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The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature

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Jews have long embraced their identity as “the people of the book.” But outside of the Bible, much of the Jewish literary tradition remains little known to nonspecialist readers. The People and the Books shows how central questions and themes of our history and culture are reflected in the Jewish literary canon: the nature of God, the right way to understand the Bible, the Jews have long embraced their identity as “the people of the book.” But outside of the Bible, much of the Jewish literary tradition remains little known to nonspecialist readers. The People and the Books shows how central questions and themes of our history and culture are reflected in the Jewish literary canon: the nature of God, the right way to understand the Bible, the relationship of the Jews to their Promised Land, and the challenges of living as a minority in Diaspora. Adam Kirsch explores eighteen classic texts, including the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther, the philosophy of Maimonides, the autobiography of the medieval businesswoman Glückel of Hameln, and the Zionist manifestoes of Theodor Herzl. From the Jews of Roman Egypt to the mystical devotees of Hasidism in Eastern Europe, The People and the Books brings the treasures of Jewish literature to life and offers new ways to think about their enduring power and influence.


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Jews have long embraced their identity as “the people of the book.” But outside of the Bible, much of the Jewish literary tradition remains little known to nonspecialist readers. The People and the Books shows how central questions and themes of our history and culture are reflected in the Jewish literary canon: the nature of God, the right way to understand the Bible, the Jews have long embraced their identity as “the people of the book.” But outside of the Bible, much of the Jewish literary tradition remains little known to nonspecialist readers. The People and the Books shows how central questions and themes of our history and culture are reflected in the Jewish literary canon: the nature of God, the right way to understand the Bible, the relationship of the Jews to their Promised Land, and the challenges of living as a minority in Diaspora. Adam Kirsch explores eighteen classic texts, including the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther, the philosophy of Maimonides, the autobiography of the medieval businesswoman Glückel of Hameln, and the Zionist manifestoes of Theodor Herzl. From the Jews of Roman Egypt to the mystical devotees of Hasidism in Eastern Europe, The People and the Books brings the treasures of Jewish literature to life and offers new ways to think about their enduring power and influence.

