RJ Fall 2001

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

"I am recommending that we read four books a year that build on our foundation of common Jewish knowledge."
--UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Our Significant Jewish Books column, inspired by UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's Reform Movement Literacy Initiative, challenges all Reform Jews to read at least four books of Jewish substance a year. In each issue we recommend two or more titles representing the best of Jewish literature, both fiction and nonfiction, selected in cooperation with the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth.

It is our hope that you will read at least one of these selections on your own or with others in a synagogue study or book group. Connect with thousands of other Significant Jewish Books readers by accessing the Adult Jewish Growth website, where you'll find a discussion guide, a list of the previously selected Significant Jewish Books, and more.

O Jerusalem!
by Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre

With the failure of the peace talks begun at Oslo and the escalation of Palestinian terrorism within Israel, the worst of Jewish fears are resurfacing: that Palestinian Arabs will again reject a two-state solution and challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. At this critical time, it is vital that we remember and remind the world of the actual events that transpired after the U.N. vote in November 1947 approving the partition of Palestine. O Jerusalem!, written by two non-Jewish journalists, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, gives a thorough and accurate account of the six-month period leading up to Israel's proclamation of statehood in May 1948, its invasion by Arab armies, and the battle for Jerusalem, terminated by a cease-fire resulting in a divided city. These events set the stage for the decades of conflict and warfare that followed.

While the Jews of Palestine accepted the U.N. partition, despite its indefensible borders and recommendation to internationalize Jerusalem, the seven nations of the Arab League, meeting in Cairo in December, vowed to prevent the creation of the Jewish state and "drive the Jews into the sea." Violence immediately erupted in Jerusalem; Arab villagers blocked the roads to the city and convoys supplying food to its 100,000 Jews--one-sixth of the Jewish population of Palestine--were routinely ambushed. The nations of the U.N., while decreeing the internationalization of Jerusalem, were unwilling to commit peacekeeping troops to keep the city open.

While the Arab nations could openly purchase arms for their own troops and Palestinian Arabs, the British strictly enforced an arms embargo for the Jews. The underground Jewish defense forces were only able to bring planes and heavy artillery into the country on the eve of the British departure, just hours before the outbreak of war. On May 15, Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies invaded Israel on three fronts. "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre," predicted the Arab League's commander.

The authors provide even-handed coverage of the plight of Jews and Palestinian Arabs in this period--the Irgun's massacre of the Arab village of Deir Yassin; the Arab massacre of the Jewish settlers of Gush Etzion, mowed down by machine guns after their surrender; the forced flight of Arab professionals from Jerusalem suburbs; the lethal attack on a convoy bearing Jewish doctors and professors to Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Nevertheless, as this account makes clear, the Jews of Palestine were fighting not only for their state, but for their lives.

Enlivened by anecdotes and eyewitness accounts, this gripping history records such stories as the secret trip of Golda Meir, disguised as a veiled Arab wife, to Amman in an effort to dissuade King Abdullah from entering the oncoming war. Though King Abdullah had friends at the Jewish Agency, he could not oppose his Arab rivals and also harbored ambitions of annexing Palestine to Transjordan. An Epilogue covers the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Walking the Bible
A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses
by Bruce Feiler

"The idea of writing about the Bible had sneaked up on me," confesses travel writer Bruce Feiler, a fifth-generation Reform Jew. Like many young Jews trying to reconnect to their heritage, Feiler sensed in his ignorance of the Bible that "there was a conversation going on in the world around me that I wasn't participating in. References would pop up in books or movies that I vaguely understood yet couldn't fully comprehend.... At weddings and funerals thewords I heard and recited were just that--words. They had no meaning to me. No context."

Feiler's interest in the Bible took a new turn with his first trip to Israel. During a tour of Jerusalem, a guide identified the Dome of the Rock as the place "where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac." He writes: "Real or not, that piece of information hit me like a bolt of Cecil B. DeMille lightning. It had never occurred to me that that story--so timeless, so abstract--might have happened in a place that was identifiable, no less one I could visit." That was the genesis of his plan--to "walk the Bible," following the journeys of the Israelites through the Middle East as described in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). Traveling with Avner Goren, an expert guide and teacher who served as chief archaeologist of the Sinai from 1967 to 1982, Feiler spent the next year retracing the biblical narrative through "three continents, five countries, and four war zones."

"From the moment I crossed the Suez and set foot in the Sinai I felt a sense of exhilaration," Feiler writes, describing his emotions upon encountering the desert landscape. "Having passed, at least in spirit, through the congested histories of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, I understood even more the importance of the Sinai to the Bible, to the need of the Israelites to shed the skins of other cultures and start growing one of their own." Through his firsthand experiences--navigating the Red Sea in a rowboat, camping in the desert, climbing mountains on camelback--Feiler finds that "the text is forever applicable. It's always now."

Even more compelling in this lively travelogue are his conversations with numerous other pilgrims, tourists, scholars, and residents at the biblical places he visits. The Bible, he discovers, "is not an abstraction in the Middle East, nor even just a book; it's a living breathing entity, undiminished by the passage of time." Responding at first to the sheer physicality of places mentioned in the Bible, Feiler also comes to appreciate the Bible's ability "to continually reinvent itself...to make itself relevant to anyone who encounters it."

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

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