Give me a well-written biography that I can’t put down.
After being engrossed in the magazine world all week long, I do try to escape into a Jewish book every Shabbat (if I’m hosting, though, one book may take two Shabbats to finish).
What kind of books do I like? After earning a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Masters Degree in creative writing, I could say ‘been there, done that,’ when it comes to all the literary classics. Once I finished school, I was done with those.
Since then, I’ve only wanted to read only books that meant something; I like to be inspired and perhaps be a better person after putting them down. Shakespeare doesn’t accomplish that.
Nor would I be trading secular fiction for Jewish fiction. No. I was done with all fiction. I wanted real stories only about real people and real role models. Jewish non-fiction it would be. And while there will occasionally be a how-to type of book in the mix (i.e. such as one on parenting or shalom bayis), I most like to be entertained with biographies.
I am quite particular. I might often enjoy a book, but admit that it wasn’t the most well-written. For me to make a recommendation, though, the book needs both. These four favorite (some recent, some from a while ago) Jewish books that fit that bill.
Rebbetzin Grunfeld: The Life of Judith Grunfeld by Miriam Dansky
I only wish Mrs. Dansky had written many, many more books (there are two others). This is one of the most beautifully written Jewish biographies ever. It’s not only a biography of Rebbetzin Grunfeld; it’s really a literary masterpiece as well. I’ve probably read it three times because even if I’m already familiar with the story, I still enjoy the way it’s told.
This is Rav Zilber’s firsthand account of Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain. It was originally written in Russian, then translated into Hebrew, then was finally available in English in 2010. Chilling. I had to finish this the same Shabbat I started it and didn’t go to bed on Motzei Shabbat until it was complete.
Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan by Rebbetzin Danielle S. Leibowitz and Devora Glickman
I knew I would be purchasing this book after reading an excerpt in AmiLiving magazine in the spring. That excerpt, which told of young Vichna’s experiences being orphaned of her parents in her youth, completely captured me. Rebbetzin Kaplan’s life, as the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement in America, is inspiring; Rebbetzin Leibowitz and Mrs. Glickman also do a masterful job in telling the story. It’s amazing what one person can accomplish, even when they seem to be the only person in the world interested in a mission at first.
If you can tell how good a book is by how often someone has recommended it to you (a pretty good indicator, I’d think), then I’d know this was really, really good even if I hadn’t read it. It’s definitely the must-read among newly released books. Rabbi Yossi Wallis’s life, and those of his ancestors, is a spectacular story full of jaw-dropping twists and turns and hashgacha pratit. Rabbi Nachman Seltzer also happens to tell it incredibly well. This is one the whole family will enjoy reading.
What are your favorite Jewish book reads? I’m always looking for recommendations and would love to hear!