To mark the close of 2018, we asked a handful of our writers to name the best two or three books they read this year, and briefly to explain their choices. Their answers appear below in alphabetical order. (Unless otherwise noted, all books were published in 2018.)
Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Viking, 1152pp., $40). The best one-volume biography of Churchill, and a deeply engaging and fun read.
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (Penguin, 1184pp., $40). This is the second of a projected three-volume biography. Like the first volume, it is fascinating on the historical, ideological, political, and psychological levels.
Micah Goodman, Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War (Yale, 264pp., $26). This is a blunt and vigorous appraisal of the predicament at the heart of Israel’s generation-long political crisis. It examines the collapse of coherent dialogue about the Palestinian question in Israeli public debate, from its intellectual roots in the ideologies and identities that once defined Israel’s right and left to the way each side’s expectations have been thwarted by Palestinian politics and intransigence. It proposes a turn away from the quintessentially Israeli habit of seeking decisive, permanent solutions to problems and suggests ways of minimizing Israeli military rule without endangering national security. Goodman was castigated by the left for failing to grasp the dangers of remaining in the West Bank, and by the right for implicitly acknowledging the existence of an “occupation” and urging its reduction. Yet that bludgeoning only expanded his audience, including in Israel’s halls of power. His book is probably the best guide produced in recent years to the present state of Israeli political discourse, and to its woeful limitations.
Nathan Thrall, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine (Metropolitan Books, 2017, 336pp., $28). This is a knowledgeable and bold retelling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that forces readers to take a serious and fresh look at their assumptions. Throughout its counterintuitive retelling of this history, it offers an unusually provocative and sometimes startling contribution to the genre. That it is over-eager in its conclusion—namely, that greater international pressure could deliver peace, particularly after the failures of Oslo—does not take away from its great strength: whether by convincing the reader or, as will likely be the case for most Israeli readers, by emphatically failing to do so, this is a book that clarifies. (Read Mosaic’s review here—Ed.)
Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy (Norton, 288pp., $26.95). This was a delightful discovery, a deep dive into the final trial in 2016, in Israel’s Supreme Court, over who would inherit Franz Kafka’s surviving manuscripts. From that narrow premise, the book delivers a surprisingly poignant social and cultural portrait of the death throes of a European Jewish world, and of the people trapped in various ways in the aftermath of that collapse. In the very narrowness of its focus, and in the clarity of its prose, it manages to raise larger questions about Kafka’s lost world and what it might mean for the radically different Jewish culture in Israel to think of itself as the former world’s “heir.” This is also a bittersweet, timely chronicle of the experience of alienation felt by those who find themselves tossed from one cultural world to another and are never again able to belong fully to either. It is thus also an implicit meditation on the rarely noticed rifts that divide like aquarium glass the realities and experiences of divergent Jewish cultures.
Chaim Saiman’s Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton, 320pp., $29.95) is a fair and balanced account of halakhah, focusing on the ways in which it slides along an axis between the pole of theoretical Torah study as a devotional act and the pole of regulation as part of an applied legal system. (You can read an excerpt here, and my review here.)
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 576pp., $35) marshals abundant evidence suggesting that by many measures—health, longevity, tranquility, etc.—life is better today than in the past. Pinker ignores other measures of life’s quality—purposefulness and spiritual fulfillment, for example—and makes a weak case that the improvement is largely attributable to secularism, but he deserves credit for doing his homework.
Chaim Navon’s Striking Roots (in Hebrew, Makim Shorashim; Y’diot Sfarim, 192pp., NIS 98) has not yet been translated into English, but it ought to be. Writing with a light touch, Navon offers a Jewish take on the inner contradictions of postmodernism and its destructive effects on family and community.
