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A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 6/28/19

June 28, 2019

All the books I have read since last June have value. But rather than categorizing them according to a Top Ten List, this year I’m going to utilize a different format.

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Profound:

 

Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah.

 

This is the most surprising book I read this year. I am familiar with the author as the comedic host of The Daily Show.  What I didn’t expect was a moving account of growing-up as a bi-racial kid in apartheid South Africa. Humor and tragedy; adversity and triumph exist in equal measure.

 

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi.

 

I approached this book with trepidation because I knew the narrative: a young, brilliant neurosurgeon is diagnosed with lung cancer and dies. But the author’s courage in facing his illness and his exquisite prose are ultimately not depressing but inspiring.

 

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari.

 

You may notice a trend here. All three books listed so far have been bestsellers.

 

With Sapiens, I do not recall ever reading a book so comprehensive. Harari offers his view of human history from a wide number of disciplines, including anthropology, economics, politics, and biology. I do not agree with every point he makes but I dare say this is a work of genius.

 

Dear Zealots, Letters from a Divided Land, Amos Oz.

 

This is a spare book from one of Israel’s literary lions. It is also his last. The author embraces the maddening contradictions of his native land, exhibiting unflinching humanism while imploring Israelis to make peace with Palestinians.

 

Entertaining

 

Two of my favorite writers, Nathan Englander and Gary Shteyngart, produced novels this past year.  Englander’s Kaddish.com is far more light-hearted than his previous works. With humor and compassion, this book toggles between North America and Israel; tradition and modernity

 

Shteyngart’s Lake Success is wildly funny and filled with unexpected twists. The main character, Barry Cohen, is a scoundrel, filled with delusions and deceit. Yet through the course of the book, I grew attached to this shmendrick

Enlightening


Informative

 

The Soul of America, The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham.

 

Meacham thesis is that embedded in our country’s character are forces of good and evil; progress and repression.   Reading this nuanced account of our nation’s history provides perspective and even hope during our own age of political turbulence. 

 

Presidents of War, The Epic Story from 1807 to Modern Times, Michael Beschloss.

 

The founders of our country feared an imperial presidency.  To curb the excesses of the executive branch, it was mandated that only Congress could declare war. Beschloss aptly demonstrates how beginning with the earliest conflicts in our nation’s history, the legislative branch’s power has steadily eroded while presidential power has grown immensely.

 

Whistling Vivaldi, How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Claude Steele.

 

An eminent social psychologist, the author provides insight into how stereotypes affect everyday life. Not light reading but worthwhile if you desire an understanding of the pervasiveness and perniciousness of stereotyping in American society.

 

A Rosenberg By Any Other Name, A History of Jewish Name Changing in America, Kirsten Fermaglich.

 

You know the story of how an immigrant Jew got the name of Sean Ferguson?  It’s a myth. So too is the assumption that many Jews changed their names because they were ashamed of being Jewish. The author is a historian who employs reams of empirical evidence that unfortunately prove repetitive. Still, there are nuggets of information to glean.

 

Worth Mentioning

 

American Values, Religious Voices; 100 Days, 100 Letters, Andrea Weiss and Lisa Weinberger.

 

A collection from 2017 of missives from religious leaders that implore the new president and Congress to fulfill the ideals of our nation. 

 

The World As It Is, A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes.

 

A coming-of-age account of an advisor who served eight years in the administration of a president he deeply admires

The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish.

 

An imaginative work of historical fiction, the central characters are two women from different centuries.  Its evocation of life in London in the late 17th century is commendable.

 

Martin Buber, A Life of Faith and Dissent, Paul Mendes-Flohr.

 

Frankly, this book disappointed me. Having read other books in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, I expected an engaging portrait. Though this biography is a fulsome account of Buber’s philosophical development it leaves much to be desired as an emotive evocation of a man who inspired generations.

 

The Art of Gathering, How we meet and why it matters, Pryiya Parker.

Buber once remarked, “all real life is meeting.” Whether hosting a dinner party, chairing a synagogue committee, or arranging a business conference, we all partake in meetings of one kind or another. The author offers scintillating advice how to create gatherings that are meaningful and productive.

 

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There you have it. Books that are profound, entertaining, enlightening, and informative. I hope you will choose one of them to read and then afterwards share with me your perspective.

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