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Tis the season to enjoy a good book

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It may be “the season”, but there’s a crop of superb books with Jewish flavour hitting the bookshelves. The themes vary from the Holocaust to magic, the voices are as diverse as a TikTok corporate from a South African cultural icon, and the range features an historian and an award-winner.

Whatever it is you need this December – comfort, perspective, nostalgia, or even Judaism with a touch of 21st century glamour – you’ll find it between these pages.

What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid? Michal Oshman

Michal is what we in the book trade would call “highly marketable”. She’s gorgeous, accomplished, a supermom/wife, and now head of culture at TikTok, the popular social-media app. But behind the uber-successful façade, Michal was beset with deep-seated fears and anxieties. A question emblazoned at the entrance of TikTok, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” set Oshman, an Israeli-born, secularly-raised Jew, on a life-changing religious and spiritual journey.

Based on her own experience of self-healing, Oshman offers readers a personal growth path based on Jewish and Hasidic concepts. Because of Oshman’s background, her approach isn’t stuffy or precious, and her experience illustrates the universality and timelessness of ancient Torah wisdom in a modern world.

Scatterling of Africa – Johnny Clegg

Just hearing the title of this book gets your foot tapping.

For years, rumours circulated in the book trade about this Very Important Autobiography about to be published. It was worth the wait.

The music, language, and dance of Juluka and later Savuka stirred the hearts of millions across the world. Their music was the soundtrack to many South Africans’ lives during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s as the country moved from legislated oppression to democratic freedom.

This is the story of how it all began – how the son of an unconventional mother, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, came to realise that identity can be a choice and home is a place you leave and return to as surely as the seasons change. The story, as Johnny Clegg wrote it and wanted it told.

The Promise – Damon Galgut

Following in the illustrious footsteps of Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, Damon Galgut is now the third South African to be recognised with the Man Booker Prize, for his 2021 novel The Promise.

In this book, the story of the white Afrikaans Swart family (catch Galgut’s sense of irony) plays out against the background of a tumultuous South African history over four decades – from the state of emergency in the mid-1980s, to the triumphalism of the mid-1990s (when we won the rugby world cup), to the fissuring of the non-racial dream under Mbeki, to the abjection of the Zuma years when the “promise” soured.

Galgut said that he wanted the critically acclaimed novel to show the impact of “the passing of time” on a family, a country, its politics, and “notions of justice”, all while also exploring mortality. And according to the critics, he pulled it off with originality and fluidity of voice.

Books themed around the Holocaust are heart breaking to read, yet the interest and popularity of this genre never seems to wane even amidst the frivolity of December holidays. Maybe it’s because no matter how bleak our reality may seem, a book from this period puts everything into sharp perspective. Or because as a nation with the benefit of two or even three generations behind us, we can look back and process our collective trauma with less raw emotion and more nuance. Possibly it’s because in our darkest hour, moments of triumph, of good winning over evil, give us hope. No matter the reason, here are some new ones to add to your collection:

Three Sisters – Heather Morris

From international bestselling author Heather Morris comes the breath taking conclusion to The Tattooist of Auschwitz trilogy. Rich in vivid detail and beautifully told, Three Sisters will break your heart but leave you amazed and uplifted by the courage and fierce love of three sisters, whose promise to each other amidst the horror of the death camp kept them alive. Two of the sisters are in Israel today, surrounded by family and friends. They have chosen Heather Morris to reimagine their story in her astonishing new novel. Heather Morris’ books linger for weeks on bestseller lists both here and abroad, and no doubt this third will too.

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz – Lucy Adlington

At the height of the Holocaust, 25 young inmates of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp – mainly Jewish women and girls – were selected to design, cut, and sew beautiful fashion for elite Nazi women in a dedicated salon, a fashion workshop called the Upper Tailoring Studio. It was work that they hoped would spare them from the gas chambers.

Drawing on diverse sources including interviews with the last surviving seamstress, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz follows the fate of these brave women and their part in camp resistance. A book about the greed, cruelty, and hypocrisy of the Third Reich and a fresh look at a little-known chapter of World War II and the Holocaust.

A touch of Alice Hoffman magic

Alice Hoffman’s seasonal offering is The Book of Magic – a stunning, unforgettable conclusion to the beloved Practical Magic series, but for me, it’s in the book The World that We Knew, that Alice Hoffman truly perfects her alchemy.

In Berlin in 1941, at a time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her 12-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she, Lea, and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Only Alice Hoffman could pull off so adroitly this heady mix of historical fiction, magic realism, and fantasy, the imagined and the mortal.

  • All books are available at Exclusive Books stores, or visit www.exclusivebooks.co.za.

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