People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

Examining the world through the microscope and Midrash. By Spertus Institute's Brian Zimmerman.

People of the Books

Fiddler in my head

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, and to celebrate, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I work, is hosting a free screening of the 1971 film adaptation on their Feinberg Theatre big screen.

In preparation for the April 6 event, I've been listening non-stop to the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack. As a result, I often catch myself humming "If I Were a Rich Man," or "Tradition!" in the most inconvenient situations, like during a meeting, or when I'm trying to fall asleep (not in a meeting). As I learned the hard way, these Fiddler songs sure are sticky.  

Looking to clear my brain of Tevye's baritone voice, I turned to psychologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose book Musicophilia provided a handy explanation for why some songs are catchier than others.

Normally, writes Dr. Sacks, our brains perceive music in a passive state. They hear it, absorb it, then let it go. But for some music, that's not the case: "Sometimes normal musical imagery crosses a line and becomes, so to speak, pathological, as when a certain fragment of music repeats itself incessantly, sometimes maddeningly, for days on end," he says.

He calls these fragments "earworms," for the way they seem to bury themselves in our ears, and his book provides three theories on what makes them stick. The first is repetition.

Recalling the days of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in England, Dr. Sacks describes a scene around his Seder table after the Passover meal when his family would sing "Chad Gadya," a traditional Passover song. As many of us know, "Chad Gadya" is a laboriously repetitive tune, with the chorus chanted up to 46 times.  After so many repetitions, Sacks said the tune "would haunt [him] and pop into [his] mind dozens of times a day throughout the eight days of Passover, then slowly diminish throughout the next year."

I admit, in gearing up for our Fiddler event I've probably listened to "Sunrise, Sunset" more times than is healthy your average human being. But as Dr. Sacks notes, repetition isn't the only reason a song gets stuck in a person's head. The second is cultural association.

In his book, Sacks theorizes that the stickiness of "Chad Gadya" had something to do with the context in which the tune was sung. For him, the song represented his own Jewish heritage, as well as the feeling of warmth and togetherness of being with his family. Because his brain craved those warm feelings, it would play the song again and again in his head, much to the annoyance of his eardrums.

Which brings us to the last ingredient in the making of a good earworm: overstimulation.

In the pre-industrial age, if people wanted to hear music, they had to go to a house of worship, concert, or party to get their fix. But with the advent of broadcasting, the way society consumed music changed overnight. Music became available everywhere - in our homes, our cars, our workplaces, even our showers. As Sacks writes, we now live in an era when "half of us are plugged into iPods, immersed in daylong concerts of our own choosing, virtually oblivious to the environment." There's hardly a public place we can go to today in which we're not totally bombarded by music.

Sacks thinks this musical omnipresence is responsible for the mass outbreak of earworms. "This barrage of music puts a certain strain on our exquisitely sensitive auditory systems, which cannot be overloaded without dire consequences," he says. He has a point. Overstimulation adds stress to our mental faculties, causing them to react in all kinds of unexpected ways. That's part of the reason why we experience anxiety when faced with mounting deadlines at work, or panic when we're lost in an unfamiliar place. When our brains are stressed, our mental faculties become confused, and that's when earworms are most likely to strike.

So is there anything we can learn from earworms, knowing that they arise from overstimulation?

Absolutely. And lucky for us, some of the wisest words ever spoken about musical overstimulation came from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an 18th-century Jewish sage and founder of the Breslover Hasidic Dynasty.

A music lover, he often explained the world in terms of song. Take this psalm for example:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.

Know that each and every grass has its own song.

And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made.

How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their song.

According to Rebbe Nachman, we live in a world in which every living thing has its own melody. We might assume that all these sounds blaring at our eardrums would make for a miserable existence, stressing our nervous systems the way Dr. Sacks describes. But Rebbe Nachman says the opposite, suggesting that a life filled with music is "beautiful" and "pleasant." He goes on to say that it's this accumulation of songs that defines our identities. In other words, we are the songs we choose to hear.

