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  • 26 Jun

  • Reading my way through Europe (and then some…)

    This past summer, our professional staff used this space to post a delightful reading list of books they love and use in their work. During my sabbatical, I had the pleasure of finishing 36 books covering a range of subjects and projects in which I was interested. Many of my readings covered history, memoirs, Jewish and political philosophy and the current state of America. For now, I’d like to share with you just a few of the most enjoyable novels that, in reading and re-reading, enriched me.

    As I traveled through Europe pursuing Jewish memory, several works of historical fiction enhanced my sense of presence with the experience. Chronologically (by the periods they cover):

    A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua
    As Europe approaches the year 1,000 CE, Franco-German Ashkenazi Jews are changing their practices in the context of the larger Christian culture, and a Jewish trader in Moorish Spain grapples with the growing cultural divide between two Jewish communities.


    The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kaddish
    Set primarily in 17th century London’s community of Jewish exiles from Spain, this is a delightful feminist fantasy by a local author about the great philosophical discussions of the time.


    An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
    A faithful fictionalized retelling of the documented events and central characters in the France’s most famous antisemitic show trial, the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century.


    The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
    While the author takes some license in portraying actual historical figures, this is a faithful story of how American activists rescued thousands of Jewish artists and intellectuals in Vichy France in the early years of World War II.


    We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgie Hunter
    The author tells the remarkable, globe spanning true story of how her family survived the Holocaust after the invasion of their home in Poland by both the Nazis and Soviets in 1939.

    As some of you know, I have a passion for great American literature. I am a collector and loyal patron of the Library of America. These are a few of the volumes from that collection (available in many other forms as well) that I dug into this summer:

    My Antonia
    by Willa Cather
    Possibly “The” great prairie novel. A story of immigrants in 19th century Nebraska and the idea of American that they came here for.



    Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
    A classic collection of interconnected short stories capturing the essence of the small-town American Midwest at the end of the 19th century.


    Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
    Remarkable for its time, published in 1956, it holds up as a complex telling of a young American in France, torn between his female fiancé and the male bartender he desires.


    The Hainish Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
    While I’ve read many of these novels and short stories, published over the span of some 40 years, I’ve never sat down and read the entire series in chronological order. These stand-alone stories in a shared future galaxy, explore issues of race, class and gender and are in many ways still ahead of their times.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that, as a person who rereads The Handmaid’s Tale every five years or so, I devoured Margaret Atwood’s sequel (at last!) The Testaments, the day it was released. I was deeply satisfied.

    I can’t possibly overstate my appreciation of this summer’s new release Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Fifty pages in you’ll be wondering why people are so excited about what reads like another Philip Roth novel (though I do love reading Roth). Trust me, you’ll be glad when you get to the twist in this feminist take on the genre.

    Finally, allow me to recommend the graphic novel collection Locke & Key by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son). I read it when it first came out a decade ago and absolutely loved going back to read this magical horror story set in a fictionalized version of Nahant, MA.

    Thank you to everyone who participated in my crowd-sourced recommendations process on Facebook last spring. I gained a lot by your sharing the books you were passionate about (in these subject areas). In posting this, I’m trying to pay some of that passion forward. And, I’d love to continue to hear from people about books you’ve recently read and why you enjoyed them.

    Shabbat Shalom,