Monday, September 17, 2007

REVIEW: The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books: Where to Start Reading about Jewish History, Literature, Culture, and Religion, edited by Barry W. Holtz

Since it was Rosh Hashanah a few days ago and the Jewish holiday season I thought it would be appropriate to review The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books. The Schocken Guide is the book lover's passport into the world of Jewish books- basically it's an extended bibliography of Judaica in a range of subject areas, fully annotated and illustrated with photos and drawings. I found it on one of my trips into my local used book store; it caught my eye because I work in a synagogue library right now and was browsing the Judaica section for something that might be either a good addition to the collection or a useful tool for me. This book turned out to be both.

Schocken Books is a publishing company specializing in Judaica since it was founded in Germany in 1931. In 1987 it became a division of Random House but continues to publish popular Judaica in a broad range of subject areas. Today Schocken publishes authors like Anita Diamant and Aharon Applefield. See the official About Schocken page at Random House or the entry on Wikipedia for more information. In other words the company is an expert source when it comes to Jewish books.

Every chapter of The Schocken Guide is written by a different expert, mostly rabbis and college professors representing every stream of Judaism. The chapter on the Jewish Middle Ages, for example, is written by Ivan Marcus, a professor of history specializing in medieval Europe at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The chapter on immigration and Jews in America is written by Brandeis University professor of American Jewish History Jonathan D. Sarna. So it's not just one guy rattling off a list of his favorite books but scholars giving a gloss on the most useful volumes in his or her specialty.

The recommendations include all genres of writing- fiction, nonfiction, etc. And each section mixes genres so for example the chapter on the Holocaust includes Holocaust fiction as well as history and memoirs. This feature is useful for someone learning about a given topic because you can find all the information you need in one place. The well-researched chapters cover mostly scholarly topics like Jewish mysticism, Israel and Zionism, women, as well as separate chapters covering Hebrew and Yiddish literature as well as American Jewish novels.

It's been fourteen years since The Schocken Guide was published in 1993; I would love to see an updated version covering newer publishers like Jewish Lights and newer trends in Jewish publishing, like the recent spate of self help books. I think it would also be helpful to include some chapters on less-scholarly topics. At my library, the single most popular category of books for adults is cookbooks and it would be great to have an expert along the lines of Joan Nathan tell me about the must-haves. It would also be helpful to include a directory of publishers and other resources in Jewish literature, like the National Yiddish Book Center or the Association of Jewish Libraries. But it is still incredibly useful for evaluating collections made up largely of older books and for anyone looking for a good read in Jewish religion, history, and literature.


Nikol said...

That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example

Marie said...

Well, I only went to my first Rosh Hashanah service this year and I'm not Jewish! Some people make similar criticisms about the timing of Christmas; to me it doesn't matter as long as the spiritual intent is pure. Things like exact date of the beginning of the world, or the birth of Jesus, are unknowable and what matters is that people who adhere to a religion appreciate its spiritual quality, whenever the calendar says they should take the time for ritual observances. I'm sorry if this isn't a good answer. Thanks for commenting though, I appreciate it and I hope you keep reading!