This got me thinking about my Fiddler on the Roof earworm, and it led me to a change in perspective.

I love Fiddler on the Roof. It's one of my favorite musicals, and I have fond memories of watching it on my living room couch with my family. It also brings to mind the long and captivating history of the Jews, a history to which I am proudly tied. So the next time "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and "Wonder of Wonders" pop into my consciousness, I shouldn't get annoyed. I should think about how the songs remind me of my family and the Jewish traditions I hold near to my heart. After all, these are the "songs of the grasses" from which I am made. To that I can only say, "L'Chaim!" (Uh-oh, I think I feel another song coming on.)

If you want to join me at Spertus Institute on April 6 to see Fiddler on the big screen, reserve your seat at spertus.edu/fiddler or call 312.322.1773.Get ready to sing!

The Jewish value of pi

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It's only my second blog for People of the Book, and already I feel like I'm coming full circle. That's because this post is about pi, the mysterious mathematical concept that has been fascinating scholars (even Biblical scholars) for centuries. In fact, pi is such an impressive number that British author and mathematician Alex Bellos devotes a whole chapter to it in his cleverly titled new book on mathematics, Here's Looking at Euclid. In his book, Bellos asks a simple but perplexing question: "What's so special about pi? Well, with the help of an ancient Egyptian farming technique, a Biblical swimming pool, and a supercomputer in a New York studio apartment, that's what we're going to find out.

First up to explain the pi phenomenon: Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, an American-born rabbi now living in Israel. In his article "The Story of Pi," he suggests that pi "represents the most basic intermediate spanning the gap between the human mind and nature's curve." What Rabbi Ginsburgh means is that circles and curves appear nearly everywhere in nature, yet as humans our minds tend to understand the world in straight lines. Because we're a scientific culture, we love to measure, quantify, and analyze the natural phenomenon down to its smallest atom. But pi - and the circle's they represent - often defy our angular expectations.

In case it's been a while since your last geometry class, here's a quick refresher. Pi is the ratio between a circle's circumference (the measurement around the outside of the circle) and its diameter (the measurement across from one side to another). This ratio is always the same, no matter the size of the circle, and its represented by the Greek letter ∏. In numerical terms, it's approximately 3.14.

As Bellos describes in this book, the peculiarities of this pi have been noted since ancient times. In Egypt, farmers used a similar ratio to measure the size of their circular crop fields. That ratio was 3 1/8. Later on, the Babylonians would use a similar ratio to measure their wagon wheels and whetting stones.

Pi is also appears in Jewish history and is even referenced in Jewish scripture. In Sepher Melachim, the Book of Kings, chapter 7 verse 23 describes a circular pit of water that King Solomon builds near the edge of the sea. The description is as follows:

"And he made the molten sea, ten cubits from brim to brim; it (was) round all about, and the height thereof (was) five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about."

Did you spot pi? Look closely. The circular pit had a diameter of ten units across, or "brim to brim." That's the pit's diameter. If we were to calculate the circumference using pi, we'd end up with 3.14 units. And what did the Book of Kings say? 30 units! For Biblical times, that's a pretty close estimate.

But the Vilna Gaon, an 18th- century Talmudist, wanted to do better. Using gematria, the Jewish study of word-number relations, he provided key insight into the King Solmon's pit problem. What he noticed was that the Hebrew text for the word "perimeter" was written as kanah - a distinctly two-syllable word. But when reading this word from the Book of Kings, it has become custom to pronounce it as kahn - a one syllable word. The Vilna Gaon thought this was incredible. He noted, quite accurately, that for a circle with a diameter of ten cubits, the circumference would not be exactly 30 cubits. There'd be a remainder left over. That's where the difference in syllables comes in. The Vilna Gaon says that the added syllable that appears in the written form but not in the spoken form indicates the presence of pi's remainder - the extra 1.14! It was there all along, but hiding in plain sight.

