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The best Jewish books I read in 2023

(JTA) — When I spoke with novelist Elizabeth Graver in August about her novel “Kantika” — inspired by her own Turkish Jewish family — I asked her how she managed to breathe life into a tired genre like the Jewish family saga.

I want the characters to be flawed and complex, and for the turns that they take to come out of their intersections with both history and their own very particular circumstances,” she told me.

The flawed and the complex; the historic and the particular. These are the qualities that I look for in a good book. Below are some of the Jewish books I read and enjoyed in 2023. Nearly all reflect Jewish reality before Oct. 7; I suspect next year’s list will include a slew of books dealing with the crisis in Israel or will be read through the lens of the war. 

Nonfiction

Jonathan Rosen’s memoir, “The Best Minds: A Story Of Friendship, Madness, And The Tragedy Of Good Intentions,” deserves all the accolades it has received. The former arts editor of the Forward writes about his friendship with Michael Laudor, a Yale Law School graduate whose brilliance and schizophrenia made him a sort of poster child for the successful mainstreaming of the mentally ill until it all went tragically, shockingly wrong. It’s also a beautifully told story about growing up precocious and Jewish in suburban New Rochelle, New York, and how Judaism can be both a balm and an astringent for those under the throes of psychosis. 

In “Happily,” fairy tales are the prompts for a series of dreamy and rigorous biographical essays by Sabrina Orah Mark on “motherhood, and marriage, and America, and weather, and loneliness, and failure, and inheritance, and love.” And, as the New York Times noted, Mark deals with raising two “Black Jewish boys in a time of rising antisemitism.” 

I also enjoyed another collection of biographical essays, “Immigrant Baggage,” by Boston College professor Maxim Shrayer. A former Soviet refusenik who immigrated to the United States in 1987, Shrayer writes about life as a “translingual” father, husband and writer who finds wisdom and the absurd in all the languages that he speaks. 

“Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History” is a page-turning literary detective story by Benjamin Balint, exploring the all-too-short life and unlikely legacy of enigmatic Polish-Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Balint’s book prompted me to finally read Schulz’s best-known book, the hallucinatory “The Street of Crocodiles,” and two contemporary works of fiction that draw on Schulz’s biography: “The Prague Orgy” by Philip Roth and “The Messiah of Stockholm” by Cynthia Ozick.

In “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature,” Joshua Lambert debunks the myth that Jewish intellectuals had an iron grip on what was read and reviewed in the post-war years — even as he celebrates the era’s undeniable burst of Jewish creativity and influence. One of those influential figures was Robert Gottlieb, the legendary editor at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, whose charming, gossipy memoir, “Avid Reader,” I avidly read (actually, listened to: Gottlieb narrated the audiobook) after he died in June. That led me to Gottlieb’s 2013 biography, “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt,” which helps the reader understand the appeal of the beloved French Jewish actress in the context of the theatrical conventions of her day. 

Bernhardt’s florid stagecraft couldn’t have been more different from the naturalistic acting style that Isaac Butler describes in “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.” The Jewish acting teachers Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Harold Klurman play central roles in Butler’s engaging history of the modern theater. 

And just before the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, I read “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama” by the Jerusalem-based Jewish writer Nathan Thrall. The book, a challenging account of a deadly school bus crash in East Jerusalem, is a forensic examination of the inequalities and indignities that stateless Palestinians face on a daily basis. You don’t have to agree with Thrall’s politics to learn from the realities and complexities that he describes. 

Fiction

Many of the short stories in Iddo Gefen’s collection “Jerusalem Beach” start with a high concept — What if a start-up could manufacture dreams? Or a radio could pick up the thoughts of passers-by? — but they are always grounded in the Israeli reality. Indeed, one of his concepts, about a geriatric soldier who returns to the front, foreshadowed a real-life event, when retired general Noam Tibon raced from Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Nahal Oz to rescue his son’s family from Hamas terrorists.  

James McBride’s “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” was inspired by his own Jewish grandmother, who ran a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1930s and ’40s. McBride’s recreation of the place and time is a rollicking story of two communities coming together around a common, racist enemy. 

I love how The Golem of Brooklyn” starts with a summary of a novel that Adam Mansbach decided not to write, then literally lurches into a hilarious imagining of an avenging Jewish Frankenstein’s monster coming to life in one of the less-hip neighborhoods of Brooklyn. It​​’s a Jewish road trip novel that confronts the persistence of antisemitism. 

