Books On My Reading List This Week

Read Along With Me

This week, I’m focusing on Jewish literature. I hope you’ll read along with me as I visit some contemporary classic Jewish literature and a newly published work by historian and artist, Jill Culiner.

The first work on my list is I and Thou by Martin Buber. Regarded as a classic text, Buber explores existence and the relationship with fellow humans as well as one’s relationship to G-d. This has been on my reading list for a long time and I’m really looking forward to finally getting started with it.

The second is Elie Wiesel’s Night Trilogy. I read the first book, Night, about two and half years ago during a period of study so didn’t have the opportunity to read the other two books. I plan to reread the first book again. I’m curious how my perspective on it will change as compared to

the first time I read it.

The final book on my list is a newly released work by Jill Culiner, The Contrary Journey. This is my second work by Ms Culiner and I am a fan. She does extensive research into the potentially forgotten areas of Jewish history an the Jewish experience, primarily in eastern Europe in the 19th century. And what she presents her research in beautiful prose, transporting her readers into the world of her research. The reader experiences that world. Her writing is so much more than presenting lost histories.

What books are on your list this week? I hope you’ll add your suggestions in the comments.


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Jewish Literature

I and Thou
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Martin Buber’s I and Thou has long been acclaimed as a classic. Many prominent writers have acknowledged its influence on their work; students of intellectual history consider it a landmark; and the generation born since World War II considers Buber as one of its prophets. The need for a new English translation has been felt for many years. The old version was marred by many inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and its recurrent use of the archaic “thou” was seriously misleading. Now Professor Walter Kaufmann, a distinguished writer and philosopher in his own right who was close to Buber, has retranslated the work at the request of Buber’s family. He has added a wealth of informative footnotes to clarify obscurities and bring the reader closer to the original, and he has written a long “Prologue” that opens up new perspectives on the book and on Buber’s thought. This volume should provide a new basis for all future discussions of Buber.

The Night Trilogy

Night is one of the masterpieces of Holocaust literature. First published in 1958, it is the autobiographical account of an adolescent boy and his father in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel writes of their battle for survival and of his battle with God for a way to understand the wanton cruelty he witnesses each day.

In the short novel Dawn (1960), a young man who has survived World War II and settled in Palestine joins a Jewish underground movement and is commanded to execute a British officer who has been taken hostage.

In Day (previously titled The Accident, 1961), Wiesel questions the limits of conscience: Can Holocaust survivors forge a new life despite their memories? Wiesel’s trilogy offers insights on mankind’s attraction to violence and on the temptation of self-destruction.

The Contrary Journey
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The Old Country, how did it smell? Sound? Was village life as cosy as popular myth would have us believe? Was there really a strong sense of community? Perhaps it was another place altogether.

In 19thc Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Misnagedim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution and expulsion. But the Maskilim, proponents of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, were determined to create a modern Jew, to found schools where children could learn science, geography, languages and history.

Velvel Zbarzher, rebel and glittering star of fusty inns, spent his life singing his poems to loyal audiences of poor workers and craftsmen, and his attacks condemning the religious stronghold resulted in banishment and itinerancy. By the time Velvel died in Constantinople in 1883, the Haskalah had triumphed and the modern Jew had been created. But modernisation and assimilation hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism.

Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a lumpy second-hand coat, and an unhealthy dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania searching for Velvel. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey and Canada.

This book, chronicling a forgotten part of Jewish history, follows the life of one extraordinary Jewish bard, and it is told with wry humour by award-winning Canadian writer Jill Culiner.

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