52 Essential Titles
selected by David Shasha
-1- David Gross, The Past in Ruins: Tradition and the Critique of Modernity (University of Massachusetts, 1992) A scholarly study of the past and how it affects the present. Concludes that modernity seeks to usurp the past and displace it. Values a return to history and tradition.
-2- Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington, 1982) The finest study ever published on the relationship between Jewish history and memory. Concludes with the thesis that Jewish historical study must in some manner displace tradition.
-3- Jose Faur, Golden Doves With Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (University of Indiana, 1986) First and only study which examines post-structuralist philosophy against the backdrop of the Sephardic rabbinical tradition. Displays great literary sense of the venerable Sephardic culture and creates a vital model of understanding that has yet to be integrated into a modern humanistic Judaism.
-4- Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (SUNY, 1992) Promotes the thesis that the disintegration of Jewish life in Spain led to the culture of modern Humanism. Links thinkers in the Jewish/Converso tradition to the Renaissance. Groundbreaking work which has emphasized the Jewish/Arab origins of modernity.
-5- Susan Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (SUNY, 1982) Influential book which was the first to read Jewish tradition as the precursor of deconstruction. Strong in examining Midrash and the hermeneutics of Freud and Derrida. Sets out the thesis that Judaism has preserved a variant mode of hermeneutics than the Greek/Christian West and that this Judaism, in a subterranean fashion, has permeated many of the great thinkers of modernity.
-6- Susan Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem and Levinas (University of Indiana, 1991) Analysis of Jewish Thought in three of the most significant thinkers of this century. Rich in the philosophical background that permits a profound understanding of a Jewish modernity that is more resonant than the standard models currently accessible.
-7- James Kugel, In Potipharís House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (Harper Collins, 1990) Most brilliant book ever written on Rabbinic Midrash. Rather advanced. First section deals with the Joseph story. The book is theoretically informed, but does not display influences outwardly. Helpful to read his essay "Two Introductions to Midrash" first.
-8- George Foot Moore, Judaism: The Age of the Tannaim (Harvard University, 1927, Reprint, Hendrickson, 1997) The greatest book ever written on the Rabbis. A synthesis of old-school historical scholarship (jargon-free and objective) with a profound love of Rabbinic learning. There is no better place to begin Talmudic study than here.
-9- Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken, 1946) The best single volume survey of Kabbalah by the dean of all scholars. There is no other work that can equal its scope - historically or methodologically. All Scholemís work in translation is essential, particularly his Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah and Origins of theKabbalah.
-10- Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University, 1991) Epic, authoritative one-volume history of Arab civilization and history. Rich in detail and scope. Unequaled and definitive.
-11- Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939(Cambridge University, 1962) A masterful study of the defining period in Arab modernity. Examines reformist movements in the Arab world during the late colonial period. A vital text in understanding the Arab world and its relationship to modernity.
-12- Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978) Groundbreaking volume which exposes the "Orientalist" stance taken by European scholars and historians during the colonial period. Essential in trying to understand how the Europeans have created a certain stereotype of the Arab and how that stereotype has affected so-called "objective" studies of Oriental civilization.
-13- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993) Following on the heels of the above volume, Said discusses works of both Eastern as well as Western writers and how they impact on the Imperialist project. While Orientalism fixed its sights on the institutional effects of racism and colonialism, this book delves even more deeply into the tangled web of influences that cooked in the pot of the Imperialist project. The book is particularly strong in dealing with the neo-colonialist structures put into place after decolonization.
-14- Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (Cambridge University, 1988) The best study of Orientals written after Said. Organizes and studies in detail the issue of British cultural control in Egypt and looks at the way in which traditional Egyptians dealt with what the British dealt them. A landmark in Arabist studies.
-15- Lionnet and Scharfman eds., Post/Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations, Nomadisms, Two Volumes (Yale French Studies 82/83, 1993) Collection of essays from the top scholars in various interlinked, third-world fields on the experience of colonialism and exile. The volumes are a treasure trove of cross-cultural analysis that sets out the non-Western experience in great detail. Tremendous as a source which unifies the study of third-world literature.
-16- Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Beacon, 1965) Classic study of colonialism. Though outstripped by Frantz Fanon, it still is a classic of its kind. New edition (1991) contains a valuable introduction by Susan Gilson Miller, a top scholar in this emerging field of post colonial studies.
