Non-Fiction
Wed, 09/15/2010
Jewish Week Book Critic
Old Jews Telling Jokes
Old Jews Telling Jokes

John Davis tells a true and little-known story of a collective conversion to Judaism in a small village in the south of Italy, which began in the 1920s, in “The Jews of San Nicandro” (Yale). The unusual series of events, resulting in most of the community moving to Israel after the founding of the state, was inspired by a shoemaker who had a vision of God calling him to bring Judaism to the stretch of Catholic Italy. After Italy’s defeat in World War II, a group of Jewish soldiers serving with the British army in Palestine came and befriended the villagers, and helped have their self-styled conversions approved. The people of San Nicandro had a firm commitment to Zionism, and the women were steadfast in their efforts to keep the community together. Most of the San Nicandro Jews and their descendants now live in Israel, but a small group of Jews still live in the village.

“When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin) draws on newly released Soviet government documents, as well as interviews with refuseniks and activists, to chronicle in detail the three-decade-long struggle that led to a mass exodus of Jews. He also tells of the influence of the Soviet Jewry movement on the American Jewish community in terms of activism and concern for human rights.

In “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” (Schocken, October), journalist Sue Fishkoff looks at the history of the multi-billion dollar kosher food industry as well as current practices and attitudes. She investigates certification agencies, the business of wine, global food production, the deli, food processing plants and the emerging new Jewish food movement. For Fishkoff, kosher is one of the hottest food trends, and she explains how that’s happened.

“Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things” by Erica Brown (Jewish Lights) is a timely work, urging moral clarity and action. She looks to traditional sources for dealing with situations where Jews in the public sphere commit crimes.

Martin Gilbert’s “In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands” (Yale, September) is a narrative that spans centuries, covering periods of fear and terror as well as times when Jews and Muslims lived in harmony. Gilbert also looks ahead, with a sense of hope based on shared history.

Sam Hoffman filmed 20 of his father’s friends and relatives telling their best jokes; all the tellers were 60 years old and up. He then launched a website, and his book, “Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-so-Kosher Jokes” written with Eric Spiegelman (Villard, September) grew out of the popular site.

“Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living” by Rabbi Naomi Levy (Harmony, September) offers readers courage and strength. With candor, she draws on her own experiences with a daughter with a degenerative disease. The title is inspired by her daughter’s words, “Maybe the spirit is talking to us through God and telling us that – if you don’t like your life — if you really try to enjoy life, you will find hope. No … hope will find you.”