As it turns out, pi's elusive remainder has been hiding from us for a long time. We still haven't figured it out after 2000 years of mathematical history. That's because pi is a transcendental number, meaning its digits literally go on forever, and with no discernable pattern. Still, pi's never-ending quality hasn't deterred us from trying to write it all out.

The Chudnovsky brothers, both math professors at Columbia University, once programmed a supercomputer in their tiny New York apartment to calculate pi to the 2 trillionth digit. Today's computers can calculate pi much quicker, and our current enumeration of pi is somewhere around 8 quadrillion digits. (In case you were wondering, the Guiness record holder for Most Digits of Pi recited by memory is 24-year-old Chinese graduate student Lu Chao, who remembered pi up to 67,890 digits. It took him 24 hours.)

Maimonides, in his Perush Ha-Mishna, chimes in on the transcendence of pi. Commenting on humankind's inability to understand the number in its entirety, he says the following:

"This is not due to a lack in our knowledge…but it is in its nature that it is unknown, and there is no way to know it, but it is known approximately."

This is what makes pi such a beautiful metaphor for Judaism's embrace of the unknown. In Kabbalah, God is often referred to in terms of transcendence, in which a divine presence is seen to be outside of the material world, and immanence, in which a divine presence is seen to be within the material world. For centuries, Chasidic and Kabbalistic sages argued over whether God's true being was transcendent or immanent. In the end, however, they came to the realization that a true Divine Presence could exist in both realms - finite and infinite, yet always beyond human understanding. This, they said, was an attribute of perfection.

Such is the case with pi. In a world where nearly everything can be charted on a graph, map, or screen, we should find great joy in the things that will forever remain out of our reach - and be happy that they'll remain there. Let's call it the ultimate peace of pi.

This is your brain on Judaism

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Hello, readers. I'm Brian, the new voice behind People of the Books, and I'm thrilled for this opportunity to share my thoughts with you every month. Like my predecessor Betsy Gomberg, I'll be delving into the world of books and authors, but with my own little spin. My favorite books are the ones that try to explain the mysteries of the world around us, so I tend to gravitate toward books about science, psychology, nature, and history. In this column, I'll be exploring these subjects and how they relate to Judaism. I hope you'll join me!

First up: the brain. In his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Jewish neuroscientist David Eagleman gets inside your head - literally. His book is an exploration of consciousness, and in it he examines everything from how we fall in love to why it's so hard to keep a secret. Through scientific studies, humorous anecdotes, and inspirational profiles (like the one about the blind mountain climber who "sees" with electrodes on his tongue), Eagleman's book makes you think about thinking in a whole new way.

One of Eagleman's most ambitious theories is that humans aren't as aware of our surroundings as we think we are. To prove this point, Eagleman cites a famous experiment in which scientists approached random pedestrians on the streets to ask for directions. While the subjects were giving directions, another pair of scientists disguised as construction workers passed in front of the subjects with a slab of wood, creating a momentary blockage of sight. What the subjects didn't know was that hiding behind the wood was yet another scientist, who stealthily swapped places with the original one. The scientists wanted to know: after a momentary lapse in sight, would the subjects notice that they were talking to entirely different person?

The answer? No. Most people were so wrapped up in the routine task giving directions that they forgot to register the physical features of the first volunteer. How could they have missed something so obvious? Well, it's due to a phenomenon called change-blindness, and it happens when we're so involved in our own thoughts that we fail to notice changes in our environment.

Reading Eagleman's book made me curious about my lack of awareness, and I scoured the internet for more information. As it happens, Eagleman isn't the only Jewish author thinking about change-blindness. Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, a blogger for The Huffington Post, has his own take on consciousness, only his is from a Jewish perspective. In his article, entitled "What Would a 'Conscious Judaism' Look Like?" Rabbi Mitelman attempts to analyze modern psychology through the lens of Jewish thought, and it's here that we find an interesting intersection between neuroscience and Judaism.