-17- Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt (Beacon, 1955) Still classic memoir/novel of a young Jew growing up in the inferno of the colonial Tunisia. Though in certain ways it is beholden to the "French is better" Francophone mentality, it is a pure reflection of a seminal period in Sephardic history. Memmi eventually went back to the Arab "side" and composed his masterwork The Scorpion which remains out of print but well worth reading if a copy comes your way.
-18- Aron Rodrigue, French Jews, Turkish Jews: The Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Politics of Jewish Schooling in Turkey 1860-1925 (Indiana University, 1990) Most important book written on the AIU by a scholar who possesses all the methodological tools to assess its influence. This book and its companion book of documents Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jews in Transition: The Teachers of AIU, 1860-1939 (University of Washington, 1993) are the most important sources that we have on Jewish education in the Middle East during the late 19th century.
-19- Gudrun Kramer, The Jews in Modern Egypt: 1914-1952 (University of Washington, 1989)
Best single volume on any Sephardic Jewish community in the 20th century. Shows the level of acculturation with no prejudice. Indispensable.
-20- Abbas Shiblak, The Lure of Zion: The Case of the Iraqi Jews (Al Saqi, 1986) Well-balanced portrayal of the Jews of Iraq from the perspective of the clash of nationalisms. Shows the tensions generated by Arab and Zionist nationalism that led to the catastrophe of the decimation of the most ancient and venerable Jewish community in the Middle East.
-21- Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (Free Press, 1986) Scathing portrayal of post-independent Israel filled with myth-shattering facts about how the country sought to create a new identity at the expense of the lives of many of those who came to settle among their "brethren." Also essential is Segevís The Seventh Million: Israel and the Holocaust (Hill and Wang, 1993) which proves that Israelís relationship to the Holocaust is more tangled than would have been imagined.
-22- Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University, 1987) First of the so-called "revisionist" historians in Israel, Morrisí masterwork is an objective analysis of the so-called War of "Independence" in Palestine between the Jews and Arabs. His conclusions, controversial on all sides of the debate, are that Palestinians were displaced, not be prior design, but by a concerted effort emerging from the many victories attained by the IDF after British withdrawal. Morris followed this up with an important book of essays called 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (Oxford University, Revised Edition, 1994) which contains more information regarding political objectives in Ben Gurionís inner circle. Morrisí work has redrawn the scholarly map of the Middle East.
-23- Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, The Zionist Movement, and The Partition of Palestine (Columbia University, Original Edition, 1988) Along with Morris has effectively debunked the myths of the modern Jewish state. While Morris looks at the ground battles, Shlaim sets his sights on the diplomatic corps and concludes that Palestine had been partitioned with the Hashemites and not the Palestinians.
-24- Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995) Angry deconstruction of standard Israeli historiography. A frontal assault on the standard understanding of Israel in the West based on the pioneering work done by the "revisionists" who are too tame for Finkelstein. A memoir written during the Intifada, The Rise and Fall of Palestine (University of Minnesota, 1996) is another scathing attack on Israel written from a personal perspective. Finkelstein is perhaps the only Jew in the West to write about Israel in the tone of a prophetic moralist. His work is extreme in some senses, but is brutally honest and spiritually purifies.
-25- Esther Benbassa ed., HaimNahum: A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892-1923 (University of Alabama, 1995) Compilation of letters from the last Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman Empire. Besides being a committed anti-Zionist modern Jew, Nahum displays the breadth of culture of the Arab Jew. A portrait of the last true leader of the Sephardic Jews in the 20th century.
-26- George Antonius, The Arab Awakening (G.P. Putnam, 1946) Political memoir and programmatic treatise by the foremost Palestinian intellectual of his time. Details the inner workings of the Palestinian national movement in its formative period. Firmly shows that the Arabs intended to emerge from colonialism with a pro-Western orientation. Displays the rifts created by the emergence of Zionism and the efforts made to combat it.
-27- Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge University, 1989) Pioneering study of a critical period in Palestinian history. Analyzes the early labor movement in the Yishuv. Concludes that political elements in the Yishuv drove out the Arabs from the emerging workforce in Palestine serving to further strain relations between Jews and Arabs.
-28- Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism (University of Chicago, 1996) First book to discuss Zionism from a religious standpoint. Analyzes the Orthodox, Haredi, community in Israel and concludes that Zionism and religious Judaism are incompatible and that this was how it was seen by Orthodox Jews in the pre-State era. Also discusses the emergence of Militant Orthodox Zionism within this perspective.
