Not just a list
Long ago, I learned that you can’t judge a book by its title.
But when I picked up Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s “One Hundred Great Jewish Books,” my reaction was: Who’d want this?
My answer after reading: Every Jew should.
To my delighted astonishment, Hoffman has not produced another ho-hum book of lists, biographies or even just synopses of 100 books he considers Jews’ greatest. Hoffman has created an intelligent, very engaging overview of the history of Jews, Judaism and Jewish thought.
Many other books with short chapters, each about a different person, are easy to pick up and put down, reading randomly. “One Hundred Great Jewish Books” can be read that way, but at a big cost: You don’t get the benefit of the development of our people that comes from reading the book in order.
Hoffman makes reading from front to back compelling, each chapter distinct from yet building on the one before. Hoffman says the book presents a long-held idea “to see Judaism not just as a religion, a culture or even a civilization, but as an evolving conversation over time.” His goal is to let readers “traverse time and space and listen in on the conversation as it has expanded.”
That’s how he presents the 100, a few of which are series, such as Elie Wiesel’s “Night” trilogy — largely chronologically, from Genesis through “Start-up Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s recent hit explaining Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit and success.
Hoffman thus begins with The Book, although people who believe that God dictated the Torah and the oral law to Moses at Sinai probably won’t like the fact that Hoffman does not. His overview of the section on the Tanach gives his logical view of when and by whom the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings were assembled and canonized.
Throughout, Hoffman’s explanations go beyond each author’s life and times. Each chapter centers on a single significant work, but it tells more about the development of Jewish practice, culture and thought and the internal and external disagreements that accompanied many of the changes in the author’s time.
The book is divided into nine sections, each with a short, context-setting introduction. His divisions are sensible. For example: Bible; rabbis; Middle Ages, enlightenment, emancipation and tradition; the turn of 19th to 20th centuries; Holocaust and Israel, and so on through today.
And he’s a very good writer. His book is a joy, even a breeze to read — explaining terms without talking down to readers who already know. Almost every chapter is so interesting you want to go on to the next, even if you’ve never heard of the author. I’ll confess to not knowing about many of them, especially those before the late 19th century, but familiar names include: Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevy, Moses Mendelsson, Theodor Herzl, Milton Steinberg, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Amos Elon, Clifford Odets, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Primo Levi, Chaim Potok, Joseph Telushkin, Art Spiegelman, Martin Gilbert, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Amoz Oz and Hillel Halkin.
Chapters are about two and a half pages — not enough to converse at length about a book or author, but more than enough to avoid the embarrassment of knowing nothing of them.
Hoffman can be forgiven for calling the series he edited, “My People’s Prayer Book,” “the most comprehensive way to approach the siddur.” It’s hard to imagine anything more thorough than 10 volumes written between 1997 and 2007 written by people of all four major U.S. denominations, men, women and scholars from North American and Israel.
He calls “One Hundred Great Jewish Books” a “synopsis of the things Jews talk about — and the sources Jews cite when they do the talking.”
I’d call it a welcome and valuable addition to any Jew’s library.
(Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.)