Books with buzz: some recent best-selling books with Jewish connections.
Among the many delights offered by the monthly Hadassah magazine is a little corner column listing the “Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers.” Located with the cultural reviews towards the back of the magazine, the “Jewish Best Sellers” list is obtained from MyJewishBooks.com, one of many online sites devoted to the books read by the people of the, er, book.
The Hadassah list, while always informative, sometimes makes me chuckle. “Really?” I think to myself. “They consider that a ‘Jewish’ book?” Admittedly, I myself am not sure of the criteria that I consciously or unconsciously apply to this list; at some point I must have formed a mental set of boundaries within which I plop books that just feel Jewish to me. I think my confusion at some of the “Jewish Best Sellers” usually stems from seeing a title that has no obvious Jewish content. That then prompts the question, is an author’s Jewish background, or their obviously Jewish name, enough to merit inclusion on the list of Jewish bestsellers, even if the book they wrote bears not a trace of Jewish stuff? What about the reverse situation–would a novel brimming with Jewish themes, written by a non-Jewish author, make the cut?
Academic attempts to address this issue have yielded such worthy anthologies as Hana Wirth-Nesher’s What is Jewish Literature? (JPS, 1994), wherein she eschews as “reductive” any approach that goes according to the author’s Jewish identity. So if biography (or biology) aren’t satisfactory criteria, what else makes a book Jewish: the language in which it was written? Themes of morality or justice that stem from Jewish worldviews? A particular relationship with Jewish religion and sacred texts? The geographical location where it was created? These approaches all pose their own problems. More recently, the eminent scholar of Hebrew literature, Dan Miron, proposed “contiguity” or closeness as a way to think about Jewish writers’ shared positioning. In From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking (Stanford UP, 2010), he compares the writing of Franz Kafka and Sholem Aleichem, bringing them into thematic and existential contact. (For more, see this excellent review.)
It may be the case that Jewish literature is defined, as Wirth-Nesher says, by its being “indefinable”; and that always, somehow, Jewish literature contains a search for self-definition, an attempt to locate and inscribe one’s story within a particular time and place. However, let’s step back from theory for a second and think about what a “Jewish bestseller” means on the local level. As Lois Goldrich writers in this story, for example, books of classic Judaica (Haggadot, editions of Talmud and bibles) are always bestsellers at Jewish bookstores in the New Jersey area, and several genres vie for readership: cookbooks, non-fiction, memoirs, and popular novels like Sarah’s Key all captivate the customers who come into the stores surveyed for her piece.