The winners of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards were announced last week, which makes this as good a time as any to mention some of the best books I read over the past year.
Shulem Deen’s memoir about leaving the Skver hasidic community, All Who Go Do Not Return, deserved its National Jewish Book Award in the contemporary Jewish life and practice category. I wrote about my reservations over the whole “ex-Orthodox” genre, suspecting many non-Orthodox Jews read these memoirs out of a sense of schadenfreude. But Deen’s memoir is not an expose of the insular hasidic lifestyle (although there is that) but a deeply moving description of a spiritual journey, in Deen’s case from tightly circumscribed Hasidism to liberating and contradictory secularism. Although the human price Deen paid for leaving his community is profound and painful, he writes largely without anger and with respect for the choices made by others.
I was late in reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterly 2013 book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, but few books I read in 2015 — in fact, few books I have ever read about Israel — affected me as deeply. Halevi’s dense and lyrical book tells the stories of seven of the Israeli paratroopers who helped unify Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, and follows them from their idealistic younger years to their sober, and often disillusioned, middle age. Each of his subjects personifies an aspect of Israel’s transformation over the next 40 years — they include the kibbutznik who becomes an aerospace mogul and peace activist, the religious ideologue who would help steer the settler movement, and a radical who would reject the very tenets of Zionism. With one glaring lacuna (women play, at best, cameo roles in the story he tells) Like Dreamers is the book you recommend to people who intend to read only one book about Israel.
In the year of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, three nonfiction books — two of which center on Newark — illuminated the structural and institutional obstacles to racial equality and social mobility that continue to divide us as a country. In Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy embeds with a police homicide team in one of her city’s poorest neighborhoods as they investigate the shooting of a black teen. It’s the kind of killing that might normally merit a brief news item about a “gang-related shooting,” but by going long and deep, Leovy constructs a mountain of evidence to prove her main point: that by ignoring an epidemic of homicide among young black men, the media, politicians, and police are complicit in the lawlessness they pretend to abhor.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, published in 2014, is a reconstruction, by his white college classmate, of the life and murder of an African-American man who graduated from Yale but seemed ultimately unable to make the leap from Newark’s Chapman Avenue to a better future. Author Jeff Hobbs offers a complex portrait of a talented young man battling long odds and enormous personal demons. Liberals and conservatives will find in Peace’s story confirmation for whatever notion they have of what’s “ailing” poor folk: bad choices, institutional racism, structural poverty, the failure of public education. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that had Robert Peace been a gifted but troubled white man, his short life would not have been as tragic.
The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff could almost be read as a companion volume to Hobbs’s book. Her premise is simple: What happened to the $100 million pledged by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (matched by another $100 million from foundations and individuals) that was supposed to fix Newark’s failing schools? The result could be called a tragedy of good intentions: It turns out $200 million doesn’t go very far when there are so many competing forces and interests: educators protecting union jobs, administrators protecting their turf, politicians like Chris Christie and Cory Booker nursing larger ambitions, and an army of private consultants bringing agendas of their own. At the same time, Russakoff never loses sight of the people at the heart of the story: the children, parents, and teachers who ask only that the system work as well for them as it does for those in functional, affluent school districts.
This was also a year during which I read some great confessional nonfiction: M Train, by Patti Smith; The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits; I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, by Kent Russell; and The Seven Good Years, by the Israeli novelist Etgar Keret.
Finally, I don’t know what it says about me that when I want to take a break from bleak contemporary events, I read about bleak historical events. In In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, Hampton Sides writes about a doomed 1879 expedition that sought a sea route to the North Pole. The next time you complain — about anything — remember: You could be lost at sea. In a leaking lifeboat. Near Siberia. In the winter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author.