The Best Books of 2021, Chosen by Mosaic Authors (Part II)

Four more of our writers pick several favorites each, featuring two Ruths, passengers, Lincoln, Verdun, chief rabbis, Jewish Montreal, sweet spots, a fortress, and more.


Observation
Dec. 15 2021
About the authors

Tamara Berens, a former Krauthammer Fellow at Mosaic, is the director of young professional programming at the Tikvah Fund.

Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

Moshe Koppel is a member of the department of computer science at Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem. His book, Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, has just been released by Maggid Books.

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

To mark the close of 2021, we asked several of our writers to name the best three books they’ve read this year, and briefly to explain their choices. We have encouraged them to pick two recent books, and one older one. The first five of their answers appeared yesterday; the remaining four appear below in alphabetical order. (Unless otherwise noted, all books were published in 2021. Classic books are listed by their original publication dates.) 

 

Tamara Berens

 

H.W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom (Doubelday, 2020, 464 pp., $30). I began reading this book as part of a quest over this last year to subsume myself in everything Abraham Lincoln—buying biographies and commentaries, studying his speeches, and going down endless rabbit holes about his Jewish friend Abraham Jonas. My goal was to make sense of, and perhaps also to escape, what felt to me like the crumbling of the American civic framework in 2021—particularly around issues of race and identity.

Escape, I did. While reading this magisterial work of popular history, which weaves together biographies of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln—two very different men who shared a reverence a passion for freedom—I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to another movement for emancipation that emerged just over two decades after John Brown’s execution in 1859: Zionism.

Of course, historical comparisons only go so far. But the stories of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, as told by H.W. Brands in compelling prose rich with detail, echo some of the greatest personalities and the greatest debates from the state of Israel’s founding period. Heroic leadership met with human imperfections (the force of ambition, jealousy, and personal rivalries), conflicting strategies for political success (realism vs. idealism), and the sense throughout that something entirely new was afloat. This brings me to my second recommendation, perhaps not quite a classic of the English language, but certainly a classic of Zionist thought and history. 

Menachem Begin, The Revolt (Steimatzky, 1951, 380pp.). I had the good fortune of receiving as gifts not one but two signed editions of Menachem Begin’s memoir in 2021. (I’m easy to shop for.) Much ink has been spilled about this book, but I simply wish to say that reading it brought me a surprising amount of joy. The Revolt is much more than a history of the Irgun’s fight against the British and of the events leading up to the state of Israel’s creation. Far from it. It is alive: it overflows with Menachem Begin’s own personality and love for the Jewish people, whether he is describing the Soviet gulags or the sinking of the Altalena. As someone who has always wanted to meet Menachem Begin, I almost felt I had.

My one regret is that my Hebrew is not good enough to allow me to read the original. Fortunately, the Revisionist writer and politician Shmuel Katz, who produced the 1951 English edition, appears to have done a masterful job, retaining much of the awkwardness of Israeli syntax and Begin’s occasional casual expressions. Reading the book feels like peering into Menachem Begin’s deepest wants and fears. He is determined not just to set his own story straight, but to vindicate dozens of his compatriots and friends, “the heroes and martyrs of the Irgun,” whom he identifies by full name and hometown in every possible instance, even if it means digressing from the narrative. But Begin is not satisfied with appeals to emotion. At every step, he outlines with great detail the decision process behind the Irgun’s tactical and strategic choices, informed by deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of its enemy, Great Britain—and an unwavering commitment to Jewish pride.

Leon Kass and Hannah Mandelbaum, Reading Ruth: Birth, Redemption, and the Way of Israel (Paul Dry Books, 125pp., $16.21). As is the case with many ordinary yidden, the book of Ruth appeals to me in a way that other biblical texts do not. (This is compounded by the fact that my bat mitzvah fell very close to the festival of Shavuot, when Ruth is traditionally read or studied.) When I heard the great Leon Kass would be publishing a new commentary on the book of Ruth with his granddaughter Hannah Mandelbaum—see Hillel Halkin and Meir Soloveichik’s wonderful reflections on this commentary here—I was overjoyed. Kass and Mandelbaum began the project of reading Ruth together upon the passing in 2015 of Leon Kass’s wife, Amy Kass, to whom this book is dedicated. Their close reading of the text, as they describe it, produced observations, insights, and questions, leading them to write up these notes and publish a beautiful commentary.

Unlike my two previous choices, this book does not deal with any groundbreaking event, battle, or conflict. Kass and Mandelbaum note that Ruth is a “modest domestic tale of woe and redemption.” But their marvelous insights into this tale’s personal, moral, and national dimensions reveal the immense wisdom it offers the Jewish people.

