As National Jewish Heritage Month comes to an end we wanted to highlight some recent books that have a Jewish culture connection that have received high praise.

iamforbiddenI Am Forbidden: A Novel

by Anouk Markovits

The extraordinary story of a sister who believes and a sister who rebels, set inside the most insular Hasidic sect, the Satmar.

     Spanning four generations, from pre-World War II Transylvania to 1960s Paris to contemporary New York, Markovits’s masterful novel shows what happens when unwavering love and unyielding law clash–a rabbi will save himself while his followers perish; a Gentile maid will be commanded to give up the boy she rescued because he is not of her faith; two devoted sisters will be forced apart when one begins to question their religion’s ancient doctrine. One sister embraces and finds comfort in the constraints of the world she’s always known, while the other knows she will suffocate in a life without intellectual freedom. Separated by the rules of their community, the two sisters are brought together again when a family secret threatens to make pariahs of them all. Dark, powerful, and utterly compelling, I Am Forbidden takes us deep inside the minds of those who leave their restrictive environments, and deeply into the souls of those who struggle to stay.

From the secret lives of these women to the lifelong bond of sisterhood to the paralyzing effects of WWII, countless issues are raised, making it an ideal choice for any book club.

Anouk Markovits has a remarkable life story–she attended religious schools and left home to avoid an arranged marriage. She has lived in France and New York, where much of the novel is set.

The wonder of this elegant, enthralling novel is the beauty Ms. Markovits unearths in the Hasidic community she takes us into. Ms. Markovits, big-hearted and surprising, tenderly captures the complexities of adulthood for the one who stayed…. I Am Forbidden whips by, its extravagant narrative steadily cast with complicated, thoughtful characters.” –Susannah Meadows, The New York Times

Markovits makes her stamp on the literary world with an ambitious, religiously-centered debut. [T]his ambitious, revelatory novel richly rewards your efforts and heralds a promising new writer.” –Entertainment Weekly

A lyrical novel about obedience, rebellion and tragedy by an author who grew up in the Hasidic community she writes about. With poetic grace, she succeeds at depicting the culture from the inside out, conveying the way in which a life of limitation and law can provide a bulwark of meaning.” –Ilana Teitelbaum, Huffington Post
acenturyofwisdomA Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
by Caroline Stoessinger; Foreword by Vaclav Havel

An inspiring story of resilience and the power of optimism–the life lessons and wisdom of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor, as gleaned through her remarkable life.

At 107 years old, Alice Herz-Sommer is the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, as well as the world’s oldest concert pianist. An eyewitness to the entire last century and the first decade of this one, she has seen it all. Despite her years of imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the murders of her mother, husband, and friends at the hands of the Nazis, Alice is victorious in her ability to move on, to live each day in the present. She has wasted no time on bitterness toward her oppressors and the executioners of her family and instead lives every day as though it is a gift. Alice’s World is the remarkable and inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong determination–in the face of some of the worst evils known to man–to bring good to the world, which has helped her to persevere and live a long and vital life.
A treasure trove of insight and reflection. Herz-Sommer’s life is a tribute to the purity of artistic endeavor under the most devastating circumstances, and her refusal to be bitterly defined or essentially reshaped by tragedy is a testament to moral and spiritual courage.” – Booklist
As if her 108 years of experience alone were not enough to coax you, there is the overarching fact that draws people to Herz-Sommer’s story: She survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and is believed to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor.” -The Washington Post

I have rarely read a Holocaust survivor’s memoir as enriching and meaningful. Get Caroline Stoessinger’s book, A Century of Wisdom, telling Alice Herz-Sommer’s tale of her struggles and triumphs. You will feel rewarded.” – Elie Wiesel

As one of millions who fell in love on YouTube with Alice Herz-Sommer, a 108-year-old Holocaust survivor who plays the piano and greets each day with no hint of bitterness, I’m grateful to Caroline Stoessinger for writing a book that explains this mystery. You will be inspired by the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, who lives to teach us.”-Gloria Steinem

Sacred trashSacred Trash: the Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

One May day in 1896, at a dining-room table in Cambridge, England, a meeting took place between a Romanian-born maverick Jewish intellectual and twin learned Presbyterian Scotswomen, who had assembled to inspect several pieces of rag paper and parchment. It was the unlikely start to what would prove a remarkable, continent-hopping, century-crossing saga, and one that in many ways has revolutionized our sense of what it means to lead a Jewish life.

In Sacred Trash, MacArthur-winning poet and translator Peter Cole and acclaimed essayist Adina Hoffman tell the story of the retrieval from an Egyptian geniza, or repository for worn-out texts, of the most vital cache of Jewish manuscripts ever discovered. This tale of buried scholarly treasure weaves together unforgettable portraits of Solomon Schechter and the other heroes of this drama with explorations of the medieval documents themselves-letters and poems, wills and marriage contracts, Bibles, money orders, fiery dissenting tracts, fashion-conscious trousseaux lists, prescriptions, petitions, and mysterious magical charms. Presenting a panoramic view of nine hundred years of vibrant Mediterranean Judaism, Hoffman and Cole bring modern readers into the heart of this little-known trove, whose contents have rightly been dubbed “the Living Sea Scrolls.” Part biography and part meditation on the supreme value the Jewish people has long placed on the written word, Sacred Trash is above all a gripping tale of adventure and redemption.

