As we seek to share the diverse and complex stories that make up the Jewish tradition, we are starting a blog series through which we will share thoughts and expertise from JArts artistic advisors.

Here are some new and noted books, as well as a few delightful oldies but goodies.


Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” by Derek Penslar (Yale University Press, 2020)

Derek Penslar offers a carefully researched psychological portrait of the complicated man behind the myth. In his short, driven life, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) labored as a playwright, author, lawyer, journalist and founder of modern Zionism. We meet Herzl as the supreme organizer and charming diplomat, a tall, dark and handsome Austrian journalist, as well as a depressed, distant father and unhappy husband. He abandoned his wife and three children to travel across Europe and the Middle East to gain support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, after unsuccessfully proposing a temporary home for refugees from Russian pogroms in Africa or Latin America.

Assimilated to the extreme, he was nevertheless a proud Jew who desperately worked to earn the loyalty of religious communities in Eastern Europe as well as the secular Jewish bankers and philanthropists of Western Europe. He brought hope to the Jews at a time of extreme antisemitism (Dreyfus case in France, pogroms in Russia). As a self-appointed leader “without Torah,” he was both praised as the modern Moses and condemned as a false Messiah. Herzl died of heart disease at the young age of 44. His vision for a modern Israel, including agricultural development, new technology and Jewish self-respect, was prescient. This is from the prize-winning “Jewish Lives” series.

Short Fiction

In the Mouth: Stories and Novellas” by Eileen Pollack (Four Way Books, 2008)

Eileen Pollack, a multi-talented author of both fiction and non-fiction, grew up in Liberty, New York, in the heart of the Catskills, where her grandparents ran a small hotel and her father was the local dentist. After studying physics at Yale, she switched to creative writing, earned her MFA at the University of Iowa and eventually directed the University of Michigan’s creative writing MA program.

Pollack displays fierce talent and unselfconscious pride in writing about Jewish themes, often with humor and irony. This short collection, which includes four short stories and two novellas, includes a tragic/comedic tale of a bris requested by a dying father as his son stands by in shock. Pollack’s book won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, presented annually to an American writer whose published creative work of fiction is considered to have significance for the American Jew.

She is also an essayist, novelist and creative non-fiction writer. Her publications with a Jewish theme include “Paradise, New York,” a novel, and the short story collection “The Rabbi in the Attic.” In “The Bible of Dirty Jokes,” her 2018 novel, Pollack brings to life the history of Borscht Belt comedy, Catskills resorts and the Jewish mob.


Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching and Eating with China’s Other Billion” by Michael Levy (Holt Paperbacks, 2011)

Here is a terrific throwback you probably never heard of. What happens to an observant Jewish guy from New York who volunteers with the Peace Corps in 2005 and is sent to teach English to poor students in the remote interior of China?

Michael Levy’s hilarious story includes his welcome by the villagers when he graciously declines a meal of fried insects on the grounds that he is kosher. Nobody there had ever met a Jew before. Levy, whom the locals dub “Friendship Jew,” gives a heartbreaking as well as laugh-out-loud funny tale of survival and culture clash in one of the poorest regions of China, where residents young and old continue to struggle under “capitalism with Chinese aspects.”  

Thriller (Spy Fiction)

The Cellist” by Daniel Silva (Harper, 2021)

Fans of the fictional Israeli spy Gabriel Allon can look forward to yet another book in this bestselling series due out in July 2021. Daniel Silva offers an action-packed tale of espionage and suspense featuring art restorer and spy Allon. As described by the publisher, “The fatal poisoning of a Russian billionaire sends Allon on a dangerous journey across Europe and into the orbit of a musical virtuoso. The plot he uncovers leads to secret channels of money and influence that go to the very heart of Western democracy.”

Among other books in the Allon series are “The Kill Artist,” “The English Assassin” and “The Rembrandt Affair.” Silva’s books are critically acclaimed and have been translated into 30 languages. Full disclosure: Silva is one of my spouse’s favorite authors, especially when read on vacation or in quarantine.

Nina Schneider is a JArts ambassador and artistic advisor, as well as a senior associate at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and a docent at the McMullan Museum of Art at Boston College. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College.

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