Normally, when writing this column, I consider 15 to 25 books that have arrived at the JTNews offices. Five or six usually organize themselves into a unifying theme, which then becomes my subject.
This quarter, no particular theme emerged, so I picked six of the most interesting, ranging from the popular to the esoteric.
If I say Sit, Ubu, Sit, and your mind responds with a “Good dog!” and a bark, then you are probably a member of the TV-watching generation that made “Family Ties” one of the most popular sitcoms ever, and Michael J. Fox a star. This autobiography of the show’s writer-producer, Gary David Goldberg, (Harmony, cloth, $23.95), shows us how he traveled from ordinary and unlikely beginnings — a totally sports-obsessed youth from a loving and solidly middle class family — to become a successful Hollywood television producer.
The book is never boring, often poignant — and really funny. Goldberg’s focus is on his long-term loves. They include his wife, the calm, tolerant and intelligent Dr. Diana Meehan; his dog, the uncannily smart and prescient Ubu; and then there is the talented Michael J. Fox, whose career and fortunes are inextricably tied to Goldberg’s, as the author shows.
Another television success, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, has earned fame and acclaim for his TLC network show “Shalom in the Home.” In The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him (St. Martin, cloth, $24.95), Boteach draws on one particular thing he’s learned in making his show, on which he travels around the country trying to save disintegrating marriages and families.
He observes that most of the problems he encounters are rooted in the man’s belief that he is defined solely by job and income. When a man thinks he is lacking in both, he tends to withdraw from his wife, or to take his rage out on her or the children.
Boteach examines the problem’s roots — a materialistic, image-focused and competitive society lacking in spiritual values — and proposes a solution. Drawing on Jewish teachings, historical examples and spiritual values, he suggests that men turn more to family devotion, focus on a calling (not just a career), connect with their community, and study (ie: turn off the TV, and read a book!).
Poet Sharona Ben-Tov Muir’s father was also driven — he was an inventor who drove himself to distraction trying to create the Next Big Thing, and to fit in with American ideas of success. Discovering as an adult that her father, Itzhak Bentov, was instrumental in the secret project to create the young state of Israel’s first missile, she set out on a search “in multidimensional space” to uncover his other secrets.
In the course of The Book of Telling: Tracing the Secrets of My Father’s Lives (U of Nebraska, paper, $18.95), she rewrites her own identity as well, in poignant and impressionistic style. Visiting her father’s former colleagues and old friends, and drawing on her own memory and imagination, she creates a portrait of a man both successful and unsuccessful, whose erratic and melancholy behavior late in life causes Muir to wonder if his repressed Holocaust memories drove him mad.
While Muir offers a personal history of Israel, Ruth R. Wisse gives us the socio-political overview in Nextbook’s recent publication, Jews and Power (Schocken, cloth, $19.95).
While historically viewed as being weak and powerless by themselves and by others, Wisse shows that Jews in Europe before and after emancipation were actually uniquely poised to assume political power that eventually led to the establishment of Israel. It was assumed that regaining statehood would fulfill the promise of equality, but that has not been the case. The creation of Israel has not killed, but instead has enhanced anti-Semitism in the world, she argues.
A more distant and more esoteric piece of Jewish history is found in Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology From the Greco-Roman Period (Toby, paper, $14.95), edited and translated by Professor Lawrence M. Wills. Wills explains the role of the novel in that period, and how Jews used Greek literary tools in their retelling of traditional Jewish stories. Some stories are familiar (Esther), while others create historical fiction around Biblical characters (Moses, Joseph). Some stories, while originally Jewish, were adopted by early Christians and became part of their apocrypha (Tobit, Maccabees).
Wills says that the genesis of these works is debatable (are they the result of an evolutionary or a “creationist” process?), but even the most casual of readers may observe that they are a combination of folklore, and of oral and written tradition that the editor suggests may have even influenced later Midrashic and rabbinic interpretation.
Finally, a new cookbook that can only be described as lush and lavish. This summer, Joyne Cohen brings us Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (Wiley, cloth, $32.50).
Cohen starts out with basic Ashkenazic and Sephardic recipes: roasted chicken, sweet-and-sour cabbage, and spinach cheese squares, and then moves into holiday menu ideas with increasingly exotic and unusual recipes.
Some examples are Coffee-Spiced Pot Roast for Shabbat, Egyptian Ground Fish Balls for Rosh Hashanah, Chard Stuffed with Artichokes and Rice for Sukkot, a myriad of latke improvisations for Hanukkah (including Cheese Latkes with Fresh Persimmon Sauce)…need I go on? Oh, wait. You need an idea for Shavuot? How about Warm Shav with Salmon Kreplach? Or am I the only person left on earth who likes shav? (Can you even get shav in Seattle?)
Preparation ranges from simple to professionally complex — would you like to debone a turkey and stuff the meat back in the skin before cooking it? — but whether you cook from it or just read it, it’s a worthwhile investment, and, given its size and extent, a bargain at the price.