by Greg Saltzman, written for the November 2021 edition of the Washtenaw Jewish News
Jews sometimes are called “people of the Book,” referring to the Torah. Books, interpreted more broadly, are the focus of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) book group. We have met since 2014 about eight times per year, discussing a different book each time. AARC book group meetings are open to members of the local Jewish community regardless of whether they belong to AARC.
Besides the intellectual stimulation of reading and discussing books, the AARC book group helps provide a sense of community and connection among the participants. Before COVID forced us to meet via Zoom, our meetings began with tasty food. (My wife, Audrey, loves feeding people.) May the pandemic end soon and the tasty food return!
Many of the books we discussed recently won National Jewish Book Awards. For example:
- Max Gross, The Lost Shtetl, a novel about a hidden Jewish village in Poland that escaped the Shoah.
- Colum McCann, Apeirogon, a novel based on a true story of an Israeli and a Palestinian who each lost a daughter to violence related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but nevertheless reached out to each other to build peace.
- Yossi Klein Halevy, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, a nonfiction account following the lives of seven Israeli soldiers from 1967 to more recent years.
- Michael David Lukas, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, historical fiction based on Solomon Schechter’s discovery of a treasure trove of Jewish documents in the Cairo geniza.
- Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink, a novel about a Sephardic Jewish woman in 17th century England who chafes at restrictions on women’s education.
- Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni, a novel about the immigrant experience in New York around 1900, with a twist: one of the immigrants is a golem.
I’ve also loved some Jewish-themed books we’ve discussed that did NOT win National Jewish Book Awards, such as:
- Sophie Judah, Dropped from Heaven, short stories about Jews of India.
- Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, a family memoir of the experiences of a prosperous Jewish family forced to flee Egypt after Nasser took over.
We discussed several books that did not have specifically Jewish themes:
- J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, a family memoir of the experiences of working-class Appalachian whites, which helps explains some of the political support for Trump.
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, a novel about war refugees that was a finalist for the Booker Prize.
- A special treat was a discussion led by AARC member Jonathan Cohn, a journalist, of his book The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage. It’s not often that the author himself leads a discussion in a small book group.
- AARC’s Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner has led the discussion for one meeting each year of the the AARC book group. In 2021, her session focused on Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a nonfiction account of unfair treatment by the criminal justice system of those who are impoverished or Black.
Previews of coming attractions:
- On Sunday, November 7, 2021 from 11:30 AM to 1 PM, we’ll have a Zoom discussion of Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. This is a memoir of Lansky’s efforts (for which he later won a McArthur Award) to rescue old Yiddish books before they were discarded in dumpsters. It also provides some insight into Yiddish culture in Canada and the U.S.
- On a yet-to-be-determined Sunday in December 2021, from 11:30 AM to 1 PM, we’ll have a Zoom discussion of Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees, The Ambassador. This is an alternative history novel that assumes the British government implemented the 1937 Peel Commission recommendation to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The novel tells the story of the Israeli ambassador to Nazi Germany who desperately tries to save as many Jews as possible from being murdered by the Nazis.
If you would like to be added to the email distribution list for AARC book group announcements and Zoom links for our meetings, please email me at email@example.com.