30 review for The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jan Rice

    As the subtitle says, The People and the Books aims to elucidate classics of Jewish literature, with its scope from biblical times up until the turn of the twentieth century. Sounds good, and I'd gotten hold of it a while ago. Note: it was remaindered early on, perhaps not a good sign. And then, like many of the books I'm moved to get, it sat, and sat some more. I did look at it but it didn't spring to life for me. I pulled it out as the pandemic set in and the world turned to Zoom, where it gain As the subtitle says, The People and the Books aims to elucidate classics of Jewish literature, with its scope from biblical times up until the turn of the twentieth century. Sounds good, and I'd gotten hold of it a while ago. Note: it was remaindered early on, perhaps not a good sign. And then, like many of the books I'm moved to get, it sat, and sat some more. I did look at it but it didn't spring to life for me. I pulled it out as the pandemic set in and the world turned to Zoom, where it gained a life as a focus of my book study group. For that purpose it worked well, providing stability and focus amid the chaos. Everyone got a copy, and we took it several sections at a time over the summer and fall months. But some of the chapters were boring. The one on Deuteronomy and the one on the Book of Esther, as though he didn't want to write about them but thought he had to. He had his points to make, but still! I thought the chapter on Philo was dull and wanted to skip it, too, and start with the fourth chapter on Josephus. But was overruled by my husband, who thinks Philo is important. Of course! -- but here, dull. Wanted to make Judaism consistent with the Greek wisdom of the day, to tone it down and turn it into philosophy, that is, acceptable philosophy, perhaps with the underlying goal of defending Jews and reducing the precariousness of diasporic life. And that's one of Kirsch's messages: doing all the right things, as per Deuteronomy, won't always result in rewards rather than curses. In the Book of Esther, the Jewish people are saved, but not without a lot of lucky circumstances. And in the long run, in first century Alexandria, luck runs out. Next comes Josephus. How is Josephus like Philo? Answer: both are attempting to reconcile with the majority culture and make them like the Jews. But if that majority culture finds the minority to be useful as a common enemy, good luck with that! Josephus and the legendary figure Yochanan ben Zakkai, the subject of the next chapter, both choose life instead of martyrdom, but the former's a traitor while the latter's a savior. One saves his own skin (and, if he hadn't, we'd know a lot less!), and the other, as the story goes, saves Judaism: smuggled out as dead from a city under seige, shrouded and in his coffin -- with a clever pretext given for why the body should not be run through with a spear -- to become the traditional foundation of post-Temple Judaism -- a story with a familiar theme of death and rebirth. Post-Temple (and post-Jewish wars), Kirsch says, Jewish history diverges from one of conquest and kings to one of life as a minority with a story centered on texts, books, and writing. My favorite chapter, the one on Yehuda Halevi, comes next--favorite because I was led to Hillel Halkin's wonderful biography, of which see my review here. Maimonides, like Philo and others a reconciler (in this case, philosophy with Judaism, and top of the line) gets some attention in my Yehuda Halevi review. Even he can't completely eliminate faith, though. I like that, for Maimonides, understanding and insight are overflow from God. Imagine that: ideas a gift from God! Hard to accept that, for Maimonides as for so many other rabbis and leaders, self-restraint and inaction played so large a part, meeting the diasporic requirement of going along to get along. --Which may be why I got more from the chapters on the Zohar (Kabbalah and mystical Judaism), Spinoza, the modernizers (Solomon Maimon and Moses Mendelssohn), the advent of the Hasadim, and, finally, Theodor Herzl: like Yehuda Halevy, each exhibited in their own way a touch (or more) of rebellion. The chapter on the so-called Glückel of Hameln, unusual for being a female diarist in the late seventeenth century, is based on traditionally-taught but dated information. I, a rank amateur, can say that since I simultaneously read that even that name and her locale are misleading (https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/artic...). I have heard general criticism along those lines from elsewhere as well. The book is serviceable as an educational text and study guide. But it's not inspirational. Must textbooks be boring? Doesn't that defeat the purpose? I have read this author's articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and those articles are not boring. This is the second writer on my shelves who's written great articles but (sometimes) a disappointing book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Adam Graubart

    Kirsch does a fantastic job reviewing many of the major works that shaped Jewish thinking and history. Each chapter provides a thorough summary of a Jewish text as well as necessary historical context about the author and period, yet the book lacks a sense of being pedantic or overly academic. In all honesty, this book may deserve 4.5 stars rather than 5, primarily due to its lack of post-Holocaust 20th/21st century literature and its focus on Ashkenazic history. However, with those caveats, it Kirsch does a fantastic job reviewing many of the major works that shaped Jewish thinking and history. Each chapter provides a thorough summary of a Jewish text as well as necessary historical context about the author and period, yet the book lacks a sense of being pedantic or overly academic. In all honesty, this book may deserve 4.5 stars rather than 5, primarily due to its lack of post-Holocaust 20th/21st century literature and its focus on Ashkenazic history. However, with those caveats, it informs its audience in a clear, captivating way, and I especially appreciated the chapter about Yehuda HaLevi's Kuzari and the chapter about the Zohar.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michael Johnston

