Last month the Jewish Book Council announced the winners of the 2018 National Jewish Book Awards, now in its sixty-eighth year. A complete list of the award winners and finalists can be at JewishBookCouncil.org.
Jewish Book of the Year
Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld
For more than a century, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld have hunted, confronted, and exposed Nazi war criminals, tracking them down in places as far-flung as South America and the Middle East. It is they who uncovered the notorious torturer Klaus Barbie, known as “the Butcher of Lyon,” in Bolivia. It is they who outed Kurt Lischka as chief of the Gestapo in Paris, the man responsible for the largest deportation of French Jews. And it is they who, with the help of their son, Arno, brought the Vichy police chief Maurice Papon to justice.
They were born on opposite sides of the Second World War. Beate’s father was in the Wehrmacht, while Serge’s father was deported to Auschwitz because he was a Jew. But when Serge and Beate met on the Paris metro, they instantly fell in love. They soon married and have since dedicated their lives to “hunting the truth”–both as world-famous Nazi hunters and as meticulous documenters of the fate of the innocent French Jewish children who were killed in the death camps.
They have been jailed and targeted by letter bombs, and their car was even blown up. Yet nothing has daunted the Klarsfelds in their pursuit of justice. Beate made worldwide headlines at age twenty-nine by slapping the high-profile ex-Nazi propagandist Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger and shouting “Nazi!” Serge intentionally provoked a neo-Nazi in a German beer hall by wearing an armband with a yellow star on it, so that the press would report on the assault. When Pope John Paul II met with Austria’s then-president, Kurt Waldheim, a former Wehrmacht officer in the Balkans suspected of war crimes, the Klarsfelds’ son, dressed as a Nazi officer, stood outside the Vatican. The Klarsfelds also dedicated themselves to defeating Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and his daughter Marine Le Pen’s 2017 campaign for president in France.
American Jewish Studies
The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today by Jack Wertheimer
American Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. Like other religions in the United States, it has witnessed a decline in the number of participants over the past forty years, and many who remain active struggle to reconcile their hallowed traditions with new perspectives–from feminism and the LGBTQ movement to “do-it-yourself religion” and personally defined spirituality. Taking a fresh look at American Judaism today, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. Which observances still resonate, and which ones have been given new meaning? What options are available for seekers or those dissatisfied with conventional forms of Judaism? And how are synagogues responding?
Autobiography and Memoir
My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace by Ehud Barak
In the summer of 2000, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history–Ehud Barak–set himself a challenge as daunting as any he had faced on the battlefield: to secure a final peace with the Palestinians. He would propose two states for two peoples, with a shared capital in Jerusalem. He knew the risks of failure. But he also knew the risks of not trying: letting slip perhaps the last chance for a generation to secure genuine peace. It was a moment of truth.
It was one of many in a life intertwined, from the start, with that of Israel. Born on a kibbutz, Barak became commander of Israel’s elite special forces, then army Chief of Staff, and ultimately, Prime Minister.
My Country, My Life tells the unvarnished story of his–and his country’s–first seven decades; of its major successes, but also its setbacks and misjudgments. He offers candid assessments of his fellow Israeli politicians, of the American administrations with which he worked, and of himself. Drawing on his experiences as a military and political leader, he sounds a powerful warning: Israel is at a crossroads, threatened by events beyond its borders and by divisions within. The two-state solution is more urgent than ever, not just for the Palestinians, but for the existential interests of Israel itself. Only by rediscovering the twin pillars on which it was built–military strength and moral purpose–can Israel thrive.
Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
Elie Wiesel was a towering presence on the world stage–a Nobel laureate, activist, adviser to world leaders, and the author of more than forty books, including the Oprah’s Book Club selection Night. But when asked, Wiesel always said, “I am a teacher first.”
In fact, he taught at Boston University for nearly four decades, and with this book, Ariel Burger–devoted protégé, apprentice, and friend–takes us into the sacred space of Wiesel’s classroom. There, Wiesel challenged his students to explore moral complexity and to resist the dangerous lure of absolutes. In bringing together never-before-recounted moments between Wiesel and his students, Witness serves as a moral education in and of itself–a primer on educating against indifference, on the urgency of memory and individual responsibility, and on the role of literature, music, and art in making the world a more compassionate place.
Book Club Award
The Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson
An old friend calls Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart to his famous Italian restaurant to enlist their help. His aunt is being evicted from her home in the Tuscan hills by a powerful corporation claiming they own the deeds, even though she can produce her own set of deeds to her land. Catherine and Liam’s only clue is a bound handwritten manuscript, entirely in German, and hidden in its pages is a story long-forgotten…
Ada Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1918, at the end of the war. The daughter of an accomplished first-chair violinist in the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, and herself a violin prodigy, Ada’s life was full of the rich culture of Berlin’s interwar society. She formed a deep attachment to her childhood friend Kurt, but they were torn apart by the growing unrest as her Jewish family came under suspicion. As the tides of history turned, it was her extraordinary talent that would carry her through an unraveling society turned to war, and make her a target even as it saved her, allowing her to move to Bologna–though Italy was not the haven her family had hoped, and further heartache awaited.
