To mark the close of 2019, we asked several of our writers to name the best two or three books they’ve read this year, and briefly to explain their choices. The first seven answers appeared yesterday; the remainder appear below in alphabetical order. (Unless otherwise noted, all books were published in 2019.)
Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.
David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.
Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.
But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.
We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95), tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.
Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.
In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.
Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99). It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)
It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.
Finally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.
The Orchard (Gefen, 2018, 382pp., $17.95) by the Israeli writer Yochi Brandes is one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Set in mishnaic times (roughly the 1st and 2nd centuries CE), the novel revolves around the life of Rabbi Akiva and other contemporaneous Jewish sages. First published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was a hit in Israel and was finally translated into English in 2018.
The Orchard is one of several modern novels based on Jewish sources and set during this time period, but Brandes is in a league of her own when it comes to both her loyalty to, and her deep understanding of, the classical Jewish sources. She certainly embellishes rabbinic history. Yet her narrative flourishes read less like anachronistic modern interpolations than as learned interpretations of the traditional material. I share the sentiment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is quoted on the back cover as having “read this marvelous book by Yochi Brandes in a single weekend. It swept me into the orchard and into the sources of our tradition.”
The new anthology Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth (Maggid/Koren, 316pp., $29.95), edited by Stuart Halpern, was published to coincide with the holiday of Shavuot, on which this biblical book is traditionally read. The collection of essays presents reflections on the book by a wide range of authors—many of whom are affiliated with Yeshiva University in some way. The result is a celebration of Ruth and its ability to shed light upon, and in turn be illuminated by, fields as disparate as elder care, immigration law, and Romantic poetry. (Disclaimer: I contributed a chapter on the influence of Ruth on American and Israeli literature.) Maggid/Koren plans to release a new volume in 2021, also edited by Halpern, that will explore the book of Esther in a similar fashion. I expect it to be just as worthwhile and look forward to reading it.
Gideon Sapir, The Israeli Constitution: From Evolution to Revolution (Oxford, 2018, 288pp., $85). This volume presents a very helpful, and nearly comprehensive, “constitutional history” of Israel—a country without a written constitution. If the prospect of a third election in under a year does not persuade you of the importance of considering Israel’s constitutional arrangements, I do not know what will.
It’s been a treat to read the French philosophe Alain Finkielkraut’s intellectual autobiography, A La Première Personne (Gallimard, 128pp., $17.92). Finkielkraut has been at the center of the most important “battles of ideas” in France for the past half-century, and the book nicely illustrates how his defense of the Jews and Israel has been integral to the role he has played in those battles. Here’s hoping a publisher brings out an English version, enabling more Anglophone readers to get to know this admirable, even heroic, individual.
Let us finally turn to the late Delba Winthrop’s Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science (Chicago, 2018, 288pp. $65), a detailed exegesis of Book III of Aristotle’s Politics. Book III of the Politics perhaps contains the most profound analysis ever written on the nature of democracy. Winthrop’s interpretation can help guide anyone today seeking to understand the most popular form of government.
Michael Malice’s The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics (All Point, 322pp., $28.99) is the best book I’ve read on the political landscape of the Trump era, and certainly the most entertaining. A combination of travelogue, political history, and pop-cultural anthropology, the book moves from mainstream to fringe and back again. Malice, who is Jewish, announces to one confab that he represents “ZOG” (alt-right-speak for “Zionist Occupied Government”) in order to get the temperature of the room and learn whom he can have a conversation with. His curiosity and chutzpah pay off. A caveat: I listened to the audiobook, which plays to the author’s Groucho Marx delivery.
The left responded to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court with howling protest outside Congress and, inside (with much help from the media), a dirty war on the nominee, on people of faith, on conservatives, on men, and on the idea that dignity and fairness have a role in our public life. The aftershocks are still being felt, but Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino’s meticulously researched and restrainedly granular Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court (Regnery, 375pp., $28.99) offers an analytical distance that amplifies the impact of their chronicle.
