My favorite books about Jewish history

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works

Joshua A. Fogel Why did I love 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.

By Herbert A. Davidson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Moses Maimonides (1137/38-1204), scholar, physician, and philosopher, was the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages. In this magisterial biography, Herbert Davidson provides an exhaustive guide to Maimonides' life and works. After considering Maimonides' upbringing and education, Davidson expounds all of his many writings in exhaustive detail, with separate chapters on rabbinic, philosophical, and medical texts. Moses Maimonides has been
recognized as the standard work on a towering figure of Western intellectual history.


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

Joshua A. Fogel Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume introduces students of rabbinic literature to the range of historical and interpretative questions surrounding the rabbinic texts of late antiquity. The editors, themselves well-known interpreters of Rabbinic literature, have gathered an international collection of scholars to support students' initial steps in confronting the enormous and complex rabbinic corpus. Unlike other introductions to Rabbinic writings, the present volume includes approaches shaped by anthropology, gender studies, oral-traditional studies, classics, and folklore studies.


Book cover of Spinoza: A Life

Joshua A. Fogel Why did I love 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.

By Steven Nadler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of the most important philosophers of all time; he was also one of the most radical and controversial. The story of Spinoza's life takes the reader into the heart of Jewish Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and, with Spinoza's exile from Judaism, into the midst of the tumultuous political, social, intellectual, and religious world of the young Dutch Republic. This new edition of Steven Nadler's biography, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award for biography and translated into a dozen languages, is enhanced by exciting new archival discoveries about his family background, his youth, and…


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

Joshua A. Fogel Why did I love 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.

By Jay M. Harris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A well-organized and engaging read."
Religious Studies Review
The first in-depth look at...an important nineteenth century Jewish thinker and historian. Well-written [and] well- researched."
The Jerusalem Post Magazine
"A significant contribution to our understanding of the rise of modern Judaism in its East European manifestation."
Choice
Harris examines Nachman Krochmal's work, particularly as it aimed to guide Jews through the modern revolution in metaphysical and historical thinking, thus enabling them to commit themselves to Judaism without sacrificing intellectual integrity.


Book cover of Jesus the Magician

Joshua A. Fogel Why did I love 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.

By Morton Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A twentieth-century classic, uncannily smart, incredibly learned."--from the foreword by Bart Ehrman

This book challenges traditional Christian teaching about Jesus. While his followers may have seen him as a man from heaven, preaching the good news and working miracles, Smith asserts that the truth about Jesus is more interesting and rather unsettling.

The real Jesus, only barely glimpsed because of a campaign of disinformation, obfuscation, and censorship by religious authorities, was not Jesus the Son of God. In actuality he was Jesus the Magician. Smith marshals all the available evidence including, but not limited to, the Gospels. He succeeds in…


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Shahrazad's Gift

By Gretchen McCullough,

Book cover of Shahrazad's Gift

Gretchen McCullough Author Of Shahrazad's Gift

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a fiction writer and currently live in Cairo, where I have lived for over twenty years. I noticed that the way I started telling stories was influenced by learning Arabic and by listening to the stories of the people in the city. My interest in Arabic also led me to read Arabic literature, like A Thousand and One Nights.   

Gretchen's book list on books influenced by Thousand and One Nights

What is my book about?

Shahrazad’s Gift is a collection of linked short stories set in contemporary Cairo — magical, absurd, and humorous.

The author focuses on the off-beat, little-known stories, far from CNN news: a Swedish belly dancer who taps into the Oriental fantasies of her clientele; a Japanese woman studying Arabic, driven mad by the noise and chaos of the city; a frustrated Egyptian housewife who becomes obsessed by the activities of her Western gay neighbor; an American journalist who covered the civil war in Beirut who finds friendship with her Egyptian dentist. We also meet the two protagonists of McCullough's Confessions of a Knight Errant, before their escapades in that story.

These stories are told in the tradition of A Thousand and One Nights.

Shahrazad's Gift

By Gretchen McCullough,

What is this book about?

Shahrazad's Gift is a collection of linked short stories set in contemporary Cairo-magical, absurd and humorous. The author focuses on the off-beat, little-known stories, far from CNN news: a Swedish belly dancer who taps into the Oriental fantasies of her clientele; a Japanese woman studying Arabic, driven mad by the noise and chaos of the city; a frustrated Egyptian housewife who becomes obsessed by the activities of her Western gay neighbor; an American journalist who covered the civil war in Beirut who finds friendship with her Egyptian dentist. We also meet the two protagonists of McCullough's Confessions of a Knight…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Jewish history, rabbis, and Judaism?

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