In Judaism, writes Rabbi Mitelman, there is a special word for an alert state of consciousness. It's called kavanah, which literally translates to "intention of the heart." Historically used to describe the mindset required for Jewish prayer, today kavanah has become associated with the concept of "mindfulness." It's taking that moment to register your surroundings, and even more, to be thankful for them. It's the also reason Jews say a blessing before things like eating, sleeping, and washing hands - because it's important to remember that even during these mundane tasks there is greater meaning and purpose.

Turns out, kavanah serves a neurological purpose as well. Since our brains like to conserve energy, they tend to designate less attention to our external world when we're engaged in familiar tasks. That's why we can "zone out" while we do things like brush out teeth or ride the "El." But when we make an effort to pay attention - when we practice kavanah - we're essentially tricking our brains into treating old information like we're encountering it for the first time. It's only then that we're able to notice what we've taken for granted, like how beautiful the sky is on a rainy commute to work, or how happy we feel when picking our kids up from school - even if we've performed these tasks a thousand times before.

In the end, both Judaism and neuroscience wind up on the same side of kavanah. They both embrace the fact that being aware of the wonderful gifts life has given us is always a good thing. So the next time you feel like you're sleepwalking through life, stop what you're doing, take a moment of kavanah, and experience a greater sense of being alive.

New Year, New Page

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The new calendar year brings thoughts of change. Like a blank page, a new year is a chance to start fresh or embrace something unfamiliar. While many of us see it as an opportunity to transform something within or about ourselves, it can also be a time to seek inspiration and think about our impact in the world.

So in this post, it's my pleasure to share a few books about people changing and making change. 

Josh Ruxin's A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda was a Hanukkah present from my sister. I read it in one fell swoop and have been recommending it to everyone and anyone who will listen to me.

On its surface, the book's premise sounds crazy: foodie Jewish newlyweds from New York move to Rwanda and open a fine-dining restaurant. And while that description is indeed - almost unbelievably - accurate, the book is about much more.

Josh Ruxin was already an expert on public health and international development before he embarked on the change that's at the core of A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Educated at Yale, Columbia, and University of London, he had led projects in several countries and served as an advisor to government and business leaders on economic development. In 2002, along with Jeffrey Sachs (author of The End of Poverty) and Internet entrepreneur Rob Glaser, he founded Health Builders to support countries working to improve their health systems with financing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Several years later, Ruxin and his wife Alissa (who has a master's in public health from Harvard) were at a party in Manhattan when they were challenged about whether their work could make a difference in Rwanda, a country with rampant poverty and the scars of genocide.

Amazingly, they take the challenge, leaving their friends and families to move to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. With incredible honesty, A Thousand Hills to Heaven tells the story of their work to build opportunity - in ways expected and unexpected - in the country that becomes their home.

Another book of young Jews leaving Manhattan, one that has stayed with me over the several years since I read it, is Brad Kessler's Goat Song.  The book is a chronicle of the changes Kessler and his wife experience when they move to a 75-acre goat farm in southern Vermont. Kessler, an award-winning author, describes with humor their transformation from farm novices to expert artisan cheese makers. On deeper level, he shares the new aspects of his faith uncovered as he finds himself closer to Judaism's ancient relationship to the land. About the book, the Wall Street Journal says, "Goat Song offers a meditation on pastoral life that will make an urbanite regret having missed the experience."

For those whose New Year's resolutions involve health and fitness, I recommend A.J. Jacobs Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. Jacobs, the bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically, puts every possible workout, diet, and fitness device to the test-on himself. As a journalist who is his own subject, he weaves his personal experiences together with medical studies and expert opinions. Of the endeavors on which he reports, some are hilarious, some absurd, and a few hold the possibility for meaningful change.  