Though not so perfect a book as his previous Submission, Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320pp., $27)—translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside—is also a work of urgent brilliance, a messy, ugly, heartbroken résumé of the inadequacy of love in the third millennium of the Judeo-Christian West, which, Houellebecq’s narrator says, “was one millennium too many in the way that boxers have one fight too many.”
Ruth R. Wisse
Is it possible to wish a book into existence? If so, the answer to mine is Jerold Auerbach’s Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95), a comprehensive account of why the paper once considered America’s trustiest source of news and opinion, a paper also serving the country’s largest Jewish community, should have been opposed to the recovery of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, indifferent to the survival of the Jewish people, and ultimately hostile to the reality of the Jewish state. This history unravels the mystery that begins with two almost simultaneous events of 1896/97—Adolph’s Ochs’s buying of the newspaper and Herzl’s founding of the Zionist movement. It is a necessary read, though not a proud one.
A different part of modern Jewish life emerges from Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto: Writing Our History (Yale, 280pp., $28), a selection of translated Yiddish and Hebrew writings lovingly edited by Samuel D. Kassow and David G. Roskies, who have devoted much of their academic work to retrieving original materials from the time of the slaughter. Originally conceived as a companion volume to the film based on Kassow’s earlier book, Who Will Write our History?, it offers readers a sampling from the ghetto archive collected by Emanuel Ringelblum and buried there so that it might survive its authors. This literally disinterred record is the closest we can get to that colossal heroic undertaking and to the lives of those who knew this was their only means of survival.
Sunny Yudkoff’s Tubercular Capital: Illness and the Conditions of Modern Jewish Writing (Stanford, 2018, 256pp., $65), the recent winner of the Salo Baron Prize for the best first book in Jewish studies, is one of those rarities—a lively book based on meticulous scholarship filled with original insight and material that furthers our appreciation of Jewish culture within a very broad international framework. Yudkoff was fascinated by the relation of illness to creativity, and rather than crushing writers and works into some grand theory, she shows how powerfully yet variously tuberculosis figured in the lives of Sholem Aleichem and the Yiddish writers of North America, and of the Hebrew writers Rachel and David Vogel. May the method of this book become a model for comparative studies.
I admit that David Roskies is my brother and Sunny Yudkoff my former student, yet no one who reads their books would suspect me of favoritism. And if I may be permitted an addendum, at the recommendation of my friend, the writer Ann Charney, I read The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing, that has since been recommended to and enjoyed by many of my relatives and friends. Why should I keep this pleasure from other readers of Mosaic?
Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy (Norton, 2018, 288pp., $26.95). Kafka’s “The Trial” ominously reminds us, “No file is ever lost, and the court never forgets.” The posthumous struggle over Kafka’s papers casts a . . . well, ok, Kafkaesque shadow over his legacy. Balint untangles the motivations of the protagonists, guides us through the legal labyrinth, and provides a new angle from which to examine this iconic writer and gnomic sage. An elegant, insightful book.
Yaacob Dweck, Dissident Rabbi: The Life of Jacob Sasportas (Princeton, 504 pp., $45). Although it is true that “without the occasion provided by a mass messianic movement, Sasportas would not have amounted to much more than a biographical curiosity,” he did live in the 17th century when a vast portion of the Jewish world believed Shabbetai Tsvi was the messiah. How did one learned rabbi have the charismatic crankiness to argue against the belief? Dweck does a marvelous job in laying out the scholarly background and arguments, including Sasportas’s most important modern defenders and detractors: Rabbi Jacob Emden, Gershom Scholem, and the Satmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum.
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304pp., $27). I’ve loved all three of Ben Lerner’s novels. And I have had plenty of company. He has won a bunch of awards and should win more with this smart, au-courant tale of an intellectual (an obvious stand-in for the author) growing up as a debating champion in Topeka, Kansas, beset by torrential eloquence and equally torrential masculine rage. Lerner has a poet’s eye and follows Dickinson’s admonition to tell all the truth, but tell it slant.
More about: Arts & Culture, Best Books of the Year, History & Ideas