    The Jewish people have often been described as the People of the Book, but as Kirsch highlights in this wonderful compendium of the greatest, most influential books in Jewish history, it is more apt to describe Judaism as the people of the books. "Books were not just one element in Jewish culture," Kirsch notes, they were "the core of that culture, the binding force that sustained a civilization." Most often it is the canonical texts of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud) that are describe The Jewish people have often been described as the People of the Book, but as Kirsch highlights in this wonderful compendium of the greatest, most influential books in Jewish history, it is more apt to describe Judaism as the people of the books. "Books were not just one element in Jewish culture," Kirsch notes, they were "the core of that culture, the binding force that sustained a civilization." Most often it is the canonical texts of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud) that are described as defining our modern understanding of the faith. As Simon Schama has said, the Talmud was "suitcase ready" meaning that it's comprehensive set of laws and commentary could be carried along wherever this displaced people were forced to travel. But it is more than just the two main texts of the faith that influenced the nature of Jewish life. Over thousands of years an astonishingly broad and vibrant collection of commentaries, interpretations and stories helped shape the culture and beliefs of the people. It is this collection of literature that, in Kirsch's mind is the true history of the people. "To study the history of most peoples is to learn about wars and empires, military heroes and political reformers, great buildings and beautiful artworks," notes Kirsch. But until the founding of the modern state of Israel, "the history of Judaism would not be told primarily in political terms. It would be, instead, a history of books." And what books! From the Book of Deuteronomy with it's collection of critical laws and rituals and deep rootedness in the land of Israel to Shalom Aleichem's simple tales of Tevye which explore the challenges of Eastern European Jewry facing modernity. From Pirke Avot, a collection of aphorisms and sayings which captured the outlines of Judaism forever disconnected from centralized worship at the Temple in Jerusalem to Theodor Herzl and his dream of a new State of Israel. From Baruch Spinoza's secular philosophy and excommunication to the lyrical mysticism of the Zohar. It is a compendium of brilliance and creativity that forever altered the dreams of a people cast into the diaspora. Any compendium of this scale can only dip its toe into the substance of these great books. There simply isn't enough room to dive deeply into any one work. Yet, Kirsch does a wonderful job of capturing not only the essence of each work, but the historical context in which it was written and its impact on the future and thinking of the Jewish people. In these 18 classic texts resides much of the definition of who the Jewish people are and how we evolved over time. This work will likely not satisfy scholars who will want more in-depth understanding of each text. However, as Kirsch hints at in his preface, it is not so much an in-depth study of literature, as a review of touch points along the path to the evolution of the Jewish people. In particular, he notes that at the beginning of the 21st century, we are a people who still see ourselves shaped by the epochal events of the 2oth century - the Holocaust, mass immigration to the U.S., the founding of the State of Israel, etc. Yet the themes at the center of these recent events are not new to the Jewish people. "It can be hard to recognize that the very questions raised by these events - questions of assimilation, nationhood and providence - are not new in Jewish history but have part of of it from the very beginning" says Kirsch. Read this book and you will see in its broad, sweeping historical context the definition of the Jewish people. Read it for its history, but also read it for its deft explanations of the some of the greatest and most influential literature ever written.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Becky Skillin

    A compelling read. For those seeking to understand the role of story in the Jewish faith and understanding the way those stories form identities, this book sheds light. Explaining 18 different texts from a historical, secular, and also a faithful perspective is no small feat. Not being Jewish, I found it interesting to see what the author thought as the most representative, influential, and worthy of being included in his summarized anthology.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra

    If you want to read examples of Jewish literature, DO NOT pick up this book. This book is a literature review. That's fine if you are into that, but I picked up this book from a library list that did not focus on that fact. What I don't like: 1) It assumes a level of familiarity with Biblical cannon, Jewish history, and geo-political history of the Middle East. So this is not a book for newer scholars. 2) I only read through the fourth selection, but I noticed in those four that each subsequent r If you want to read examples of Jewish literature, DO NOT pick up this book. This book is a literature review. That's fine if you are into that, but I picked up this book from a library list that did not focus on that fact. What I don't like: 1) It assumes a level of familiarity with Biblical cannon, Jewish history, and geo-political history of the Middle East. So this is not a book for newer scholars. 2) I only read through the fourth selection, but I noticed in those four that each subsequent reading referenced earlier ones. This means you have to read the whole thing in order since selections about the Jewish war in 66 CE reference the author's earlier comments on Philo of Alexandria and the author's commentary on The Book of Revelations. If you were reading about types of literature or the importance of literature, you would normally expect to be able to jump around. Here you can't. 3) My primary complaint, however, is that there is not much of the literature here to review or study. Most selections are about the lives of the people who wrote the literature, or lived during those times. Both the selections on Philo of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius mention some of their body of work, but have scant quotations or materials from them.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sadreddin Berk (S. B.) Metin