For many years, I have been waiting for a book that makes the case for nationalism using the most compelling arguments and evidence from history, political philosophy, and moral thought. Yoram Hazony, in The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic, 304pp., $30), has written that book. It’s the most insightful and important work I’ve read in the last several years, and despite its erudition it is also remarkably accessible. In reading and teaching from it, I learned much that has affected my understanding of the origins of nations, the profound and often unexpected arguments in favor of an international order based on national states, the perennial attraction of imperialism, the elusiveness of genuine tolerance for opposing views, and the sources of today’s ferocious hostility to American and Israeli nationalism. (Read Mosaic’s review here—Ed.)
My love of freedom leads me to bristle whenever a reviewer opines that a particular book should be required reading for all people in a particular group—whether or not I happen to fall in the category of those being instructed on how to spend their limited reading time. The first instance when I can recall wanting to violate my own sensibilities by offering such a wholesale prescription myself was after reading Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 352pp., $28). The authors—a free-speech lawyer and a social psychologist, respectively—marshal substantial evidence, theoretical sophistication, and common sense to explain the root causes behind a range of deeply troubling phenomena that have exploded onto the scene in American higher education recently, from trigger warnings and safe spaces to the “call-out culture” and the disinviting of speakers deemed likely to offend. They also offer wise suggestions for what can be done by parents, teachers, psychologists, professors, and administrators to change things in ways that will be far better for young people growing up in the U.S. and around the world.
As an American immigrant to Israel who lives in Jerusalem, I am hardly the intended audience for Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (Harper, 224pp., $24.99); and in light of my discomfort at Halevi’s (to me, excessive) tendency to place blame on Israelis, I am not naturally predisposed to accept the teachings he offers. Yet as I read the book in a single, continuous sitting, I was enlightened by the extraordinary insights that filled page after page, often on topics I thought I knew quite well. I was also moved by the haunting beauty of the superbly crafted language, by the many passages that speak to my deepest yearnings, and especially by coming to know better the extraordinary soul of the author—a thoroughly decent man in love with his people and his land, committed to intellectual honesty, extreme in his observance of the rabbinic commandment to judge others favorably, and inspired by the hope of contributing to a renewed sense of purpose for individuals and nations.
Long before I read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 409pp., $29.95), I watched a number of videos, on a broad array of subjects, by this polymath Canadian clinical psychologist and public intellectual who in recent years has become an international rock star, albeit a controversial one. Impressed by the breathtaking range of his knowledge, his exceptional candor, his admirable courage, and by the complex but ultimately optimistic worldview he lays out, I picked up his book on how people can live better lives—and was not at all disappointed. Peterson, a fiercely independent thinker whose fundamental assumptions about human nature and society are generally conservative, succeeds in laying out a dozen powerful principles that have the ring of truth. He offers a series of what he calls “meditations,” lengthy and generally fascinating explorations of a profound subject that ultimately yield insights that are clear and simple, yet quite profound and potentially life-changing.
In her novel Eternal Life (Norton, 244pp., $25.95), Dara Horn takes on the oft-explored literary question of what it might mean to live forever. She folds this question into the larger historical-religious experience of the Jewish people, who have for centuries blessed the Torah with the words “for eternal life He has placed in our midst.” The story focuses on Rachel—the mother of the 2nd-century-CE talmudic sage Yoḥanan ben Zakkai—who cannot seem to die, try as she might. Deftly touching on themes of motherhood, mourning, and eternity, the novel shows its heroine experiencing the full and devastating brunt of Jewish history while still embracing her responsibilities toward her children in the present. Eternal Life is a highly absorbing read that manages to teach something important about the substance of Jewish tradition.
In The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic, 304pp., $30), the philosopher Yoram Hazony offers an illuminating counterweight to the prevailing contemporary climate that views the resurgence of nationalism in the West as cause for alarm. For Hazony, nationalism is the ideal political order, through which peoples can draw on a sense of mutual loyalty to compete among, rather than overpower, surrounding nations. This mode of political organization, he argues, is rooted in the Bible’s portrait of the nation of Israel. Hazony likens contemporary liberalism to the totalizing imperial regimes of the past, and holds up Israel and the United States as healthy examples of societies in which national freedom and identity on the one hand, and individual liberty and flourishing on the other, can work together.
