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BOOKed: Wrap Up Your Beach Reading With These Titles

July 25, 2013
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Introducing the revamped BOOKed column! We've assembled a team of voracious readers in our community to offer their thoughts on the latest and greatest Jewish books. From novels to nonfiction, we hope to recommend something for everyone. 

Most of the books featured in this column will have been either published in the last year or relate to a current theme. All of them are either written by a Jewish author or contain Jewish themes. 

If you're interested in contributing, it's not too late. Email us to find out how to get involved. 

Now, on to the good stuff: the books! For those of you lucky enough to still have summer vacation ahead, here are a couple of titles you might want to toss in your suitcase for those blissfully lazy afternoons at the beach.

Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-So-Kosher Laughs
By Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman
(256 pages, Villard)

With beach-reading season in full swing, what better way to while away the hours than with sand in your toes and a joke on your lips? This collection of hilarious punchlines can be read as a one-a-day vitamin or all in one sitting.  The main thing is to keep your wits about you and not get offended by the occasional curse word or off-color remark. While the book would be rated R, you could easily alter the vocabulary to re-tell the jokes to a family audience. 

Old Jews comes in many iterations, including an off-Broadway play and audiobook. You can even go to www.oldjewstellingjokes.com to hear the jokes told out loud. If you prefer to pick up the hard copy at a bookstore, just be sure you don't confuse it with Ruth Wisse's No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. The covers are almost identical, both sporting Groucho-looking eyebrows and glasses. 

Inside Old Jews, you'll find the jokes organized into categories such as "The Jewish Mother," "Husbands and Wives," "Food," "The Rabbi" and "Getting Old." The book also includes mini-biographies of each contributing jokester. 

You may recognize many of the jokes — the trick is to memorize them and tell them with an accent and the proper comic timing. So sit back and enjoy this entertaining window into our culture.

- Sandra Kitain

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition 
By David Nirenberg
(624 pages; W.W. Norton & Company)

Exhaustively chronicled, Nirenberg traces an intellectual history of anti-Judaism from the ancient world into modernity. While he wrings a few new insights from well-trodden historical moments, the book shines when he focuses on more obscure material. In the opening chapter, he locates anti-Jewish sentiment in the ancient world, analyzing Egyptian papyri next to contemporaneous historical Roman and Jewish texts. He shows how Hyksos invader myths slowly transform into anti-Jewish narratives about "diseased and cruel Asiatic invaders" who pose a "mortal threat to the Egyptian community." 

These tropes appear again and again, Nirenberg carefully documenting their evolution. In this view of history, Jewish thought is integral to Western development, as is resistance to it. This is most dramatically realized in an analysis of Qu'ranic documents that embrace the Old Testament and the prophet Moses while condemning the living Jewish community as sinners. A commentary from Muqatil ibn Sulayman maintains that all the good Jews burrowed a tunnel to China, leaving behind the bad Jews. 

Often these anti-Jewish ideas proliferated in places where actual Jews were scarce. Eighteenth-century French literature overflows with Jewish stereotypes. Similarly, Shakespearean England produced literature's most famous Jewish merchant. By the time Nirenberg reaches Marx and Hegel, it is clear that Western thought is soaked in mostly negative ideas about Jews. 

Though Anti-Judaism is a scholarly history, not a polemic, the specter of contemporary anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric shadow large swaths of the book. Slurs documented from thousands of years ago reappear in current debates, and Nirenberg closes with thoughts about the ways historical thinking continue to impact the present. Far from a new phenomenon, the book eruditely argues that anti-Jewish sentiment is one of history's most enduring.

- Mordechai Shinefield

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
By Elizabeth L. Silver
(320 pages; Crown)

Elizabeth Silver's debut novel about a young woman's life that goes terribly wrong is smart, powerful and heartbreaking. 

Although born into an extremely dysfunctional family, Noa Singleton was a smart girl with a bright future. She graduated salutatorian of her high school and attended the University of Pennsylvania on scholarship. But the poor choices she makes, the influential people in her life and bad luck lead her to a life in prison. At age 35, she awaits death row in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women. As her attorney attempts to appeal her case, you learn more about Noa's past and her secrets. 

In this well-written novel, Silver instantly connects you to Noa and her tragic life. You will feel as if you are right there seeing the neighborhoods of Philadelphia through Noa's eyes. Although it is hard to be optimistic, you will find yourself rooting for Noa to get a pardon. 

- Melissa Rosenthal 

The Mothers 
By Jennifer Gilmore
(277 pages; Scribner) 

This raw, emotional novel exposes the honest pain that many individuals experience as they yearn to become parents.

The story is told through the voice of Jesse, who has tried unsuccessfully for many years to have a child with her husband, Ramon. The couple has finally agreed to navigate the adoption process only to find that it is more difficult and frustrating than they could have ever imagined.  

As Gilmore's tale unfolds, you go back in time to experience the love story of Jesse and Ramon. Gilmore does a good job of making you feel as if you really know the characters. You'll truly empathize with their desire to have a child of their own. But if you're looking for closure with a happy ending, this isn't the book for you. Though sweet and funny at times, much of this novel is bitter and depressing. Long after the last page, you'll still be wondering if Jesse and Ramon fulfilled their dreams. 

- Melissa Rosenthal 

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