    A delightfully-written introduction to an array of fundamental works of Jewish literature, from some books of the biblical canon to philosophical, historical, and political writings produced over the millennia. The author critically examines the contexts in which these works were produced and engages closely with their authors' agenda and audience. The book is aimed at non-experts, so the language is free from academic jargon. Although it is written for a general audience, it could be an inspira A delightfully-written introduction to an array of fundamental works of Jewish literature, from some books of the biblical canon to philosophical, historical, and political writings produced over the millennia. The author critically examines the contexts in which these works were produced and engages closely with their authors' agenda and audience. The book is aimed at non-experts, so the language is free from academic jargon. Although it is written for a general audience, it could be an inspiration or a stepping stone for someone who wants to gain a more profound understanding of one or more of these writings in the future, as the author provides a bibliography at the end of each section that could be used as a guide for further reading. The book will equip the reader with the necessary basic knowledge of Jewish literature, and it will make them appreciate the richness of this tradition. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Erika Dreifus

    Some thoughts over on the My Machberet blog: http://wp.me/p4x0h8-bxM. Some thoughts over on the My Machberet blog: http://wp.me/p4x0h8-bxM.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Laura Raines

    I bought this book to read for research for a project I'm working on and ended up reading it for pleasure. It is not only filled with useful knowledge, but extremely well written. I bought this book to read for research for a project I'm working on and ended up reading it for pleasure. It is not only filled with useful knowledge, but extremely well written.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Howard Jaeckel

    As a totally secular but identified Jew, I wanted to read “The People and the Books” to mitigate my total lack of any religious education. My feeling that I might be well served by doing so was rooted in my reading of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” a masterful volume that was a revelation to me. Imagine my surprise to learn how closely my deepest beliefs about how one should try to lead one’s life tracked what the rabbis were saying millennia before I was born! Maybe my time As a totally secular but identified Jew, I wanted to read “The People and the Books” to mitigate my total lack of any religious education. My feeling that I might be well served by doing so was rooted in my reading of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” a masterful volume that was a revelation to me. Imagine my surprise to learn how closely my deepest beliefs about how one should try to lead one’s life tracked what the rabbis were saying millennia before I was born! Maybe my time wouldn’t have been entirely wasted in Hebrew school after all! Though Adam Kirsch is a beautiful writer, as is on admirable display in his concluding chapters on the works of Theodor Herzl and Sholem Aleichem, I found much of “The People and the Books” very tough going; in fact, there were chapters I was unable to finish. As an agnostic who believes that ultimate knowledge is simply beyond human reach, and is therefore disinclined to religious and philosophical speculation, I found Kirsch’s discussion of, for example, the works of Moses Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza simply too abstract and metaphysical. For me, the ethical precepts the rabbis laid down centuries ago have concrete and vital application to life today; philosophical attempts to reconcile the stories of the Bible with scientific knowledge do not. Which doesn’t mean that I think I wasted my time reading those parts (about 80 percent) of “The People and the Books”I was able to complete. At least now I have an idea of who some of these great Jewish thinkers were, when they lived and, at some level, what they said. This is knowledge of which I was previously complete innocent. And, as I’ve indicated, I found the chapters on Herzl and Sholem Aleichem beautifully written and quite moving. Still, if you’re an agnostic interested in learning something about Juadism, I would recommend Rabbi Telushkin.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michael Cohn

    Excellent look at some great works of Jewish literature I enjoyed Adam Kirsch's The People and the Books and found it very informative. He includes several books I had never heard of before and I often found myself eager to read the books for myself. Kirsch discusses not only the books, but also the lives of the authors and the times when they were written, offering insights into some key developments of Jewish history. My main quibble is that the last chapter is about Sholom Aleichem, taking the Excellent look at some great works of Jewish literature I enjoyed Adam Kirsch's The People and the Books and found it very informative. He includes several books I had never heard of before and I often found myself eager to read the books for myself. Kirsch discusses not only the books, but also the lives of the authors and the times when they were written, offering insights into some key developments of Jewish history. My main quibble is that the last chapter is about Sholom Aleichem, taking the reader only into the early years of the 20th Century. Surely there are many books after the First World War and especially the Second World War, the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel that could have been included. Perhaps there will be a follow-up volume after this one?

