Jews make up 2 percent of the American population, and just 0.2 percent of the world population. In practice, this means that most people have never met one. What the average person knows of Jews, they know from received cultural stereotypes, television, and the internet. The consequences of this are regularly evident in our public discourse, where ignorant and ill-intentioned ideas about Jews abound. That’s why this newsletter has spent the last three weeks covering anti-Semitism—from the Ivy League to Kanye West—and could easily continue doing so this week. But focusing on the negative ways that outsiders misrepresent Jews has the unfortunate effect of shrinking the Jewish experience to the hampered horizons of their haters. In actuality, Jews are a proud and diverse people who have thrived for millennia, and whose collective experience is far richer than simply surviving oppression. When we view Jewish existence through the lens of anti-Jewish prejudice, we lose the very elements of it that have enabled the tradition to repeatedly overcome efforts to stifle it.
So this week, instead of responding to the latest anti-Jewish outrage, I want to offer an eclectic introduction to Jews and Judaism through writings, art, and culture produced by Jews themselves. Of course, there is absolutely no way to reasonably reduce such a vast corpus into a single set of selections. My 10 brief recommendations here are meant to be suggestive, rather than comprehensive. You won’t find any “Intro to Judaism” books or yet another Holocaust movie, because you don’t need me to find those. Instead, my hope is to crack open a wider window into the Jewish experience than one can get through a cursory Google or Wikipedia search, and to introduce you to some of the texts and textures of Jewish life—a panoramic approach to a perennial people.
There are literally thousands of other things I could have included. If you’re Jewish, I’d love to hear from you about what would make your list. And if you’re not, I’d love to know what you’re curious about. Please send those ideas to email@example.com, and hopefully we’ll dive into them in a future edition. Consider this the start of the conversation, not the end.
Over the centuries, Jews have experienced the destruction of their homeland, repeated expulsions, and constant displacement. Despite these upheavals, they were able to preserve their traditions through the careful cultivation of the Jewish textual canon, ranging from the Bible to the Talmud to countless commentaries and successor works. Wherever they went, the Jews brought their words with them. And today, anyone can access this material in English thanks to Sefaria, an easy-to-use online hub of professional and crowdsourced Jewish texts and translations. Going straight to the source has never been simpler.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
In 1937, the New York Times dropped the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s reporting from its pages. The reason? The global Jewish news service was seen as biased in its reporting on Nazi Germany. Today, despite such supposed shortcomings, JTA is still going strong. Under the leadership of editor in chief Philissa Cramer, the agency’s army of roving reporters around the world continue to chronicle the global Jewish community in its dizzying diversity and complexity. And JTA’s online archives, which date back over a century, remain an incredible resource filled with hidden historical gems.
See also: The journalism of Matti Friedman, whose masterful books unravel the mystery surrounding the oldest extant copy of the Hebrew Bible, offer an alternative history of Israel’s founding that places Middle Eastern and Arab Jews at the center of a story from which they are too often erased, and more.
The Novels of Dara Horn
In 2021, the author Dara Horn published her first book of nonfiction, the provocative People Love Dead Jews, which critiqued the way Jewish suffering is often instrumentalized to teach symbolic moral lessons, while the actual experiences of Jewish people are overlooked. Precisely because Horn finds society’s single-minded focus on Jewish death so misguided, she’s spent her career dramatizing Jewish life in her award-winning novels. From a Civil War spy story that explores the contradictions and cross-currents of American Jewish identity to a gender-swapped contemporary retelling of the biblical story of Joseph, her works effortlessly induct readers into the world of Jewish text, history, and memory.
See also: “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!,” a satirical sci-fi short story by Philip Klass, who published as William Tenn, that doubles as a meditation on Jewish identity and history; and “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” a sharp short story from the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade in which two Holocaust survivors grapple with its fallout.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s A Letter in the Scroll
It’s hard to pick just a single book from the oeuvre of Jonathan Sacks, who served as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013, before stepping down to travel and teach around the world. An Oxbridge-educated rabbinic scholar with the pen of a poet, Sacks published dozens of books before passing away in 2020, tackling everything from biblical commentary to the purpose and perils of Jewish statehood to religion and science. A Letter in the Scroll is his manifesto about the meaning of Judaism, offering a personal answer to that incredibly contested question.
It’s safe to say that director Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is the only Oscar-nominated dramatic comedy about Talmud scholars you will ever watch. It’s also an exceptional film about fathers and sons, generational conflict, and the passions inspired by Jewish texts through the ages. A nominee for Best Foreign Language film in 2012, the movie takes viewers inside the cloistered confines of academic Talmudic scholarship, and is based on a real-world scholarly dynasty whose members happen to include my relatives.
See also: “Remember That We Suffered,” one of many very Jewish musical numbers from Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; “April Is the Cruelest Month” from Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, which closes with one of the most unaffected scenes of Jewish ritual, perfectly performed by the actor Joshua Malina, at its end.
The Scholarship of Shnayer Leiman
A polymath who has taught everywhere from Yale to Oxford, Shnayer Leiman is the Sherlock Holmes of Jewish history. An ordained rabbi with a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, Leiman specializes in the arcana of the Jewish past, cracking cases and explaining historical oddities. To list just a few: He has demonstrated how the popularizer of the golem legend borrowed from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; revealed a renowned rabbi to have been a likely covert follower of the 17th-century false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi; exposed as a forgery a letter sold at auction that was purportedly written by Reform Judaism’s founding father, Moses Mendelssohn; and resurfaced the works of forgotten Jewish women writers and Torah teachers. Today, Leiman maintains an online library of his wide-ranging scholarship, much of which is available free of charge.
The Music of Moriya Naveh
Because Jews have lived in almost every culture and country, there is no single Jewish musical tradition. Instead, Jewish song has been inflected and influenced by its countless interactions with the wider world. If there’s one artist today who embodies this synthesis, it’s Moriya Naveh, an emerging Israeli singer, musician, and composer who blends the Moroccan and Ashkenazi sensibilities of the two sides of her family with a Middle Eastern flair.