About a different kind of transformation, I recently read some interesting reviews of Harriet Rossetto's Sacred Housekeeping: A Spiritual Memoir, and it is now on my reading list. Rossetto is the CEO and founder of Beit T'shuvah (House of Return) in Los Angeles. Today an acknowledged residential treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction, Beit T'shuvah started as a halfway house for Jewish ex-cons. While Beit T'shuvah's  mission is change, Rossetto's own story is itself an example of a tremendous shift both personal and professional, with implications well beyond herself.

Rossetto is a social worker who, when she was unemployed and homeless, answered what would be a life-altering classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. The ad, placed by the county jail, specified the need for "a person of Jewish background and culture to help incarcerated Jewish offenders." Since then, she has been working on rehabilitation for what she calls "the unpopular cause" of Jewish addicts and criminals. Sacred Housekeeping tells her story and the role Judaism played in her journey.

Speaking of change, with the turn of the New Year, I turn this column over to my Spertus colleague Brian Zimmerman. I look forward to reading what he writes - and I know you will too.

Jewish books and holiday movies

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At the time I'm writing this, there is lots of talk about the just-released movie version of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the acclaimed young adult book set in Germany during World War II. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play the parents of the book thief of the title. I loved the book and haven't seen the film, which is getting reviews that are intriguingly all over the spectrum. (To illustrate the range, AP critic Jessica Herndon called it "a triumph" while the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips was decidedly less enthusiastic.)

But that's not really the point of this post. The point is that the movie release of The Book Thief represents two ways that Jewish books - and Jews - come together at the movies. It is both a Jewish book adapted to the screen, and it's a holiday movie. In film-biz lexicon, holiday movies, released in the last months of the calendar year, are generally those with Oscar possibilities (so they are fresh in Oscar-voters' memories at nomination time) or those most geared toward groups of family members and friends more likely to see films the old-fashioned way (in a theater) when they have time off at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.

But to me - and many Jews - the term "holiday movies" means something else. They are the movies available to see on Christmas day, when we celebrate with the traditional pairing of a movie and Chinese food. In fact, the tradition of Jews, Christmas, and Chinese food is so much a part of the America Jewish experience that it played a role in the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings of Justice Elena Kagan. Senator Lindsey Graham, in questioning Ms. Kagan about her views on the war on terror, inquired about where she was on Christmas day 2009, the date of the failed attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by a passenger with explosives sewn to his underwear. Kagan responded, to well-deserved applause, "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant." You should watch the clip. It's hilarious. Senator Patrick Leahy needed the joke explained to him by New York Senator - and Jew - Chuck Schumer. But I digress.

This year, in advance of holiday Jewish-movie watching, here are suggestions for a few upcoming new releases - one book-based, the others not - that touch on the Jewish experience. In December, I'll share some movies made from Jewish books available for watching at home in your living room. 

NEW RELEASES

Inside Llewyn Davis
Opens in Chicago December 20.

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, this Grand Prix winner at Cannes follows a young folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961. In Variety, film critic Scott Foundas says, "In keeping with the Coens' interest in matters of Jewish cultural identity, the pic also touches - but never dwells - on the folk scene's abiding spirit of self-reinvention, which allowed a Jewish doctor's son from Queens to become the singing cowboy Ramblin' Jack Elliott."

Six by Sondheim
Debuts on HBO December 9.

Directed by James Lapin and told primarily in Sondheim's own words, this feature documentary reveals how art and life have been intertwined for Sondheim since childhood, when his mother's friendship with the family of legendary librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II introduced the young Sondheim to his artistic mentor and his musical path. Interspersed with archival performances by stars including Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.

The Monuments Men
Scheduled to open February 7, 2014.

Technically no longer a holiday release (unless the holiday is Purim) because the release date has been pushed back to early 2014, but sounds like it will be well worth the wait.

