101 Greatest Jewish Books A Catalog
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Appetites Suffering and Loss Authenticity and Experimentation The Jew in the World Laughing and Complaining What is Judaism The Old Country Image Map
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Before we explain what the list is, we should tell you what it’s not: It’s not a list of “The Greatest Jewish Books of All Time,” an undertaking that would involve sifting through thousands of texts in dozens of languages produced over the course of millennia and that could only result in either a Cecil B. DeMille-like cast of thousands or a list with one entry: the Bible. What we wanted to create was a library of works that have actually moved us and shaped the way we understand ourselves as Jewish human beings in the world. We read some of these books as children; some we read under our covers as teenagers; some we got off college syllabi; some we discovered, with wonder and awe and surprise, as adults. But all are books of supreme importance in shaping our lives and our understanding of the different ways one might be a Jew in the world—whether the authors are religious Jews, or secular Jews, or not Jewish by your definition or someone else’s definition, or by any definition at all.

When it came to organizing the list, we thought about what these books meant to us and soon came up with the metaphor of the human mind. Just as each one of the brain’s individual lobes is useless except as a part of the grander whole, these categories, too, are meant to serve not as hard barriers but rather as points of connection and contemplation. More than a few decisions here will raise eyebrows—why, for example, is Portnoy’s Complaint filed not under the Laughing & Complaining category but under Appetites? Why is Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl not in Suffering & Loss? The answer in all cases is that we tried to place each book according to what felt for us to be its most generative material. Some of you, we know, will disagree, and others will question the very categories themselves. That, we think, is exactly the point of putting out lists.

In order to be included, a book had to meet three requirements:

1. You have to be able to read it with some pleasure and profit today. Not all our entries qualify as beach reading (Man’s Search for Meaning, we’re looking at you), but we believe you can pick any of the books on our list today and have it change your life.

2. Each one had a significant effect in its time—on a large group of readers or other writers, or both. In doing so, these books helped influence the world, sometimes in complicated and ambivalent ways.  

3. Each addresses a problematic—moral or communal or aesthetic—that is still central to living as a Jew in America.

This is not a list of books written by American Jews, but rather the collective inheritance of the Jewish people as read by Jews like us in America. The same list compiled by Israeli Jews or Argentine Jews or Satmar Jews would look very different, because those groups’ relations to a Jewish cultural inheritance—and their definitions and uses of that inheritance—would be different. We did not include poetry or drama for the same reason that we did not include movies or music: We see those as arts with their own shaping traditions and forms.

Here are some objections one could launch at this list: It’s too religious; it’s not religious enough; it privileges contemporary writers at the expense of thousands of years of learned disputation; it privileges historical works no one reads anymore; it’s too academic; it’s not academic enough; we clearly didn’t pay close enough attention to our rabbis or college professors. All of these criticisms can justifiably be leveled at us generally, and at everyone else now in charge of maintaining this inheritance. We don’t expect this will deter you from lobbing them anyway.

In fact, one reason we chose to assert our collective understanding was to get you to do the same. Tell us what’s missing here, or what absolutely never should have been included. What are the 10 best Jewish books written by non-Jews? The eight best Philip Roth novels? The 11 best Jewish books to read on Birthright? We want to know.

And now: Go, read. >

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