If you are yearning for a sprawling satirical novel about a liberal Jewish family making spectacularly bad choices, then “Hope” by Andrew Ridker is the book for you. Set in Brookline, Massachusetts, “Hope” has good, smart fun with synagogue social justice committees, Birthright Israel trips and Obama-era optimism. 

Authors

I interviewed a number of authors this year about their books:

Eric Alterman took a deep dive into the political and personal relationships between American Jews and Israel in “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.”

Jenny Caplan’s book, “Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials,” deals with the way North American Jewish comedy has evolved since World War II, with a focus on how humorists relate to Judaism as a religion.  

In “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew,” Jeremy Dauber describes the parody Brooks mastered as “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.” 

In “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” the religion reporter and writing professor Jeff Sharlet chronicled his recent journeys across America interviewing QAnon acolytes, Christian nationalists, proud misogynists, unrepentant January 6ers, armed militia men and strict anti-abortion activists — all still in thrall to Donald Trump.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book, “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” is about a generation of Jews and new Americans “bent on saving face and determined to be, if not exemplary, at least impeccably respectable.”

Rabbi Diane Fersko wrote “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism” in response to congregants who were experiencing anti-Jewish hatred as they never had before. 

In “Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair,” art conservator Rosa Lowinger, uses the tools and materials of her profession — stone, tile, metal, marble —  as metaphors to tell how her Jewish family came to Cuba and fled after the revolution, and what they found and lost when they settled in Miami. 


The post The best Jewish books I read in 2023 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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US is ‘hopeful’ for a truce in Gaza as Netanyahu says ‘total victory’ is the only option

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would achieve a “total victory” in its war against Hamas as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is “hopeful” that the sides are nearing an extended truce.

Blinken’s comments came while Hamas said it was considering Israel’s latest proposal for a temporary ceasefire, which would include an exchange of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian security prisoners.

Hamas has called for a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the release of all of the estimated 6,000 Palestinian security prisoners. But on Tuesday Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, gave a defiant speech in which he vowed that Israeli forces would not leave the territory and that not all prisoners would go free.

“We will not withdraw the IDF from the Gaza Strip and we will not release thousands of terrorists,” he said. “None of this will happen. What will happen? Total victory.”

Blinken met with the Qatari foreign minister on Tuesday to discuss the proposed deal. In a speech the previous day, Blinken did not address the details of the reported deal under consideration, brokered in recent days by CIA chief William Burns, but said he was optimistic about its prospects.

“The proposal that is on the table and that is shared among all of the critical actors – of course Israel, but also with Qatar and Egypt playing a critical role in mediating and working between Israel and Hamas – I believe the proposal is a strong one and a compelling one that, again, offers some hope that we can get back to this process,” Blinken said at a press conference with Jen Stollen, the secretary general of the NATO alliance.

“What I can tell you is this:  I think the work that’s been done, including just this weekend, is important and is hopeful in terms of seeing that process resume,” Blinken said.

Reports have said the deal would suspend fighting for up to two months and would see an exchange of the remaining 136 hostages held by Hamas, some of them dead, for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was quoted Tuesday by the New York Times as saying Hamas is considering the deal that emerged this weekend after Burns met with Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials in Europe. Qatar, which funds Hamas and houses its leadership in exile, and Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip, are key interlocutors between the combatants.

President Joe Biden until now has not backed down from supporting Israel’s war aim of removing Hamas entirely from the Gaza Strip. But he is under increasing pressure to get Israel to scale the war back as it threatens to expand across the Middle East.

Lawmakers from both parties in Congress want increased oversight of the air strikes Biden has ordered against Houthi militants in Yemen, who are launching missiles at commercial vessels in the Red Sea, ostensibly to get Israel to stand down in Gaza.

That scrutiny is likely to increase as Biden considers how to strike back against an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq that sent a drone over the weekend into Jordan, killing three U.S. troops on a base.

Israel is also under pressure to roll back its counterstrikes. Last Friday, the International Court of Justice gave Israel 30 days to report on measures to mitigate civilian deaths. South Africa had taken Israel to court on charges of genocide.

Those pressures underscore the urgency Biden and his top aides are attaching to the negotiation process. The State Department statement summing up Tuesday’s meeting with the Qatari foreign minister underscored the differences between the Biden administration and Israel. The statement effusively praised Qatar, a nation Netanyahu recently derided. It also promoted the establishment of a Palestinian state, an outcome Netanyahu rejects.