Directed by George Clooney, the film tells the story of an unlikely World War II platoon tasked with saving precious works of art and architecture from the clutches of the Nazis. Based on Robert Edsel's nonfiction book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History." All-star cast includes Clooney along with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and Bill Murray.

For more about films with Jewish connections, see Jan Lisa Huttner's excellent Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight.

8 Jewish books that will make great gifts

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This year, Chanukah begins at sundown on Nov. 27 (the night before Thanksgiving), which means now is the time to think about gift buying. If your family is like mine (and many, many others) that means books. Here are eight recommendations for the eight festival nights. Many of these are available at the Spertus Shop, where purchases support programming relating to Jewish learning and leadership.

1. My favorite book to give this year is Jerusalem: A Cookbook. It is written by London-based chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, who grew up on the Jewish West and Arab East sides of Jerusalem respectively. Beautiful photos of food and city scenes illustrate 120 recipes from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cooks who live in Jerusalem, with influences from their family histories in Iran, Poland, Syria, Italy, and other spots around the globe. The book has been steadily collecting fans since its publication last October.  

In fact, according to the New York Times, “cooks have been throwing all-‘Jerusalem’ potlucks, passing around tips on where to buy fresh tahini in Minneapolis or Manchester, England, and using the book as a spark to ignite new cookbook clubs — monthly gatherings of cooks, who may know each other only online, that are catching on in many cities. American food lovers are not only cooking from ‘Jerusalem’, many of them are cooking their way through it, as cooks did with ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ in the 1960s and with ‘The Silver Palate Cookbook’ in the 1980s.”  

2. For fiction readers, I suggest Dara Horn’s ambitious new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, which weaves complex lives of current day fictional siblings with those of fascinating characters from Jewish history. Moses Maimonides, for whose manuscript on faith and reason Horn’s book is titled, comes alive in his role as court physician to the Sultan Saladin in the 12th Century. Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter, along with the twin Victorian adventurers Agnes Smith and Margaret Lewis, play a role at the time of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza in 1896.  

3. When the above-mentioned Horn was asked, in a recent interview with the Jewish Book Council, what she had recently enjoyed reading, she recommended a book about another fascinating historical figure, Jeremy Dauber’s The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye. You can read a fascinating excerpt about how Aleichem’s funeral at Carnegie Hall begins to shape his legacy in a recent post on the online magazine Tablet 

4. Between Friends, the newest book by Amos Oz, is getting incredible reviews. The Chicago Tribune calls it a, “gorgeous, rueful collection of eight linked stories about life in fictional Kibbutz Yekhat in the 1950s.” A perfect gift for longtime fans of the award-winning author and anyone you’d like to introduce to his work. 

5. Jewish Book Award-winner The Innocents, by first-time novelist Francesca Segal, is a skillfully written witty tale of the interwoven lives of young upper-middle class London Jews. It takes place in the present, but draws on Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence. With Segal being compared to everyone from Jane Austen to Zadie Smith, this would be a great gift for fans of contemporary literature, Downtown Abbey, or reality television. 

Do you have young people in your life? Here are suggestions for them. 

6. Ruth Goldeen’s Alef-Bet Yoga for Kids teaches the Hebrew alphabet with yoga poses that stretch and bend young bodies and minds (and older bodies and minds, too, if you join the fun). Ages 3-8. 

7. Part of a series by Annette Roeder, the Marc Chagall Coloring Book is a 32-page activity book that provides young artists hands-on opportunities to explore Chagall's masterpieces. Ages 9 and up.

8. For teens, I recommend Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, an especially timely selection this year as the movie based on this extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller is due out in November. Although considered a young adult book, it is good for adults too. In fact, it would be a wonderful choice for a family who reads together. (When I first read it, I couldn’t stop myself from reading passages out loud to whoever was in hearing range.) Against the backdrop of 1939 Germany, Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, her foster parents (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson in the film), and her growing collection of stolen books. WWII tragedies are seen and felt through Liesel’s experiences and those of the surprising group of neighbors and friends with whom she shares her love of reading. The Book Thief was the City of Chicago’s 2012 One Book, One Chicago selection, and an array of resources (including an in-depth interview with the author) can be found on the Chicago Public Library website.

