David Alon is a Jewish History teacher on NFTY-EIE. Today, he shares some details about a book report project his students complete every semester. Take a look at his selection below. Maybe you’ll find a new book for your summer reading list!
For the past 5 years at EIE, the students in my Jewish history class have participated in a comprehensive book report project. Each student has chosen a book from my own library that I read once and inspired me in some way. The topics covered by the different books cover a broad range of events and ideas in the monumental history of the Jewish people.
Here below is the updated list of the all the books that the students in my class have the option to choose from. I offer a brief description of each one and why it is essential for understanding the Jewish people and Israel.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok. (fiction) Moving story of two orthodox boys, both gifted students, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s-50s. One is modern orthodox whose father is a leader in the Zionist movement, while the other is ultra-orthodox and is expected to succeed his father as the rabbi of a large Hassidic sect which opposes Zionism.
Valley of Strength by Shulamit Lapid. (fiction) Story of a middle-class young woman who escapes the pogroms in Russia in 1882 and becomes a pioneer in one of the early Zionist agricultural colonies of the First Aliyah, and her romance with one of the veteran pioneers. The plot focuses on the challenges that beset the Zionist pioneers in their attempt to create a new national identity for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.
Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer & Dan Senor. (non-fiction) An in-depth look at how Israel has emerged as a world leader in science and technology through the sheer ingenuity of its people. Looks at the different aspects of Israeli history and society that have triggered a thriving hi-tech economy.
Fear No Evil by Natan Sharansky. (biography) Gripping account of Natan Sharansky’s years of imprisonment in the 1970s-80s in the Soviet Union for his pro-Israel and human rights activism, and the international campaign led by his wife to secure his freedom so he could ultimately make aliyah to Israel in 1986. This book is central for understanding the struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Exodus by Leon Uris. (fiction) Famous novel depicting the birth of the State of Israel. Though fictional, it is filled with historical detail. Loosely based on the well-known story of the Exodus ship of Jewish refugees after WWII trying to break the British blockade of Palestine. This book is written in suspenseful style reminiscent of a Hollywood script.
The Vanishing American Jew by Alan Dershowitz. (non-fiction) A controversial look at the incredible economic and professional success of American Jews, while analyzing the challenges of assimilation and inter-marriage that are a direct consequence. This book was written in mid 1990s as a reaction to the author’s son’s decision to marry a non-Jew, and raises thought-provoking questions about the future of Jewish identity in the U.S.
History On Trial by Deborah Lipstadt. (non-fiction) Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of history and Holocaust studies who published a book attacking some well-known anti-Semites for openly denying the Holocaust. She was subsequently sued for libel in a British court by David Irving, one of the Holocaust deniers she singled-out. She writes about her experience as a defendant in the year 2000 in which the history of the Holocaust was literally put on trial.
World Perfect: Jewish Impact On Civilization by Ken Spiro. (non-fiction) Rabbi and historian Ken Spiro traces the origins of modern democratic values to the revolutionary ideas first put-forth by the Jewish people in the Tanach. With wit and insight, he compares Judaism to other great civilizations of the past and is astonished to learn that it is Jewish ideas that became the pillars of Western Civilization.
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. (non-fiction) Ground-breaking and controversial best-seller by a Jewish-American journalist who spends years reporting out of Lebanon and then Israel in the 1980s. Published in 1988 but still relevant today, it gives an in-depth look at the unpredictable turmoil of the Middle East and also a critical look at Israel’s missteps in Lebanon in 1982 as well as the intifada in the West Bank & Gaza in the late 1980s. Essential for a deeper understanding of MidEast current events + written in very engaging manner.
Mila 18 by Leon Uris. (fiction) Suspense filled historical novel based on the true story of the famous Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943. This book tries to recreate for the reader the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and daily dilemmas that people faced. Like Exodus by the same author, Mila 18 reads like an edge-of-your-seat Hollywood thriller.
