The best books about Jewish history

Joshua A. Fogel Author Of Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations
By Joshua A. Fogel

Who am I?

I’m a historian of China and Japan whose work has hewed close to the cultural interactions between Chinese and Japanese over recent centuries. I’m now working on the history of the Esperanto movement in China and Japan from the first years of the twentieth century through the early 1930s. The topic brings together my interests in Sino-Japanese historical relations, linguistic scholarship, and Jewish history (the creator of Esperanto was a Polish-Jewish eye doctor). Over the last couple of decades, I have become increasingly interested in Jewish history. I think by now I know what counts as good history, but I’m still an amateur in Jewish history. Nonetheless, these books all struck me as extraordinary.

I wrote...

Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

By Joshua A. Fogel,

Book cover of Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

What is my book about?

After centuries of virtual isolation, during which time international sea travel was forbidden outside of Japan’s immediate fishing shores, Japanese shogunal authorities in 1862 made the unprecedented decision to launch an official delegation to China by sea. Concerned by the fast-changing global environment, they had witnessed the ever-increasing number of incursions into Asia by European powers―not the least of which was Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853–54 and the forced opening of a handful of Japanese ports at the end of the decade. 

This was the first official meeting of Chinese and Japanese in several centuries. Although the Chinese authorities agreed to few of the Japanese requests for trade relations and a consulate, nine years later China and Japan would sign the first bilateral treaty of amity in their history, a completely equal treaty. East Asia―and the diplomatic and trade relations between the region’s two major players in the modern era―would never be the same.

The books I picked & why

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Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works

By Herbert A. Davidson,

Book cover of Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works

Why this book?

The late Herbert Davidson wrote on medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophy, and Maimonides was a natural topic for him.  Of the roughly eight or ten biographical studies of Maimonides that I have read, Davidson’s stands out for the strength of its logical analysis and its great breadth.  It offers numerous insights into the polymath that is its subject.

The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

By Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (editor), Martin S. Jaffee (editor),

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

Why this book?

The collection of essay on the Talmud and early rabbinic literature is part of the immense “Companion” series that Cambridge University Press has been bringing out for some time.  I have read their volume on baseball and the Beatles and one or two more.  Each one of the essays in the Talmud volume is astonishingly insightful and, not always concomitant, a delight to read.  These are not the usual words associated with the Talmud.  In short, I enjoyed it immensely.

Spinoza: A Life

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Spinoza: A Life

Why this book?

Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably read six or seven biographies of Spinoza, some considerably more helpful than others. Nadler’s study is a striking success of scholarship and biography. Spinoza’s story of being this deft thinker but also being excommunicated in Holland (and we still don’t exactly know why) can make for a great story, but that was not the case before Nadler’s book appeared. I was fortunate to be able to tell the author how I felt about his book in person.

Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age

By Jay M. Harris,

Book cover of Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age

Why this book?

I have been for years intrigued by the character of Nachman Krochmal, the Jewish Hegelian scholar of the eighteenth century who wrote in Hebrew, but I was never able to find a coherent analysis of the man, his works, and his times that made satisfying sense—until I read Harris’s study.

Jesus the Magician

By Morton Smith,

Book cover of Jesus the Magician

Why this book?

Finally, I offer Morton Smith’s earlier study of the real-life Jesus. Everything Smith wrote was worth the time to read.  His prose bristles with occasional invective, but always at the expense of figures from long ago. He takes no prisoners, shall we say, in his scholarship, and Jesus the Magician is exhibit A.

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