by Sarah Breger
When I started at Moment more than six years ago, I quickly gravitated toward the magazine’s books section. It wasn’t long before every review copy of a new book that arrived at the office landed on my desk. The Jewish book industry was—and still is—booming, and every day I would receive everything from obscure academic monographs (a personal favorite: Transnational Contested Food Practices of Russian-Speaking Jewish Migrants in Israel and Germany) to novels in which the protagonist eats a corned beef sandwich. Along with this more eclectic selection would come memoirs, often self-published, from Holocaust survivors recounting their experiences. In many cases, this was the first time they had publicly discussed their time in a concentration camp, or hiding from the Nazis, or managing to escape Europe while their family stayed behind. As I relegated other books to the “donate” bin, these offerings piled up on my desk. I was frozen, knowing we were unlikely to review most of these publications but loath to get rid of them.
To me, these writings were somehow holy. And just as Jewish tradition forbids the discarding of sacred texts—calling instead for them to be buried or stored in a geniza—I was unable to dispense with these testimonies. I couldn’t help feeling that I had an obligation to read each one, as if the very act of reading could provide an affirmation of a survivor’s experience.
In Judaism, reading often goes hand in hand with acceptance or recognition. We are instructed to read the Torah publicly three days a week as a sign of acceptance of the covenant. The story of the Exodus must be read aloud on Passover—even if you’re celebrating alone—in order to internalize the experience of slavery in Egypt and the redemption that followed. Even if you know Megillat Esther by heart, you are still called to read it twice on Purim.
The rabbis who established these traditional obligations seem to have understood that reading shapes us profoundly—the way we think, the way we live, the way we act. (Recent studies even suggest that reading can make us more empathetic.) To explore that theory further in our special books issue, we ask 20 authors—including literary luminaries such as Cynthia Ozick, Walter Mosley and Joyce Carol Oates—to name the book that most influenced them. The answers range from War and Peace to Winnie-the-Pooh, proving that inspiration can truly come from anywhere. How would you answer this question? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know. (FYI: My answer would be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.)
If what you read shapes you, then what happens when you read something troubling? Or something that seems like it may be anti-Semitic? Opinion Editor Amy Schwartz examines this question with a critical look at Dorothy L. Sayers, the queen of the Golden Age of detective novels, who had a strange relationship with the Jewish characters she wrote into her books. Then there are the writers we worship: For some readers there is no figure more beloved than novelist Alan Furst. Sure, a Game of Thrones premiere or Star Wars convention may draw its share of costumed fanboys, but among a certain set of white-haired intellectuals, a new novel from Furst is the highlight of the year. We talk to him about elevating the historical espionage novel and why he considers himself a “novelist of consolation.”
Also in this issue, Shmuel Rosner discusses Israel’s ill-advised and short-lived law to regulate discounted books, former New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer reviews the latest A.B. Yehoshua novel and CBS correspondent Dan Raviv examines a new accounting of the unusual story of the Egyptian who spied for Israel. Poet Albert Goldbarth catalogs important contemporary Jewish poets while food writer Susan Barocas looks at a new kind of cookbook. We explore how the Bible became the “Bible,” and illustrator Leela Corman reviews recent graphic novels—in cartoon form. We are also excited to publish a piece of fiction from a Hungarian Jewish literary superstar, translated exclusively for Moment.
There is a world outside of books, of course, and in our opinion pages, Polish dissident journalist and Moment contributor Konstanty Gebert reflects on how refugees are changing Europe. Noted Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani discusses the taboos that exist in Israeli and Palestinian societies and why we need to break them. And Letty Cottin Pogrebin explains why Hillary Clinton and Wonder Woman have more in common than you might think.
Plus, we list our favorite Jewish podcasts and choose the best foods to help you cool down as the temperature heats up!
So, what happened to all those Holocaust memoirs that were arriving at Moment? They crowded out my workspace for a long time, but eventually (or after a colleague noted how precarious the towering piles had become), I learned to let go.