-29- Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (University of Chicago, 1995) Very significant work that meshes The Past in Ruins with Ravitzky. It examines the vital episodes of Masada, the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the battle at Tel Hai, three failing endeavors and their place in Israeli national culture. A brilliantly iconoclastic work.
-30- Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota, 1993) Brilliant synthesis of Faur and Said which has become the definitive work on modern Sephardic culture. Makes the case that Jewish and Arabic cultures are thoroughly intertwined. This is simply the most vital work written on Judaism in the past century.
-31- Smadar Lavie, The Poetics of Military Occupation (University of California, 1990) Quirky book of anthropology written by an Israeli Sephardi who uses her analysis of the Mzeina Bedouins as a springboard for an essay on the politics and construction of identity. Deeply felt and brilliantly theorized.
-32- Victor Perera, The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Knopf, 1995) Alcalay in memoiristic form. Criss-crosses a family memoir with historical ruminations. Elegantly written for the popular reader, it gets the point across in high style. Read an appreciation of Victor Perera.
-33- Haim Beinart ed., The Sephardi Legacy (Magnes Press, Two Volumes, 1992) Published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Expulsion, this work collects essays on all aspects of Sephardic history and culture and is the ideal introduction. No work is as thorough.
-34- Salma Khadra Jayyusi ed., The Legacy of Muslim Spain (E.J. Brill, 1992) As above, the most complete source of information on a vital subject for our history. Essays on every conceivable aspect of Muslim Spain. Vital and dense.
-35- Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Johns Hopkins, 1991) One of the rare books on Jewish culture in Spain, this is a masterwork of interpreting the poetic traditions of Al Andalus.
-36- Maria Rosa Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (University of Pennsylvania, 1987) A book that makes the claim that Europe derived its literary and philosophical culture from the Arabs. A groundbreaking work that has forced Hispanists to look more carefully at the arguments of Americo Castro who refused to divorce Spanish culture from its Moorish origins.
-37- Janet abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University, 1989) From a systematic study of the world economy in the late Middle Ages, this work proclaims the interconnectedness of the East and West.
-38- S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (University of California, 5 Volumes and Index, 1967-1994) As magisterial as scholarship gets, Goitein reconstructs the world of the Arabian Jewish communities of the Levant with painstaking accuracy and erudite brilliance. Their world has never been, and will never be, as fully illuminated. One of the greatest feats of scholarship in this, or any other, century.
-39- Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Harper and Row, 1972) The great study of the Mediterranean by a master. Every bit as dense as Goitein, Braudelís work is its fitting companion. No work can be done in this period without these two works.
-40- Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975) Probably the greatest Spanish novel of the modern period. The work is a fractured narrative of the Spain of Philip II. Difficult but rewarding.
-41- Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964) Borges, according to Jose Faur, is the last great converso writer. His work, published in essay and short story form, is perhaps the oddest literary creation among the great moderns. The texts of Labyrinths are elliptical, dream-like and poetic meditations on knowledge and memory. Borges, like Kafka, is such a unique writer that his style is known as a variant of his own name (Borgesian). Once youíve read Borges youíll understand.
-42- Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions (Wesleyan University, 7 Volumes, 1976-1984) Jabès, a French poet of Egyptian origin, writes mystical aphorisms that are linked by the use of imaginary Rabbis as leitmotivs. His work is deeply tied to the Jewish literary tradition as well as the French Surrealistic tradition. Jabès is a Jewish writer of rare urgency and his work reads like a liturgy for our (fallen) times. A continuation of the Book of Questions was written called The Book of Resemblances and there is a very important book of dialogue with Marcel Cohen called From the Desert to the Book (Station Hill, 1990) which condenses much of Jabèsí poetics within its historical and literary framework. Jabès is a Jewish writer unlike any other Jewish writer known in the West.
-43- Elias Canetti, Auto-Da-Fe (Continuum, 1982) Brilliant modernist novel written in German by a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. The subject of the novel is the disintegration of a great intellectual mind. Canetti, like Borges, makes knowledge and culture the very substance of his prose. The great chain of culture begun in Spain flows from the pens of these writers who hearken back to a different time and place and level a ringing critique of modernity.
