So, you’ve made it to Israel for the year? Welcome. Now, you must serve two successive sentences – a two week bidud – quarantine – to ensure your body is healthy, followed by a ten-month experience to stretch your soul. Use this time. Prepare for this year by working your mind, reading books that illuminate the following six concepts. This is a life sentence: you will keep returning to these core ideas this year — and the rest of your life.
Rooted in Our History, and this Land: Traditionally visitors to Israel read James Michener’s The Source — excavating Israel’s layers of Jewish history through one archaeological dig; Leon Uris’s Exodus – evoking the thrill of founding the state – and O Jerusalem by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins – illustrating 1948’s complexities, amid the glories.
Go more fundamental. Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews remains my favorite one-volume Jewish history – with a shout-out to Thomas Cahill’s limited, charming, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf evokes Talmudic times and there are two excellent introductions to Israel’s history: Daniel Gordis’s is more readable, Anita Shapira’s, more academic.
Other books chronicling Israel’s history include: Isaiah Berlin’s gem on Chaim Weizmann; Gordis’s Menachem Begin biography, or Begin’s riveting The Revolt; Michael Oren’s majestic Six Days of War; Golda Meir’s still-charming My Life or Francine Klagsbrun’s authoritative biography; Yehuda Avner’s anecdote-rich, The Prime Ministers ; Yossi Klein Halevi’s vivid, textured Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation , and his impressive overview, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor . Micha Goodman’s Catch ’67 unveils a creative path to Israeli-Palestinian progress.
These books will help you appreciate “why Israel” – what it means to Jews to be anchored in a homeland, the price we paid to establish a state on that homeland, and the exciting possibilities this blessed opportunity provides.
Living on Jewish Time in this Jewish Space: Israel lives by the Jewish calendar. Yitz Greenberg’s The Jewish Way introduces the holidays as keys to Jewish life and thought. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath salutes our “Cathedral in time,” as does Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World. Many also tell time here by parshat hashavua, the weekly portion. To understand the Torah’s dimensionality – read it! – or start with Aviva Zorenberg’s rich interpretations in The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.
Mugged by Modernity: Ok. You’ve plunged into Jewish history – thrilled to walk where they walked. You’re living Jewish time, enjoying being a sensitive, tolerant majority, not a nervous, always-just-a-bit-uncomfortable, minority. But to “get” Zionism, study the Enlightenment’s rebellion against tradition – when modernity mugged Judaism. The Jew in the Modern World charts that story in documentary snapshots. More systematically, in the Modern Jewish Canon , Ruth Wisse explains, elegantly: “Modern Jewish literature is the repository of modern Jewish experience. It is the most complete way of knowing the inner life of the Jews.” For a lighter — yet equally profound – perspective, read Wisse’s No Joke: Making Jewish Humor , because “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue, like French cuisine and Turkish baths.”
Ultimately, mastering modern Jewish identity requires understanding Western identity. Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity offers a fabulous metaphor: tradition, ritual, Jewish history, Jewish thought are solid, while modernity is liquid, dynamic, changing, elusive. Jonathan Haight’s The Righteous Mind reconciles left with right while exploring the soul-sparseness many hyper-individualist, super-careerist youngsters feel. And despite its outdated focus on television, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death reveals how modern media and America’s leisure culture dull our minds while depressing our souls.
Elevated by Nationalism, not Pinched by Particularism: While assessing your own synthesis between Judaism and modernity, Americanism and Zionism, remember that university culture knocks Judaism’s two fundamental pillars — nationalism and religion. Nationalism, in particular, needs boosting. In Yael Tamir’s liberal case for nationalism Why Nationalism , she wonders why gazillionaires would ever pay more taxes without “cross-class” appeals to their communal, meaning patriotic, nationalist, pride? And read Ze’ev Magen’s readable “philosophical rampage,” John Lennon and the Jews . I imagine you’ll never again sing that universalist anthem “Imagine” with an unimaginable fervor.
To confirm that deep dives into Jewish nationalism, including moving to Israel, can send your imagination and your soul soaring, read Michael Oren’s compelling new short story collection The Night Archer and Other Stories. While shapeshifting with him, in short, deftly-etched stories, assuming different personas, in different places, in different eras, you absorb constructive particularism’s power. It can make you empathetic not bigoted, ever-more universally-inclined. Final confirmation will come from Yehuda Amichai’s deeply rooted, profoundly human poems.
Not Just Saved but Inspired and Galvanized by Zionist Ideas: Finally – at the risk of sounding self-promoting, bring this all together by sitting with the visionaries who imagined, then established, the state, and now defend, challenge, and perfect it. In The Zionist Ideas my 168 co-authors and I initiate readers into Zionism’s dazzling diversity, echoing these key ideas, explaining the power of our rootededness and the joys of our Jewishness, the dilemmas of modernity and the opportunity affirmative liberal nationalism provides.
As quarantine ends, you’ll appreciate the lessons of Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish peoplehood: that when you belong to this people, this network, this legacy, this old-new global conversation, you’re Never Alone . That’s why there are so many entry points. That’s why I could rewrite this column tomorrow, replacing these books I cherish with an equally impressive crop I also love and learned from.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .