People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

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

People of the Books

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.


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