My cousins asked me for some reading material on Israel and Judaism. Here's a short list.
A History of the Jews by Paul M. Johnson
This is an absolute "must". Mr. Johnson is a conservative Catholic, the former editor of The Spectator newspaper. I believe that histories of religion must be written by someone of another religion if they are to have any validity and objectivity. Mr. Johnson's grasp of the subject is stupendous, and, being a journalist, his writing is lucid, succinct, and very approachable, without jargon. It is the best history of the Jews and Judaism available today.
From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine by Joan Peters
Ms. Peters set out to write a book about the Palestinian refugees of 1948, but what she found changed her viewpoint entirely. One of the book's strengths, and its main weakness, is the degree of documentation she provides. The actor John Barrymore is reputed to have said that "footnotes are like running downstairs to answer the doorbell on one's wedding night". Every single assertion Ms. Peters makes is so fully annotated that it becomes annoying after a while--but since she so fully documents her sources, you easily see that she is not simply giving her personal views.
The Closed Circle by David Pryce-Jones
Mr. Pryce-Jones is also a newspaperman, but he is also an Arabic speaker, and spent a lot of his childhood in Arab countries since his father was a British diplomat, and has made the Arab world his specialty. This book is an explanation of the psychology of the Arabs, which I think is essential to understanding their world view and their aspirations, and also why they seem to cling to a pre-modern ethic. Rafael Patai's The Arab Mind is also an exploration of the Arab mentality, and very good, but Pryce-Jones' book is better, in my opinion.
Two books about living as a Jew, written by two observant Jews but designed to be read by anybody, are To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life by Hayim H. Donin, and How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Rabbi Donin gives a very concise run-through of the major tenets of Judaism, with explanations, while Ms. Greenberg describes living in a Jewish household, from the standpoint of the woman of the house. There are a lot of anecdotes about day to day situations [such as suggesting that a woman put in her curriculum vitae how many times she's "made Pesach", it's such a major task].
For a world tour of Jewish cuisine (which some would say the Jews haven't got, but they're wrong) coupled with extensive commentary on the various communities from which the recipes are culled, nothing beats The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden. Ms. Roden, who is Sephardi, is a bit of a food snob, especially when describing Ashkenazi food, which she feels is inferior (a "folk cuisine") compared with Sephardi cooking, but she's still very comprehensive.
One of my cousins asked for books to help him learn Hebrew, which seems very daunting [it isn't, really, but that's another topic]. I recommend How the Hebrew Language Grew by Edward Horowitz, and 501 Hebrew Verbs : Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses in a New Easy-To-Follow Format alphabetically Arranged by Root by Shmuel Bolozky. Hebrew is based on an entirely different system than Indo-European languages, and so seems sometimes very difficult for those who've never "thought outside the box". But Hebrew is actually quite easy, IF you understand the logical underpinnings, which are that words have roots from which one can, if one follows certain rules, derive almost all the necessary forms and parts of speech.
Part II will be about what I'm currently reading, and some of my "desert island books"--the books I can't be without.
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