Blinken “expressed gratitude for Qatar’s indispensable mediation efforts, especially since October 7,” the day Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, launching the war, killing more than 1,200 people and abducting more than 250 hostages. “Secretary Blinken underscored the U.S. commitment to a more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous Middle East region with security for Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not countenance a Palestinian state. His top adviser, Ron Dermer, is on his way to Washington on Wednesday to discuss scenarios for the “day after” the war, Axios reported.

Blinken also wants to get assistance into Gaza at an accelerated rate, as world health officials say the territory is on the brink of starvation. More than 26,000 people have been killed since Israel launched counterstrikes following Oct. 7, including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. Israel does not dispute the figures, and says about a third of the dead are combatants.


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Ahmed Hussen announced a Liberal government commitment to another $40 million in aid for Gaza

It comes on the heels of suspending funds to UNRWA.

The post Ahmed Hussen announced a Liberal government commitment to another $40 million in aid for Gaza appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Delaware school district promises changes in response to federal probe of antisemitic bullying

(JTA) — A Delaware public school district will send staff to anti-harassment training and compensate the family of a Jewish student who alleged antisemitic bullying.

The agreement followed a U.S. Department of Education investigation into how Red Clay Consolidated School District handled allegations of antisemitic incidents, detailed in a complaint to the agency last June. 

The agreement marks the first time in nine months that the education department announced the closure of an antisemitism-related investigation filed under Title VI, the clause of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of “shared ancestry” or “national origin.”

It comes as the department embarks on a wave of antisemitism investigations at schools and colleges in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which has triggered widespread allegations of antisemitism on campuses. What happened in Red Clay, the department said, should be seen as a model for its work.

“This important agreement requires the Red Clay Consolidated District to fulfill its federal civil rights obligation to ensure that all of its students, including Jewish students, can learn safely and without discriminatory harassment in its schools,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the department, said in a statement announcing the resolution. “We look forward to active work with this district going forward to protect Jewish students, and all students, from targeted discrimination that impedes their equal access to education.”

The department said that a student in the district, which includes parts of Wilmington and its suburbs, was targeted by her classmates for being Jewish. Classmates had written “Blood of the Jews” and drawn swastikas on paper airplanes, and raised their arms in Heil Hitler salutes at the student. 

The department’s Office of Civil Rights said it had further determined that the district’s responses to these incidents “were often haphazard; were inconsistently enforced as well as inconsistently reflected in district documentation; did not consistently include effective or timely steps to mitigate the effects of the harassment on the student or other students; and did not appear to respond to escalating and repeated incidents.” The department opened its investigation into the district in June 2023.

In response, Red Clay has agreed to implement new annual Title VI harassment training for its staff; publicize a new anti-harassment statement; conduct a new audit of past student discrimination complaints; revise its procedure for investigating such claims, and report back to the civil rights office with student climate surveys. 

It will also reimburse the student’s family “for past counseling, academic, or therapeutic services they obtained for the student as a result of the antisemitic harassment the student experienced,” according to the department’s announcement. 

The listed agreements do not include specific antisemitism-related training that some Jewish groups have pushed schools to adopt. They do include training to recognize discrimination based on “shared ancestry and ethnic characteristics,” the Title VI language.

“A recent Office of Civil Rights investigation has highlighted the need for a collective effort to address hate and discrimination, and we want to assure our community that we stand firmly against hate in all its forms, including antisemitism,” district superintendent Dorrell Green said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Green’s statement added that the district would undertake a “comprehensive audit” and that it would encourage open dialogue with the community.

Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee and the Orthodox Union praised the settlement agreement.

“This resolution from the Department of Education is an important step forward and contains numerous action steps that all schools can and should take to create and maintain a safe learning environment for Jewish students,” Ted Deutch, the head of AJC, said in a statement. “Discipline is not enough, and these steps crucially can create a safe, inclusive climate for learning.”

In his own statement, OU executive vice president Rabbi Moishe Hauer tied the resolution into the more than 50 Title VI investigations that have been opened since Oct. 7.

“Antisemitism has become a significant factor in the lives of Jewish students at universities and public schools,” Hauer said. “Schools must fulfill their responsibility under Title VI to maintain an environment where all students can study and thrive without experiencing hostility based on their shared ancestry or ethnicity.”

The department’s last resolution of an antisemitism investigation took place in April 2023, and involved the University of Vermont, which had agreed to take similar steps to address the problem on its campus. It has closed some investigations without publicizing them. Investigations remain ongoing in antisemitism-related cases at Columbia, Brown, the University of North Carolina and others. The Department of Education’s dockets list still-opened Title VI shared ancestry cases dating as far back as 2016.


The post Delaware school district promises changes in response to federal probe of antisemitic bullying appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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