it that way, for both size and content, this one is a bargain.
The Quotable Jewish Woman: Wisdom, Inspiration & Humor from the Mind & Heart, edited and compiled by Elaine Bernstein Partnow (Jewish Lights, cloth, $29.99) is not only a reference book but an education in Jewish women’s influence. Partnow, who edited the series "The Quotable Woman," says she sees this book as part of her contribution to tikkun olam - repairing the world. Her sources are scholarly and popular, religious and secular, and come from books, magazines, Web sites and comedy routines. A real education.
Finally, this is not a big book, but a regular-size book about a lot of big books. A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, took it upon himself to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A- to Z, "or more precisely, a-ak to zywiec", in an effort to become at least as smart as he thought he was when he was 12. The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $25) will make you laugh out loud. But there is a story here, too, about family and relationships, that is often poignant. Jacobs, whose father is the well-known legal writer Arnold Jacobs, is not afraid to poke fun at himself or society, while boldly going where only a very few have gone before.