  11. 5 out of 5

    Gadi

    A fascinating jaunt through eighteen different books, different time periods, different authors, different relationships to God, different relationships between Jews and non-Jews. The diversity of backstories -- from Moses to Moses to Moses! I love how Kirsch threaded the same themes throughout the eighteen chapters. I was surprised by how often Jewish writers tried to bridge the Bible with the science of the time, from Philo all the way to Moses Mendelsson, though the religious philosophies som A fascinating jaunt through eighteen different books, different time periods, different authors, different relationships to God, different relationships between Jews and non-Jews. The diversity of backstories -- from Moses to Moses to Moses! I love how Kirsch threaded the same themes throughout the eighteen chapters. I was surprised by how often Jewish writers tried to bridge the Bible with the science of the time, from Philo all the way to Moses Mendelsson, though the religious philosophies sometimes bored me. I had no good knowledge of the Zohar or the Kabbalah, or of the Nachman of Breslov -- and I'd never heard of the Tsenerene, or of Philos -- and this book offered an excellent introduction to those figures and books. I wish the book had more of a thrust, or a more substantial conclusion to tie up the many overlapping themes and undercurrents.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Each chapter is well executed, with information on the author (if known) as well as historical context. That said, I feel like there are more selections that could have been included- to not include anything from/about the Holocaust, or about the Jewish immigrant community in the US feels a bit lacking. So too does the relative lack of Sephardi thought, save for Maimonides and Spinoza. I'm not saying don't read this - I'm saying I'm looking forward to Vol 2. Each chapter is well executed, with information on the author (if known) as well as historical context. That said, I feel like there are more selections that could have been included- to not include anything from/about the Holocaust, or about the Jewish immigrant community in the US feels a bit lacking. So too does the relative lack of Sephardi thought, save for Maimonides and Spinoza. I'm not saying don't read this - I'm saying I'm looking forward to Vol 2.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bill Silverman

    Honestly, this analysis of 18 classics of Jewish literature deserves five stars. To me, though, it wasn't always as interesting as I would have liked. Still, there is without a doubt something for everyone here, at least for everyone who is interested in the Jewish people and its religion. I was most interested in the Kuzari by Yehuda Halevi, The Guide For the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides, and Theological-Political Treatise by Baruch Spinoza. Honestly, this analysis of 18 classics of Jewish literature deserves five stars. To me, though, it wasn't always as interesting as I would have liked. Still, there is without a doubt something for everyone here, at least for everyone who is interested in the Jewish people and its religion. I was most interested in the Kuzari by Yehuda Halevi, The Guide For the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides, and Theological-Political Treatise by Baruch Spinoza.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Paulo Adalberto Reimann

    Great read Love the book from start to finish. Tremendous view about jewish philosophy and meaning throughout scriptures, books, thoughts. From beginning to current days. Is not scholarly. Just a piece of beaut which makes a must to be read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    David

    Some I was familiar with, most not. A good walk through Jewish literature and history. Let’s you appreciate what remains constant and what has evolved over the millennia.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Carl Pohrte, Jr

    Jewish history with several visions I had not studied Jewish history before so this book was truly interesting. The many visions of the same God.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Carmeli

    Too academic for my taste, did not finish the whole book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett

    There's nothing WRONG with this book per se. Three stars means that I liked it. But I didn't love it. It's a highly personal response which, in explaining, I don't want to sound haughty or elitist. The reason I didn't give this more stars is because I found much of Kirsch's analysis and research familiar. I've either studied or read most of the books Kirsch analyzes here and his take on them is mostly straightforward. That's not to say that someone UNfamiliar with them wouldn't benefit GREATLY fr There's nothing WRONG with this book per se. Three stars means that I liked it. But I didn't love it. It's a highly personal response which, in explaining, I don't want to sound haughty or elitist. The reason I didn't give this more stars is because I found much of Kirsch's analysis and research familiar. I've either studied or read most of the books Kirsch analyzes here and his take on them is mostly straightforward. That's not to say that someone UNfamiliar with them wouldn't benefit GREATLY from reading this book. It functions as a survey of the poles of Jewish values, theology, and culture. As such, it's a VALUABLE book. If someone, for instance, isn't familiar with Maimonides or Spinoza and their revolutionary thought regarding Jewish theology, this is a great place to start. It's important to note that Kirsch's study STOPS with Sholom Aleichem's Tevya stories. He does this intentionally, as he explains in he introduction, to avoid books already familiar to readers like Night and the Diary of Anne Frank. But I would have preferred to read a study of 20th century literary analysis from a Jewish perspective. For instance, what the works of David Hartman, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Chabon and Safran Foer have to say about Jewish life and thought. That's can't be a critique of THIS book because that's not what Kirsch sought to write. As it stands, this is an excellent primer of fundamental Jewish texts.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lorri

    I liked the book. I considered giving it 4-stars, but due to the fact that I have previously read so much regarding the '18 classics', in Kirsch's book, my rating is 3-stars. For anyone not familiar with the content, Adam Kirsch's book will not only be informative but an good read regarding Jewish culture. I liked the book. I considered giving it 4-stars, but due to the fact that I have previously read so much regarding the '18 classics', in Kirsch's book, my rating is 3-stars. For anyone not familiar with the content, Adam Kirsch's book will not only be informative but an good read regarding Jewish culture.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    Good selections, but the author's prejudices are too prominent. Kirsch mixes up facts with his own opinions. The selections are pretty good and broad. It has been said that if three Jews are in a room, four opinions on every subject will be there also. In this book, Mr. Kirsch presents his own opinions as authoritative. This is sad for readers who are not familiar with the source materials, so I hope readers will next explore those source materials. Good selections, but the author's prejudices are too prominent. Kirsch mixes up facts with his own opinions. The selections are pretty good and broad. It has been said that if three Jews are in a room, four opinions on every subject will be there also. In this book, Mr. Kirsch presents his own opinions as authoritative. This is sad for readers who are not familiar with the source materials, so I hope readers will next explore those source materials.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bob T

    Avery good review of some of the important texts with which most are familiar, but with a lot of additional information I was not aware of. Also a great introduction to some texts not so well know but equally influential to Jewish heritage. This book would be a wonderful base for an in depth course.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael Berman

    This is an outstanding introduction to Jewish thought and culture as reflected in works from Deuteronomy to Sholem Aleichem's stories. Much of this was new to me, and I was especially surprised to learn that the tension between the word of the Torah and the world of reason has been going on for millenia. This is an outstanding introduction to Jewish thought and culture as reflected in works from Deuteronomy to Sholem Aleichem's stories. Much of this was new to me, and I was especially surprised to learn that the tension between the word of the Torah and the world of reason has been going on for millenia.

  23. 4 out of 5

    April

    Excellent book. Informative, entertaining, and very well written. A must read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Leonard Singer

    First chapter only one sub par.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Maphead

    Great book on Jewish history as seen through its most cherished books.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lev Rothenberg

    well written and enlightening. Classics ranging over a 2,000 year period including histories, memoirs, books of philosophy, mysticism, politics and more. I will return to this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eli

    Just summaries of other people’s writing, but does a really nice job pulling key thoughts out of them.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Susan Haymer

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Hirshberg

  30. 4 out of 5

    Leonard

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