For many modern Jewish readers, Ruth appears to be a generic allegory about accepting the stranger. Kass and Mandelbaum warn against making too much of this reading, explaining that Ruth is a particular kind of stranger—a Moabitess—and that Moab is a particularly abhorred nation. Nonetheless, one of their many insights is that we, the reader, are ourselves too quick to judge Ruth as a stranger, and that we in fact undergo our own private redemption towards the end with our shock at Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. Kass and Mandelbaum are in dialogue simultaneously with each other, the text, and us as readers of their commentary.

Kass and Mandelbaum’s journey through the book of Ruth was fascinating and stimulating from an intellectual standpoint. It also made me long for the simple warmth of rediscovering a familiar biblical text with a loved one.

 

Moshe Koppel

 

This year, I’m recommending 2.9 books that share the quality of touching on fundamental questions—including those for which intellectual fashions require assent to dogma—with an admirable combination of depth and dispassion.

In The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning (Ecco, 304pp., $27.99), Paul Bloom wrestles with the problem of “chosen suffering”: people voluntarily engaging in activities that are usually experienced as painful or stressful while they’re being performed. These include extreme sports, horror movies, and rituals like circumcision, as well as such grander undertakings as having children and the pursuit of achievements requiring great sacrifices. This riddle turns out to be an entry point to an insightful, if occasionally meandering, contemplation on the difference between hedonic pleasure and a meaningful and satisfying life.

Knowledge, Reality, and Value: A Mostly Common Sense Guide to Philosophy (independently published, 346pp., $14.99) by Michael Huemer delivers exactly what the subtitle promises. Huemer deals with all the big philosophical questions: the limits of human knowledge, the existence of God, free will, personal identity, ethics, and meta-ethics. But he doesn’t regurgitate who said what when, and he uses no more jargon than he absolutely needs. He lays out arguments and counterarguments in a reader-friendly way and isn’t embarrassed to make a strong case for the existence of the soul and for moral realism—that is, the idea that the difference between right and wrong isn’t purely subjective.

The first 308 pages of Steven Pinker’s Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Viking, 432pp., $32) are an excellent summary of what might be called best practices in reasoning, including some basic ideas in propositional logic, game theory, Bayesian reasoning, regression, and so on. This part is written with Pinker’s characteristic clarity, verve, and fairness. But, just when he has set up what promises to be a discussion of the tradeoffs between retaining long-held beliefs and yielding to new contrary evidence or between respecting foundational myths that promote solidarity and entertaining ideas that subvert them, Pinker instead launches into a cliched screed, arguing (in essence) that Republicans are morons and that there are grounds for optimism regarding the rise of rationality in the de-platforming of politicians he doesn’t like. The first nine-tenths of the book justify investing in it, but consider stopping while you’re ahead.

 

Andrew Koss

 

When the journalist and critic Diane Cole came to me earlier this year wanting to review Ulrich Boschwitz’s novel The Passenger (Macmillan, 288pp., $24.99), I was of course intrigued by the story behind it: written about Kristallnacht almost immediately after the fact by a Jew who lived through it, escaped Germany, and then died at sea, the book was only published in English translation this year, through the efforts of one of the author’s relatives. The question before me was: did the book have intrinsic literary merit? I read it, and found that it did, in spades. Like one of those science-fiction movies where, one by one, the human characters are revealed to be aliens in human form, The Passenger shows the protagonist discovering that Gentile friends and family members won’t make the least effort to help him now that Germany has branded its Jews anathema. But I can’t add anything more that hasn’t already been said better in Diane’s review.

Staying within the same historical milieu, I recently read Arnold Zweig’s Education before Verdun (Viking, 1936)—a book I only became aware of because my parents found a copy in their basement. Published in Germany in 1935, it is the prequel to Zweig’s earlier World War I novel, The Case of Sergeant Grischa, and is set during and after the 1916 battle of Verdun, one of the war’s longest, bloodiest, and must significant. The book’s action takes place, for the most part, just behind the front line, and is driven by the constant political maneuvering and petty squabbles within the army. Its hero is an unassuming but deeply moral Jewish private, who finds common cause with a lieutenant from a highly respectable family who has embraced the warrior ethos—and along with it a sense of justice and chivalry. Together they face both the French army and a hopelessly corrupt German military machine. While Zweig’s occasional clumsiness or heavy-handedness show him not to be a writer of the first rank, the book is a hidden gem and a powerful indictment of a morally bankrupt Germany, surpassing such widely-read World War I novels as A Farewell to Arms.