The Outcast & Other Tales (Toby Press, 232pp., $24.95) is the fifteenth and final book in a series of translations of the work of the modern Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon. This collection includes a range of stories from different stages of Agnon’s career, some of which have not previously been translated. The Agnon Library, masterfully spearheaded by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, has been a revelation to me. In Agnon, I’ve discovered a writer who anticipates and elevates nearly every religious, cultural, and political conundrum faced by the committed Jew in modern times, an ability on display in this volume in the novella “The Outcast” and in several parable-like short stories. Also included are some more austere, even Kafkaesque stories that demonstrate Agnon’s cutting-edge modernist sensibility. So great are Agnon’s Jewish knowledge and literary virtuosity that much modern Jewish literature pales in comparison. (Read Hillel Halkin’s essay on Agnon, and the responses to it, here—Ed.)
The Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (Yale, 960pp., $40) is a hefty but very readable history of snooping, from the Bible to today’s digital espionage. My own favorite part is Andrew’s creative retelling of the story of Joshua and the twelve spies, a throwback to the whimsical British biblical exegesis of the 19th century.
Sticking to the Bible, but from a more theological angle, I suggest Scott Shay’s In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism (Post Hill Press, 640pp., $35). Committed Jews are too often afraid to analyze the dominant scientific and ethical theories of our time. But engage them we must—lest we be swallowed by them. Writing as an Orthodox Jew, Shay deals frankly but non-polemically with criticism of the Bible and biblical religion, and points to common ground between the Bible and modern science in their shared rejection of idolatry.
Finally, plaudits to Gregory McBrayer, who has edited a new collection of the shorter works of the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon, complete with fresh literal translations and interpretative essays by distinguished scholars. The Shorter Writings (Cornell, 414pp. $24.95) features Xenophon’s reflections on subjects ranging from tyranny, political economy, hunting with dogs, and the ways of life of Athens and Sparta, the two most interesting Greek cities. By writing on topics that can at first glance sometimes appear quite mundane, Xenophon shows how the greatest philosophical puzzles can be seen through the practical problems of life out in the world.
Some of the best portrayals of Jewish life in America are being produced today by Israeli writers. Maya Arad’s latest book, The Hebrew Teacher (Ha-morah l’ivrit, Ḥargol, 248pp., NIS 88), is a case in point. I especially loved the first of its three tales, a perfectly observed showdown between two very different Israeli academics teaching at a Midwestern university: one who loves Israel and Jewish culture but is close to retirement, the other a tenure-track hire on the make and a typical specimen of the anti-Israel academic left. As I wrote in a review earlier this year, “Arad’s stock-in-trade is a rare mix of intellect and warmth.” I hope her fiction is soon translated into English for an American readership.
Speaking of translation, Adam Mickiewicz’s 1834 Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania (Archipelago, 496pp., $18), generally considered Poland’s national epic, is now accessible in the translator Bill Johnston’s relaxed rhymed couplets. Mickewicz’s reverie of country squires in Lithuania is strangely slippery, an exercise in nostalgia that raises questions about what one is supposed to be nostalgic for. It reminds me of the paintings of his French contemporary Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, which make you wistful for things you didn’t experience in the first place. The poem, written after the dismemberment of Poland and while Mickiewicz was living in exile, offers much food for thought in connection with our current heated debates over the nature of nationalism, not least in its portrayal of Jankiel, the Jewish innkeeper who “loved his homeland [Poland] as a Pole” and is famous for his music—
Though Jewish, he spoke the Polish tongue quite clearly,
And Polish songs he loved especially dearly
—and yet who himself never speaks in the poem.