-44- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (Harcourt Brace, 1983) A novel set in the Middle Ages which involves a character names Jorge of Burgos. The great labyrinth of a book that Eco has written fits neatly into the post-modernity of a Borges or a Fuentes. His field of scholarship is semiotics, the science of signs and communication. The Name of the Rose is a landmark that brought the Middle Ages and post-structuralism to a wide audience.
-45- Franz Kafka, The Castle (Schocken, 1946) I suppose any Kafka will do, though this is my personal favorite. No real recommendation should be needed, but it should be kept in mind that Kafka has defined Jewish modernity in a manner that has yet to be surpassed.
-46- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (Basic Books, 1965) Again, as with Kafka, there is no explanation necessary.
-47- Anton Shammas, Arabesques (Harper and Row, 1988) Hebrew novel written by a Palestinian Arab. It is one of the most gnawing pieces of literature due to the fact that it connects to a world that does not exist anymore. In fact, the overt problematic of the novel is how to sustain a culture that has ceased to exist. Shammas, for all intents, has written the ultimate novel of exile and decay. And the way that things are going, we may remain with it and leave the reality behind.
-48- Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (Doubleday, 3 Volumes, 1990-1992) The literary masterpiece of the Arab world, the Trilogy is a work of epic proportion that has but little company in the West. The story of a bourgeois Arab family from World War I until the Revolution, the Trilogy richly details a world that is of vital significance. A few sentences could not do justice to it. In addition, the world of Mahfouzí writings is quite vast. Other important works are Midaq Alley, The Harafish and Fountain and Tomb among many, many others.
-49- Gamal al-Ghitani, Zayni Barakat (Penguin, 1988) The apparent heir to Mahfouz, his work is diffuse and historical, as opposed to Mahfouzí linearity and social realism. Zayni Barakat is a post-modern historical novel of the first order which doubles as an allegory of Nasserís police state. Like the Gulf writer Abdelrahman Munifís Citiesí of Salt trilogy, al-Ghitani is a fly in the Arab nationalist ointment. Such literary output is firm evidence that the Arab world does contain the seeds for its own renaissance.
-50- Philip Roth, The Counterlife (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986) Hagiogripha to the brilliant Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife is Rothís play to become the most important Jewish writer in America, if not the world. No human being has captured the Western Jewish (read: Ashkenazic) mentality better than Mr. Roth. From the Zuckerman books onward he has stood alone as the pre-eminent American novelist, a writer of breathtaking precision. The books which follow this one, Operation Shylock and his series of books about Newark, both fiction and non-fiction, have caught the American Jewish dream and stripped it of its pretense. Far from telling the story of a success, Roth shows a people at odds with itself and with its values. Roth once reveled in assimilation, now he has laid it out on a golden cross of nails. In doing so he not only skewers establishment Jews, but puts into question his own ethos which has undergone an overwhelming critique in itself.
-51 Karen Armstrong, A History of God (Random House, 1993) The first book written on theology from a post-colonial perspective. This means that the Arab and Jewish God(s) are given ample space next to Christianity. This book is the most brilliant work of religious scholarship after nearly 300 years of partisan bickering. Armstrong has emerged as the great religious historian of our time, on a par with George Foot Moore. Her other works on Jerusalem and the Crusades are just as impeccable. With the entrance of her book onto the Best Seller lists all over the world, we started to get other religion books. The two best, Jack Milesí God: A Biography (Knopf, 1995) and Richard Elliott Friedmanís The Disappearance of God (Little, Brown, 1995), take the deadly atheism of historical scholarship and turn it back into something vital and spiritually tinged. In this climate we received the eclectic magnum opus from the ornery Harold Bloom (Philip Roth as Professor) called Omens of Millennium (Riverhead, 1996) that brought spirituality and literature back to the same table. Such books have brought religious study back from the nadir of the academic ghouls.
-52- Adonis, An Introduction to Arab Poetics (University of Texas, 1990) A writer who has redefined the very essence of Arab civilization by attempting to re-read it in a rather stringent manner, Adonis (Ali Ahmed Saíid) is the Gershom Scholem of Arab letters. In a world of zealots and suicide bombers, Adonis has written poetry narrating the destruction of his society and scholarship which has sought to bring it back. He is that rare breed of artist: The writer/poet/scholar. His model is the medieval cleric but his ethic is passionate skeptic. There is perhaps no writer or scholar that is as impassioned a partisan of his heritage than Adonis. He is a literary master of rare skill and insight.