I’ve also been reading Dovid Kamenetsky’s detailed and fascinating biography of Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky (Hebrew, 2020, 688pp, $33.95), who was, for all intents and purposes, the last chief rabbi of Vilna and one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, even if he’s little remembered today outside of ḥaredi circles. Grodzinsky was, in his day, the unquestionable leader of non-ḥasidic Orthodox Jews in the Russian empire—and, after its fall, in Poland. By combining talmudic erudition at the highest level with active, hands-on involvement in communal affairs, Grodzenski pioneered a new model of rabbinic leadership, which, by my lights, has served Ḥaredim poorly, primarily because his successors have lacked his unique combination of abilities. He also differed from those around him in being not an anti-Zionist, but a non-Zionist, who often collaborated with Zionist rabbis. After the outbreak of World War II, he stayed with his flock despite having the opportunity to flee Europe, and died in 1940 of natural causes during the Soviet occupation.

A rabbi himself with impeccable ḥaredi bona fides, Kamenetsky has produced something that is neither hagiography nor scholarly biography. The meticulous footnotes often take up most of the page, and documents are quoted in full, alongside photographic reproductions of the original. That’s not to mention the countless photos of people and places. (The book may be one of the heaviest, and certainly the densest, I’ve ever held.) Rather than try to depict his subject as a saint or genius, the author creates a treasure trove of information that brings the reader deeply into this bygone rabbinic milieu. This volume only covers the years from 1863 to 1910. I eagerly await the next one.

Saving the last for best, I’d like to mention Ruth Wisse’s Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation (Wicked Son, 368pp., $28), an earlier version of which was originally published serially in Mosaic. Whether describing the Jewish Montreal of her childhood, her friendships with the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever and the socialist writer and critic Irving Howe, or her battles at Harvard, every chapter shines. Even those who don’t agree with Wisse’s uncompromising politics will find this book a treasure, and all the more so those who do. Since whatever praise I give will be insufficient, I’ll just say: go buy it now!

 

Eli Spitzer

 

The story of ḥasidic Jews in the U.S. is of central interest to anyone who wants to navigate the emerging Judaism of the 21st century. It is not a story, however, that has generally been told well. A rare exception is A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg (Yale, 408pp, $30) by Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper. The secret of its success is its narrow focus on housing and local politics, showing how the Satmar ḥasidic sect in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood effectively used local economic and political realities to maintain its distinctiveness and sense of community. Whereas New York social and economic liberalism has consistently pushed ethnic groups either upwards into cosmopolitan liberalism or downwards into ghetto squalor, Deutsch and Casper have shown how Ḥasidim employed collective tools to build a thriving and proudly unassimilated community. It’s only a part of the story, but that is all the book sets out to do, and it does it very well.

Speaking of the New York Jew, the most grimly fascinating book I read this year was Ashley Rindsberg’s The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions, and Fabrications Radically Alter History (Midnight Oil, 284pp., $24.99), a meticulous and damning tale of how America’s paper of record has used, and all too often, abused, its uniquely potent influence over respectable American public opinion. Rindsberg’s chief source is simply the many tens of thousands of editions of the Times where its recurrent distortions of reality are hiding in plain sight. Many institutions came out of the mid-20th century tainted by some form of collaboration with either Stalin or Hitler; the New York Times stands out for having run blatantly deceitful propaganda on behalf of both.

Behind Rindsberg’s litany of journalistic misdeeds lies a publishing dynasty consumed by the Communist sympathies endemic among the American aristocracy, and with a tortured relationship with its Jewish roots, which manifested itself in instinctively siding with almost anyone murdering Jews. Today, more and more conservatives are starting to suspect that elite media institutions are not merely biased, but intent on systematically distorting reality. Rindsberg tracks the changes in the Times’s financial model that have increasingly incentivized its journalists to put ideology before accuracy, but, sadly, it seems the main difference between 1931 and 2021 is not that the New York Times deceives more, but that the Internet makes it easier to catch those lies in real time.

My final pick is Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (Princeton, 2020, 544pp., $30) by Edmund Fawcett, who weaves together his remarkable erudition concerning 200 years of conservative politics in Britain, America, France, and Germany to create a persuasive and coherent portrait. Although a left-liberal, Fawcett treats his subjects with scrupulous fairness, at least up until very recent history. The sheer volume of encyclopedic detail reveals a persuasive argument that conservatism’s vitality is a result of the ability of its thinkers and politicians to abandon their former principles so as to choose a more popular hill to die on, and then, once slain, to pick themselves up again for the next crusade. Fawcett shows that conservatism’s role within the liberal-democratic order is analogous to friction in physics: it succeeds in stopping the train from sliding out of control, but it can’t stop the train, let alone steer it. Fawcett ends with an impassioned plea to the democratic right not to abandon its historic role of conserving liberalism and succumb to the blandishments of the “hard right” that dreams of bursting into the driver’s cabin. Many right-leaning readers of the book, however, will surely arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion.

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