A fascinating, impeccably written, personal tour of the great books of Judaism.

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THE PEOPLE AND THE BOOKS

18 CLASSICS OF JEWISH LITERATURE

How to read the Jewish past.

Poet and critic Kirsch (Director, Jewish Studies Master’s Program/Columbia Univ.; Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, 2014, etc.) takes a reflective look at what his Jewish religion has been and can be via some of its greatest books. His ambitious survey spans more than 2,500 years and offers a “panoramic portrait of Jewish thought and experience.” The books focus on four central topics: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people. Kirsch begins pretty much at the beginning with the book of Deuteronomy. Devoted to law and history, it’s concerned with the major subject of the Israelites’ relationship to the Land of Israel. He next turns to the book of Esther, which is best read as “historical fiction.” Kirsch is fascinated with its “paradox of Jewish power in a condition of Diaspora.” Jump ahead some 500 hundred years to the Jewish general captured by the Romans, Flavius Josephus, and his The Jewish War, a firsthand account of “perhaps the greatest calamity in Jewish history.” After an account of the Zohar, a 2,400-page compendium that “enchants the universe like no other Jewish book,” comes Glückel of Hameln’s transformative Tsenerene from the 1590s, “one of the most popular Yiddish books of all time.” It did the most to “connect Jewish women to Judaism’s traditional sources,” while her Memoirs is the first autobiography by a Jewish woman. From the 1890s, Kirsch singles out the visionary Viennese writer Theodor Herzl as one of the “most important figures in Jewish history.” The Jewish State, a nonfiction pamphlet, “laid out a detailed plan for the relocation of Europe’s Jews to Palestine,” while his novel Old New Land helped to create Zionism. Kirsch ends his list in 1914 with the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. Although a mere 120 pages long, “no work of Yiddish literature has been more influential or more widely loved.”

A fascinating, impeccably written, personal tour of the great books of Judaism.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-24176-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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