To return to American Jewish landscapes, the famous ideological war between Stalinists and Trotskyists among young Jews at City College in the 1930s seems to have been only slightly more rancorous than the factional disputes—also carried out in the main by left-wing Jewish City College students—among rival science-fiction fan clubs (with a young Isaac Asimov in the mix). So one learns from Alec Nevala-Lee’s group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street, 544pp., $28.99), whose subtitle names, along with the three famous authors, the magazine editor who launched their careers and much of the golden age of American sci-fi. Since today’s social-justice warriors (the intellectually diminished descendants of the Stalinists) have made science fiction into yet another joyless front in their culture wars, it is worth noting one of the merits of Nevala-Lee’s engaging and well-researched portrait: his frank treatment of the less savory aspects of his subjects. He does not shy away from Asimov’s groping of women, Campbell’s race attitudes, or Hubbard’s megalomania and charlatanry. But he is too busy telling their stories, and how their stories shaped the American mid-century imagination, to stop and applaud himself and his readers for being morally superior.
Ruth R. Wisse
What does it mean to be an “eternal people”? The phrase is usually invoked to affirm Jewish survival in the face of catastrophes that would have crushed a lesser nation. But Dara Horn’s novel Eternal Life (Norton, 244pp., $25.95) undertakes to animate the experience of having to carry on and on. Her Mother Rachel does not lie in her tomb awaiting the eventual return of her children: she is the lover and life-giver who must ceaselessly accompany her mortal children, the mother who is doomed never to die. The idea of this book is as bold as its execution, and it began to haunt me even as I was reading it.
Given the size of Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (Princeton, 2017, 1128pp., $39.95), I was still reading it well into this year. Truthfully, its length alone does not account for my slow pace. No episode in modern history deserves closer scrutiny than that of the self-styled idealists who became mass murderers when they implemented Communism to create the Soviet Union. Slezkine usefully deconstructs this social experiment, apartment by apartment, person by person, shifting the horror from dictatorial “Stalin” to the individuals who turned criminal in trying to “repair the world.” The book is riveting and important, but I found the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole.
A documentary series on major Hebrew writers entitled Ha’ivrim includes a film on the life of the Israeli Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever—Black Honey, now selectively screening in North America. (Disclosure: I am one of the interviewees.) Happily, more of Sutzkever’s poetry will soon be available in the bilingual collection The Full Pomegranate (State University of New York, 2019, 320pp.), lovingly translated by Richard Fein with an introduction by Justin Cammy. Because Fein chooses very personally from Sutzkever’s entire opus—from his earliest poems of Siberian childhood to his summary reflections as an octogenarian—the book reveals the poet in a certain hue, as an innermost thinker rather than the public-historic figure featured in the documentary. These two complementary representations begin to situate this great figure where he belongs in the cultural pantheon.
Steven Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (Liveright, 288pp, $27.95). A brilliant examination of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, which in that more innocent age became shorthand for the persecution of the Jews. Zipperstein explains both the background and the effects of the event itself and tells the story of the creation of Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s famous poem about the pogrom, which helped changed the Jewish self-conception forever. A compelling and important read.
James A. Diamond, Jewish Theology Unbound (Oxford, 304pp., $99). A modern, learned, philosophical theology by a specialist in Maimonides that covers topics from the classical—God, angels, martyrdom, and the like—to the pressing issues of modernity, including the Shoah and the state of Israel. Although priced to be bought by plutocrats, it should be read by every thoughtful and searching Jew.
The Pritzker Zohar (Stanford, 12 volumes, $700). This work, which took over fifteen years to complete, is one of the great scholarly achievements of the age. Under the supervision of Daniel Matt—who did the bulk of the translation and annotation himself—the mystical masterpiece has been rendered into English that is both lyrical and sober. It belongs in every Jewish library for inspiration, wonder, and admiration.
I’d also like to add a word for Ḥakirah: the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought. It comes out four times a year, is less known than it should be, and contains a reliable wealth of Jewish learning and insight.