Both lively and elevating . . . An extended act of celebration of Cairo’s historical Jewish community, their documents, and their documents’ 20th-century students . . . wonderfully revived by Hoffman and Cole.” – Anthony Julius, The New York Times Book Review

Hoffman and Cole’s vivid portrayal of the discovery of the ancient Cairo Geniza . . . is equal parts treasure hunt for the sacred and historical, and Herculean rescue of important texts . . . Sacred Trash is a wonderfully accessible and exciting account of ‘numerous heroes, medieval and modern’ and their discoveries of artifacts that have transformed our understanding of the interplay between history and religion.” -The Boston Globe

A wonderfully passionate and lively account of a civilization we could not have imagined existed and of the men and women whose enthusiasm and dedication brought it to light.”
-Gabriel Josipovici, The Wall Street Journal

Absorbing . . . Hoffman and Cole are adroit in their exegesis . . . [Sacred Trash is] an accessible, neatly narrated story of hallowed detritus and the resurrection of nearly 1,000 years of culture and learning.” – Kirkus Reviews

JerusalemJerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

From the author of the acclaimed biographies Stalin and Young Stalin, this is the New York Times bestselling history of Jerusalem as told through the lives of men and women who created, destroyed, conquered, and believed in the Holy City.

Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgment Day, and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilizations. From King David to the 21st century, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of three thousand years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism, and coexistence. In this masterful narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore brings the holy city to life, through the people who created and destroyed it-from Herod, Cleopatra, and Nero to Churchill, Rasputin, and Truman. Montefiore has written a page-turning narrative that draws on the latest scholarship, his own family history, and a lifetime of study to show that the story of Jerusalem is truly the story of the world.

Magnificent…Montefiore barely misses a trick or a character in taking us through the city’s story with compelling, breathless tension.” – The Wall Street Journal

Impossible to put down…A vastly enjoyable chronicle [with] many fascinating asides…. Montefiore has a fine eye for the telling detail, and also a powerful feel for a good story.” – New York Times Book Review

Magisterial…. As a writer, Montefiore has an elegant turn of phrase and an unerring ear for the anecdote that will cut to the heart of a story…. A joy to read.” – The Economist

metamausMetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman


Visually and emotionally rich, MetaMaus is as groundbreaking as the masterpiece whose creation it reveals. In the pages of MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman re-enters the Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, the modern classic that has altered how we see literature, comics, and the Holocaust ever since it was first published twenty-five years ago.

He probes the questions that Maus most often evokes-Why the Holocaust? Why mice? Why comics?-and gives us a new and essential work about the creative process.

MetaMaus includes a bonus DVD-R that provides a digitized reference copy of The Complete Maus linked to a deep archive of audio interviews with his survivor father, historical documents, and a wealth of Spiegelman’s private notebooks and sketches.

Compelling and intimate, MetaMaus is poised to become a classic in its own right.
Richly rewarding…The book also serves as a master class on the making and reading of comics…The last frame encapsulates in one single moment the artfulness behind the tale we’ve just read, and the uneasy combination of filial pride and anger that flowed through Maus and flows through Metamaus as well.”  – The New York Times Book Review

Why the Holocaust? Why mice? Why comics? Spiegelman answers intelligently, articulately, and with a high degree of psychological and aesthetic penetration.”  – Booklist, starred review

Striking…a treasure trove of material.” -Shelf Awareness

Fascinating and often provocative…the accompanying DVD will satisfy the insatiable appetite.” -Kirkus

Sure to breed excitement.” -Library Journal

unterzakhnUnterzakhn by Leela Corman

A mesmerizing, heartbreaking graphic novel of immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of twin sisters whose lives take radically and tragically different paths.

For six-year-old Esther and Fanya, the teeming streets of New York’s Lower East Side circa 1910 are both a fascinating playground and a place where life’s lessons are learned quickly and often cruelly. In drawings that capture both the tumult and the telling details of that street life, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “Underthings”) tells the story of these sisters: as wide-eyed little girls absorbing the sights and sounds of a neighborhood of struggling immigrants; as teenagers taking their own tentative steps into the wider world (Esther working for a woman who runs both a burlesque theater and a whorehouse, Fanya for an obstetrician who also performs illegal abortions); and, finally, as adults battling for their own piece of the “golden land,” where the difference between just barely surviving and triumphantly succeeding involves, for each of them, painful decisions that will have unavoidably tragic repercussions.
Historically informed and aesthetically compelling . . . Heavily inked cartoons beautifully depict period details and the Hester Street gossips as times evolve, and show how the two sisters’ similarities change into stark differences in appearance as they age. The text, salted with Yiddish, and the eloquently detailed images meld together to make this a good choice for readers who enjoyed Eleanor Widmer’s Up from Orchard Street or Hubert and Kerascoet’s Miss Don’t Touch Me.” – Booklist

Set in New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Unterzakhn follows the lives of two sisters, Fanya and Esther . . . Corman gracefully traces both young women’s efforts to maintain control of their bodies in an unpredictable and at times violent world. She steeps her striking black-and-white artwork with period details, particularly in the clothes and the bustling street scenes. In a flashback scene set in Russia, especially, she echoes the swirling evocative style of Russian folk art . . . The story of Fanya and Esther’s struggles is beautifully drawn and hard to forget.” – Publishers Weekly

In the footsteps of Art Spiegelman comes Leela Corman. Like the renowned creator of Maus, she employs the graphic novel form, but rather than address the Holocaust she is addressing the Jewish immigrant experience on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.”
-The Jewish Week (New York)

National Jewish Heritage Month: Recent Jewish Interest Books

Category: Reviews

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