• A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua **** (of 4)

    The year is 999. European Christians are awaiting the return of the Messiah. Ben Attar a Jewish Moroccan trader packs a ship with his desert wares, his two wives, his Islamic business partner, and a Rabbi to confront his nephew in Paris. The nephew used to be the third member of the trading partnership, but his new Parisian wife cannot tolerate the notion her husband consorts with bigamist Jews and repudiates the partnership. It is Sephardic cosmopolitanism versus the Ashkenazim living in the swamps, ghettoes, and drizzly dark forests of Christian Europe. Ultimately the book wrestles the question of love: a nephew for his uncle and his new wife; Ben Attar for his two wives (is that really possible or practical in 999 or ever?). November 2008.

  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon ** (of 4)

    Subtitled “Jews with Swords,” Chabon writes an adventure story of a pair of Jewish adventurers in the year 995: one from Frankish Europe and another a black African.  They have wandered into the Caucuses only to find themselves enmeshed in battles among Azeris, Kyrghs, and Kazahks.  The story would be fun and funny if Chabon weren’t so in love with his own erudition. His paragraphs are as dense as ironwood and pages become as thick as nighttime forests.  Matters were made worse because I listened to a recorded version read by one of the worst performers ever to record a voice.  December 2008.

  • The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin ** (of 4)

    A British literature professor returns to her ancestor’s home in Jerusalem to uncover the story of her family and unravel the mystery of ancient Hebrew texts hidden in the attic. The book is well crafted and the ancestors are full of quirks and personality, but in the end the book felt too much like a thinly veiled autobiography written by a British literature professor returning to her ancestor’s home to write a book about her family. I didn’t quite care enough. November 2007.

  • Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz by Jan T. Gross ** (of 4)

    When the handful of Poland’s original population of 3 million Jews returned from Siberia, concentration camps, or from hiding to reclaim their property and their lives they were subjected to intense anti-semitism following the war. They were denied work, health care, access to their property, and worse still, were subjected to threats, beatings, and in a handful of towns, Kielce being the most famous, murder. The book is highly documented and littered with footnotes and references making it more academic than a story. It takes some work to move through it, but the image of Poles as deeply anti-Semitic is inescapable. Gross’s other book, Neighbors, is an account of the murder of hundreds of Jews in the village of Jedwabne, Poland during World War II, without the presence of any Nazis and Fear is a continuation of Gross’s investigation into Poland’s behavior toward Jews during and after the war.. In short, Fear, is the official account of the story of our friend, Chana Factor, and our Temple Congregant, Janine Dreyfus. October 2006.

  • Crabwalk by Gunter Gras *** (of 4)

    A slow, intelligent, patient novel I listened to on tape about how three generations of Germans relate to Nazis. The central theme is the sinking of an ocean liner in which nearly 10,000 people lost their lives making it one of the greatest ocean catastrophes of all times. There’s a Stalinist grandmother who lived in East Germany, her liberal, apologist, knee-jerk anti-Nazi son, and his neo-Nazi son. I skipped one of the five discs by accident and that may have helped prevent the story from becoming too tedious.

  • The Coffee Trader by David Liss *** (of 4)

    A Jewish escapee from the Spanish Inquisition makes his living on the Amsterdam stock market, where shrewd trading skills run up to the border of legality, morality, and safety. The book’s strength is its insight into the lives of Jews trying to maintain their religious and economic identity with the memory of Spanish persecution fresh in their minds. Moreover, the description of how stocks, in this case coffee is making its very first appearance in Europe, are bought and sold is fascinating. The plot is rather ordinary, however. It is a quick read. April 2007.

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak **** (of 4)

    The character of Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, abandoned, nine-year-old daughter of a communist, who escapes death’s grasp during WWII in the German city of Molching. She survives in a foster home with German parents who also hide a Jewish boxing champ in the basement. The book made me sympathize with Germans who were not Nazis, a distinction I don’t usually make when considering German responsibility for the Holocaust. Zusak’s book is original and creative. It won the Book Sense of the Year Children’s Literature Award, but it is a lot more than a children’s book. May 2007.

  • Beaufort by Ron Leshem **** (of 4)

    Erez, a patriotic IDF commander of 13 fresh recruits, is sent to Lebanon in the late 90s to protect Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah rocket attacks. What begins as a group of gung-ho, post high-school roustabouts on a clear mission descends into the heart of darkness as the reason for Israel’s being in Lebanon disintegrates and the soldiers do too. One of the finest written descriptions of the pride of being part of a group of men whose lives depend on one another followed by the creeping development of post-traumatic stress disorder. May 2008.

  • Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction by Martin Gilbert *** (of 4)

    A fluky book by on the of the world’s greatest Holocaust historians. Gilbert gathers dozens of newly uncovered personal histories of November 10, 1938 when more than a thousand German and Austrian synagogues were attacked and burned. The accounts of burned synagogues seem trivial compared to what we know follows. Moreover, the personal histories are all from survivors so their cumulative impact is to make it seem like escaping the Holocaust was not so hard. At first the personal stories seem randomly distributed through the text, but as the stories intermingle with the sound of country doors slamming shut to Jews trying to escape Germany and the war and extermination machines power up to full throttle this highly readable, short book with a British perspective turns terrific. August 2006.

  • A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson *** (of 4)

    Johnson is an anti-Semitic summofabitch. He blames the victim at times. He seems incredulous that the Jews didn’t recognize Christ as part of the Holy Trilogy. But he’s a very good writer who excels at putting Jewish history into a larger historical context. And unlike Jewish historians who have a tendency to be triumphalist, tracing a thread of Jewish history, that ignores Jewish failures and Jewish converts to other religions, Johnson supplies a more objective perspective that feels more all-encompassing than some other histories.