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. (non-fiction) A sobering and critical look at both the triumph of Zionism + the State of Israel, and the tragedy of the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict. The author writes a lot about the Palestinians too and the hardships that resulted from becoming refugees following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Told from an un-apologetic left-wing point-of-view, but attempts to give an objective look at Israeli history and society. Extremely well written as the author tries to get inside people’s heads and explain Israel to the rest of the world.
The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel. (non-fiction) Originally published in the 1960s, Elie Wiesel writes of his visit with Jews living in the Soviet Union and attempts to make their desperate plight known to the outside world. He is able to gain an understanding of how Jews have managed to keep some semblance of an identity despite the brutal oppression by the Soviet communist regime.
Scapegoat by Eli Amir. (fiction) Poignant story of a teen-age boy who immigrates to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s. Though his family lives in a crowded transit camp, he is sent with a group of Iraqi Jews to live on a kibbutz where he is unfamiliar with the Ashkenazi customs and the world of labor-Zionist, socialist ideology. This book gives a good insight into the experience of Mizrahi Jews in the early years of the State of Israel.
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. (non-fiction) This book reads like a mystery that slowly comes together as the author traces the fate of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Although he grew up in the U.S. with minimal Jewish identity, he wanted to go to the Ukrainian village where his family came from and find out what really happened. The book takes the reader on a journey to different countries to meet the survivors who can help piece together the real story of the author’s family.
Still Life With Bombers by David Horovitz. (non-fiction) Published in 2004 at the height of the Second Intifada, the author tries to explain what it’s like living in Israel and raising a family with small children in an age of terrorism. This book is about the disillusionment that stemmed from the failure of the peace process from 1993-2000, and how the resiliency of the Israeli people allowed the nation to overcome a deadly wave of suicide-bombing from 2000-2004.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamont. (fiction) This book spent weeks on the best seller list. A new take on the Hebrew Bible, this book retells the events of the Book of Genesis from the narration of Jacob’s only daughter Dinah. To those who read the Tanakh, Dinah is a minor character who is raped in the city of Shechem and later avenged by her brothers. In this version, the author is able to inject a woman’s point-of-view into a male dominated story and cast a new light on how we interpret the Bible.
Like Dreamers by Yossi Klen HaLevi. (non-fiction) This gripping account offers a window into the soul of modern Israel. The author traces the lives of 7 Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall in the Six Day War in 1967 and follows their development all the way to 2004. The main characters range from kibbutznik peace activists to religious West Bank Settlers, both sides believing that their way is the utopian vision to secure the Jewish future. A must read for anyone wanting to learn in depth about the divisions and also the unifying elements in Israeli society.
The Haj by Leon Uris. (historical fiction) From the same author as “Exodus” & “Mila 18”. This novel tells the story of a family of Palestinian refugees who are displaced by Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Attempts to show the complex reality of both inter-Arab conflicts and Jewish-Arab conflicts. A very important book for understanding the Palestinians and how the past has shaped the current reality in the Middle East.
Ally by Michael Oren. (non-fiction) Written by Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama years. An insider’s look at the tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear program, the West Bank settlements, and clashing world views. As essential book for understanding the complex U.S.-Israel relationship. Just published in 2015.
Beaufort by Ron Leshem (fiction) Translated from Hebrew. Intense novel depicting a group of Israeli soldiers manning an isolated outpost in southern Lebanon in the year 2000 as the Israeli army prepares to withdraw in the face of constant attacks by the Hezbollah terror group. Gives a personal account of the daily dilemmas and tensions that IDF soldiers face, and the complex geo-political situation between Israel and Lebanon.
Konin. A Quest by Theo Richmond (non-fiction) This book describes in vivid detail a small Jewish town in Poland before the Holocaust and succeeds in reconstructing what daily life was like. The author’s parents grew up in the town of Konin which inspired him to go an exhaustive search for other old ‘Koniners’ around the world to gather information about the town and its fate. While not exclusively about the Holocaust, the book does devote a good deal of time to what happened to the Jews of Konin during the WWII. This book is absolutely essential to anyone trying to understand what Jewish life was like in Poland pre-WWII.
You can read more blog posts from David and his students at his class blog, Kitat David.