What became of Ada? How is she connected to the conflicting land deeds of a small Italian villa? As they dig through the layers of lies, corruption, and human evil, Catherine and Liam uncover an unfinished story of heart, redemption, and hope–the ending of which is yet to be written.
All Three Stooges by Erica S. Perl
Spoiler alert: This book is not about the Three Stooges. It’s about Noah and Dash, two seventh graders who are best friends and comedy junkies. That is, they were best friends, until Dash’s father died suddenly and Dash shut Noah out. Which Noah deserved, according to Noa, the girl who, annoyingly, shares both his name and his bar mitzvah day.
Now Noah’s confusion, frustration, and determination to get through to Dash are threatening to destroy more than just their friendship. But what choice does he have? As Noah sees it, sometimes you need to risk losing everything, even your sense of humor, to prove that gone doesn’t have to mean “gone for good.”
The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
hey chose not to speak and now they are gone…What’s left to fill the silence is no longer theirs. This is my story, woven from the threads of rumour and legend.
Jakub Rand flees his village for Prague, only to find himself trapped by the Nazi occupation. Deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he is forced to sort through Jewish books for a so-called Museum of the Extinct Race. Hidden among the rare texts is a tattered prayer book, hollow inside, containing a small pile of dirt. Back in the city, Frantiska Roubíčková picks over the embers of her failed marriage, despairing of her conversion to Judaism. When the Nazis summon her two eldest daughters for transport, she must sacrifice everything to save the girls from certain death. Decades later, Bram Presser embarks on a quest to find the truth behind the stories his family built around these remarkable survivors.
Education and Jewish Identity
The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
The Babylonian Talmud , a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.
Providing a concise biography of this quintessential work of rabbinic Judaism, Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud ‘s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity. He describes the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its mixed reception history, and its golden renaissance in modernity. He explains why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated–but also excoriated and maligned–in the centuries since it first appeared.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
Joseph, a literature student at Berkeley, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. One day, a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, pulling him into a mesmerizing adventure to uncover the tangled history that binds the two sides of his family. For generations, the men of the al-Raqb family have served as watchmen of the storied Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, built at the site where the infant Moses was taken from the Nile. Joseph learns of his ancestor Ali, a Muslim orphan who nearly a thousand years earlier was entrusted as the first watchman of the synagogue and became enchanted by its legendary-perhaps magical-Ezra Scroll. The story of Joseph’s family is entwined with that of the British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 depart their hallowed Cambridge halls on a mission to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue.
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman
The Talmud says: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” This instinct to take every measure, even the most aggressive, to defend the Jewish people is hardwired into Israel’s DNA. From the very beginning of its statehood in 1948, protecting the nation from harm has been the responsibility of its intelligence community and armed services, and there is one weapon in their vast arsenal that they have relied upon to thwart the most serious threats: Targeted assassinations have been used countless times, on enemies large and small, sometimes in response to attacks against the Israeli people and sometimes preemptively.
In this page-turning, eye-opening book, journalist and military analyst Ronen Bergman–praised by David Remnick as “arguably [Israel’s] best investigative reporter”–offers a riveting inside account of the targeted killing programs: their successes, their failures, and the moral and political price exacted on the men and women who approved and carried out the missions.
Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov
For more than four hundred years, the Eastern European border town of Buczacz–today part of Ukraine–was home to a highly diverse citizenry. It was here that Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews all lived side by side in relative harmony. Then came World War II, and three years later the entire Jewish population had been murdered by German and Ukrainian police, while Ukrainian nationalists eradicated Polish residents. In truth, though, this genocide didn’t happen so quickly.
In Anatomy of a Genocide Omer Bartov explains that ethnic cleansing doesn’t occur as is so often portrayed in popular history, with the quick ascent of a vitriolic political leader and the unleashing of military might. It begins in seeming peace, slowly and often unnoticed, the culmination of pent-up slights and grudges and indignities. The perpetrators aren’t just sociopathic soldiers. They are neighbors and friends and family. They are human beings, proud and angry and scared. They are also middle-aged men who come from elsewhere, often with their wives and children and parents, and settle into a life of bourgeois comfort peppered with bouts of mass murder: an island of normality floating on an ocean of blood.
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Erika Meitner’s fifth collection of poetry plumbs human resilience and grit in the face of disaster, loss, and uncertainty. These narrative poems take readers into the heart of southern Appalachia-its highways and strip malls and gun culture, its fragility and danger-as the speaker wrestles with what it means to be the only Jewish family in an Evangelical neighborhood and the anxieties of raising one white son and one black son amidst racial tensions and school lockdown drills. With a firm hand on the pulse of the uncertainty at the heart of 21st century America and a refusal to settle for easy answers, Meitner’s poems embrace life in an increasingly fractured society and never stop asking what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.