The best books blending Jewish history with a personal quest

Why am I passionate about this?

As an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, one of my great joys is recommending books to others. I was able to indulge this joy consistently while teaching at a university, introducing students to authors and books and topics they otherwise might never have encountered. I find this same excitement in my own writing, searching for ways to reveal to others the magnificent wealth I find in modern poetry and in the brilliant concepts of poetic thinking.


I wrote...

A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry

By Stephen Fredman,

Book cover of A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry

What is my book about?

America’s most accomplished Jewish poet, at least until the advent of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Reznikoff had no full-length book devoted to him and his poetry. Looking into his work and life, I became fascinated by how Jewish intellectuals of his (my grandparents’) generation felt much more like outsiders than people of my own post-World War II generation. With nativism and antisemitism rampant in American culture in the first half of the 20th Century, Jewish writers and thinkers looked toward the incredible variety of Jewish history in order to argue for cultural importance and a place in American society. Reznikoff’s ethically engaged and concise poetry takes up these historical tools to celebrate everyday acts of resistance and survival and to portray compassionately the struggles of ordinary people.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive

Stephen Fredman Why did I love this book?

Sands traces the life of Baron Otto von Wächter, an Austrian SS official, who created and oversaw the Kraków ghetto and was indicted for the murder of more than 100,000 Jews and Poles.

Accompanying Sands on his interviews and research is Wächter’s son, Horst, who knows his father only through what he has heard from his mother and read in her diaries and letters. Horst is horrified by Nazi atrocities but believes his father was a “good man.”

With the pace of a gripping spy thriller, Sands brings Horst deeper and deeper into the lives of his parents, including Otto’s years on the Ratline—the route through which Nazis, often aided by the Vatican, fled Europe after the end of World War II. 

By Philippe Sands,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Ratline as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A tale of Nazi lives, mass murder, love, Cold War espionage, a mysterious death in the Vatican, and the Nazi escape route to Perón's Argentina,"the Ratline"—from the author of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning East West Street.

"Hypnotic, shocking, and unputdownable." —John le Carré, internationally renowned bestselling author

Baron Otto von Wächter, Austrian lawyer, husband, father, high Nazi official, senior SS officer, former governor of Galicia during the war, creator and overseer of the Krakow ghetto, indicted after as a war criminal for the mass murder of more than 100,000 Poles, hunted by the Soviets, the Americans, the British, by Simon…


Book cover of On Austrian Soil: Teaching Those I Was Taught to Hate

Stephen Fredman Why did I love this book?

A renowned teacher of expository writing, Perl is invited to Austria to offer a course on how to teach the Holocaust. Although her mother warned her that as a Jew she should never enter a German-speaking country, Perl decides to accept.

She writes with brutal honesty about the troubled and often profound relationships she establishes with her Austrian students. Her explorations of difficult and sometimes excruciating issues are conducted with a spirit of love and openness toward her students and herself. This is the most ethically engaged book I have read about the profession of teaching.

By Sondra Perl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Austrian Soil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An award-winning teacher takes a journey into alien territory: Austria, Hitler's birthplace, and the territory of her own hatred. A teaching memoir that offers a pedagogy of hope.


Book cover of A Tale of Love and Darkness

Stephen Fredman Why did I love this book?

The Israeli novelist Amos Oz writes a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir of his family’s escape from Eastern Europe and his growing up in British-controlled Palestine.

I’m haunted as much by the portrait of his gorgeous, tragically romantic mother as by his own experiences as a boy and then as a member of a kibbutz in the new State of Israel. The qualities of Love and Darkness intertwine as unrelentingly in his family’s life as they do in the founding and growth of the Jewish state, making this book as incisive an inquiry into the soul of a writer as into the soul of a nation.

By Amos Oz,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Tale of Love and Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this bestselling and critically acclaimed work is at once a family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history. It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. The story of an adolescent whose life has been changed forever by his mother's suicide when he was twelve years old. The story of a man who leaves the…


Book cover of Heretics

Stephen Fredman Why did I love this book?

The Cuban mystery writer Leonardo Padura offers an amazing presentation of Jewish history and the art of painting as they collide in modern Havana.

He weaves together three stories: the attempted escape from Hitler by Jews aboard a ship that is turned back from the Havana harbor in 1939; the aborted career of an imaginary Jewish disciple of Rembrandt, who defies the biblical prohibition against creating human likenesses; and a contemporary attempt by a Cuban Jew to track down his exterminated family’s Rembrandt masterpiece.

I love how the vastly different worlds of modern Havana and 17th-century Amsterdam embark on a conversation that reveals so much about Jewish history and art.

By Leonardo Padura, Anna Kushner (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Heretics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Padura’s Heretics spans and defies literary categories . . . ingenious." ―Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

A sweeping novel of art theft, anti-Semitism, contemporary Cuba, and crime from a renowned Cuban author, Heretics is Leonardo Padura's greatest detective work yet.

In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his mother, father, and sister, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure that they hope will save them: a small Rembrandt…


Book cover of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Stephen Fredman Why did I love this book?

In this elegantly written quest, the premier British potter of his generation, Edmund de Waal, digs into the history of his secular Jewish family, attempting to fathom the path taken by the collection of Japanese netsuke (small carved figurines) he has inherited.

As he sifts through the family’s past, we learn about the fabulous wealth of the Ephrussis, who cornered the wheat market in Odessa, and the striking characters in the branches of the family who take up prominent positions in 19th-century Paris and Vienna. Carrying the symbolic weight of the family’s vast artistic and financial heritage, the netsuke ultimately collide with and barely survive the Holocaust.

As a potter and a writer, de Waal coaxes countless layers of meaning from the things and documents that pass through his sensitive hands.

By Edmund de Waal,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Hare with Amber Eyes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**THE NUMBER ONE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER**

**WINNER OF THE COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD**

264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie's Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the 'netsuke', they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke's journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

'You…


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I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


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