Reading through Rosh Hashanah and this season of special days

  • Book3
Rosh Hashanah naturally leads Jews to highlight the ideas of introspection, justice, life and death, looking back on the past and the need to improve oneself. It is reassuring to know that a crop of new books being released in September and October, deal with themes that offer mental stimulation and enjoyment for the discerning reader.
by STEVEN KRAWITZ | Sep 14, 2017

Introspection and self-improvement are two themes of The Choice (Rider 272 pages) by Edith Eger.

In 1944 sixteen-year-old Edith was sent to Auschwitz, where she endured unimaginable experiences, including being forced to dance for the infamous Dr Josef Mengele.

During the darkest period of modern history, Edith’s bravery helped her and her sister to survive and led to her bunkmates rescuing her during the death march at the war’s end.

When she was finally saved by Allied soldiers, Eger was pulled from a pile of bones, barely alive. Today Edith Eger is an internationally acclaimed psychologist and speaker whose patients include survivors of abuse and soldiers suffering from PTSD.

In The Choice, Edith shares her Holocaust experiences and the inspiring stories of people she has helped. Through four parts: prison, escape, freedom and healing, Eger explains how we can choose to break down the prisons of our minds to find freedom. The Choice echoes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in its profound examination of the human spirit and our capacity to heal.

Looking back on the past is Simon Schama’s passion. A double professor, of history and art history, Schama is the author of 17 non-fiction books and a novel. His scholarship ranges from Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age, to British and American history.

In 2013 Schama published the first of a two-volume history, The Story of the Jews: Finding the words 1000 BCE – 1492. The second volume, The Story of the Jews: Belonging 1492-1900 (The Bosley Head 750 pages) is being published this month.

Schama’s writing style is engaging, accessible and entertaining, while simultaneously scholarly and erudite. Together these two books focus on all sectors of Jewish society over two and a half millennia, recounting our magnificent cultural history with energy, a focus on larger than life Jews (of which there are many) and colour.

Here are the miracles and massacres, wanderings, discriminations, and harmony, false messiahs and embryonic national political awakenings.

Read both volumes for an unforgettable journey through Jewish history, and feel the glory of our survival against the greatest odds. It will take a long time for Schama’s history to be equalled.

Justice as it is practised in South Africa and one woman’s quest to uphold the law, is the focus of Rule of Law, Glynnis Breytenbach’s memoirs, written together with Nechama Brodie (Pan Macmillan 260 pages).

Over a 26-year legal career, advocate Glynnis Breytenbach earned a reputation as one of South African’s most formidable state prosecutors. Oeloff de Meyer once said that Glynnis would prosecute her own mother. He meant it as an insult. She took it as a compliment.

Now Breytenbach is a Member of Parliament and the DA’s shadow minister for justice.

In her memoirs, Glynnis shares how her life in and out of court shaped her to become the outspoken, principled woman she is, and the public person she did not want to become.

Rule of Law is also a personal commentary on the development and importance of an independent judiciary in South Africa, and explains why the upholding of the law is so crucial for the future success of all South Africans. Breytenbach also furnishes fascinating insights to our recent past and critical analyses of recent legal and political events.

Life and Death issues are highlighted in two books written from a medical background. One Life at a Time: A Doctor’s memoir of Aids in Botswana by Daniel Baxter (Picador Africa 289 pages) is an important addition to books on the southern African Aids pandemic.

Baxter, a medical director at a large community health centre in New York City, accepted an invitation to work in Botswana, naively confident that by bringing First World expertise to a country he could barely locate on a map, he could help in the rollout of Africa’s first HIV/Aids treatment programme.

Very quickly, his good intentions and altruism were overwhelmed by the reality of Aids and the staggering levels of desperation that surrounded him. Buoyed by the remarkable people of Botswana and the country’s beauty, Baxter persevered.

His memorable encounters with people living with Aids, profoundly changed how he viewed himself as a doctor and when he returned to America after eight years in Africa, he realised he was not so much the giver as the recipient of a great human gift.

One Life at a Time is engaging, humorous, courageous and often heart-breaking.

Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen (Guardian Books/Faber & Faber 285 pages) is the second medical book focusing on life and death.

Dr Adrian Owen is a British neuroscientist, currently based in Canada. He has published more than 270 peer-reviewed scientific papers and his research attracts the attention of the international media.

In 2006, Owen and his team made medical history when they discovered a new realm of consciousness, a twilight zone between life and death: the gray zone. The people who inhabit the gray zone are often labelled as being in a vegetative state, irretrievably lost.

Owen’s findings show that they are often an intact mind trapped within a broken body and brain, hearing everything around them, experiencing emotions, thoughts, pleasure and pain, not quite living but not quite gone.

Through Owen’s pioneering techniques, we can now talk to them and they can sometimes talk back. These shifting boundaries of consciousness have shaken the architecture of our sense of self and Owen investigates how his findings are changing our sense of self. Poignant, tragic and uplifting.

Two novels from Jewish American authors provide both entertainment and springboards for discussions.

Both Nathan Englander and Nicole Krauss are highly regarded New York Jews whose fiction investigates Jewish themes and increasingly are focused on Israel.

England's new novel, Dinner at the Centre of the Earth, is a spellbinding political thriller. A prisoner has been held in a black site in the Negev Desert for 12 years, isolated with his guard in a state of mutually shattering existential limbo.

Shifting back in time, the novel captures this prisoner’s extraordinary journey to his desert cell. From Berlin and Paris to Italy and America, Englander tells the story of how a nice American Jewish boy wound up an Israeli spy working for the Mossad, and then became a traitor to his adopted country.

Englander sets his novel against the backdrop of a divided country, showing that nothing and no one is what they initially seem.

Forest Dark (Bloomsbury) is Nicole Krauss’ fascinating new philosophical novel. In alternating chapters, Krauss creates two separate narratives, joined only by common elements.

Two New York Jews travel to Israel searching for meaning and belonging. One narrative is semi-autobiographical, following an acclaimed author Nicole, recently divorced (Nicole Krauss divorced her husband, author Jonathan Safran a few years ago) who travels to Tel Aviv for inspiration for her next novel.

Jules Epstein, a wealthy philanthropist, reeling from the death of his parents, gives most of his wealth away and travels to Tel Aviv. Both Nicole and Jules are guided through their “forest dark” by mysterious characters, a rabbi and an ex-Mossad agent, ending up in the desert.

Forest Dark is a remarkable achievement, showing Krauss at the peak of her career.

For Dessert: Renowned Israeli-British chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book Sweet (Ebury 368 pages) is a stunning dessert and baking cookbook.

The 110 innovative recipes combine Yotam’s hallmarks of evocative ingredients: fig, rose petal, aniseed, saffron, orange blossom, pistachio and cardamom; and inspired combinations. This is the one recipe book that will guarantee an exotic tasting sweet new year.

Shava Tova Umetuka!


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