14 books about Jewish Chicago

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Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, this year's One Book | One Community selection for Jewish Book Month, is set in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. In fact, the unnamed northwest suburb where the book takes place (we have a hunch it's Jami's hometown of Buffalo Grove) so contributes to the story's flavor and atmosphere that it's practically a character in its own right. In the Chicago Reader Aimee Levitt, who hails from the same stomping grounds as the author, says this: "literature is supposed to be about broadening your horizons and bringing you out of yourself and introducing you to new worlds, but that happens all the time. Seeing someplace you know well through someone else's eyes--now that's something rare and worth getting excited about."

With that in mind, in roughly chronological order, here are 14 books (some fiction like The Middlesteins, some not) where Jewish life in Chicago plays a role:

The Old Bunch (1937)
by Meyer Levin
Set on the West Side of Chicago, Levin's sprawling novel follows 19 first-generation Jewish Chicagoans in the 1920s and '30s.

Passage from Home (1946)
by Isaac Rosenfeld
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Rosenfeld's semi-autobiographical novel tackles teenage rebellion - before it was called that.

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
by Saul Bellow
This portrait of a Jewish Chicagoan in the Great Depression won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1954. Named one of the hundred best novels (ever) by both TIME magazine and the Modern Library Board.

Letting Go (1962)
by Philip Roth
Chicago in the 1950s is one setting (along with New York and Iowa City) of Philip Roth's award-winning first full-length novel.

The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb (1996)
by Irving Cutler
The classic guide to Jewish Chicago.

Total Recall (2001)
by Sara Paretsky
Paresky always places the exploits of private eye V.I. Warshawski in contemporary Chicago, with very real explorations of the city's cracks and crevices. This one explores stories of child survivors of the Holocaust.

Days and Nights at The Second City (2002)
by Bernard Sahlins
Second City founder and longtime producer/director Bernie Sahlins, who died earlier this year at age 90, tells the history of Second City from its humble start in 1959 to its role as the launching pad of American comics and comedy.

Fabulous Small Jews (2004)
by Joseph Epstein
The characters in the 18 finely crafted stories in this collection are lawyers, professors, scrap-iron dealers, and more.

Tales of a Theatrical Guru (2006)
by Danny Newman
The legendary theater impresario's autobiography is juicy and inspirational, with honest, heartwarming portrayals of his Jewish identification and his 44-year marriage to Yiddish theater star Dina Halpern.

Crossing California (2004)
by Adam Langer
Langer's debut novel, set in West Roger's Park in the late 1970s and early 1980s, shines a brutal - and funny - light on teenagers and parents in transition.

The Lazarus Project (2008)
by Alexander Hemon
A contemporary young writer, himself an immigrant to Chicago, becomes obsessed by the 1908 killing of a Russian-Jewish immigrant by Chicago's chief of police. (The source material for this book includes another good read, the nonfiction account of the Lazarus Averbuch mystery. Called An Accidental Anarchist, it's by Joe Kraus and Walter Roth of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society.)

The 188th Crybaby Brigade:
A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah - A Memoir (2010)
by Joel Chasnoff
A coming-of-age story from the former Chicagoan, who, at age 24, trades life as a comedian and writer in New York for a year as an Israeli tank soldier.

Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation (2012)
by Stefanie Bregman
A collection of personal essays from Jewish 20- and 30-somethings conceived and compiled here in Chicago.

Love and Shame and Love: A Novel (2012)
by Peter Orner
A multi-generational collage with a platform drawn from the Highland Park childhood of the double Pushcart Prize-winning author.

Did I miss your favorite? Leave a note in the comments!