My fifth annual list (for 2022-2023) of favorite sefarim and books on Israeli, Jewish and other matters, ranging from diplomacy to Torah commentary. Including volumes by Jonathan Grossman, Hayyim Angel, Nathan Aviezer, Ari Kahn, Doron Perez, Benjamin Netanyahu, Henry Kissinger, Jared Kushner, Barak Ravid, Meir Deutsch, Mark Dubowitz, Ofer Yannay, David Bernstein, Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer, and Tuvia Tennenbom.
I enjoy sharing books with others, which was the genesis of this annual list of best books on Israeli, Jewish, diplomatic, and strategic matters.
The 2021 list included monographs by Martin Indyk, Cynthia Ozick, Steven Pruzansky, Gadi Taub, Jonathan Sacks, Amit Segal, and Ben Shapiro. The 2020 list included books by Michael Dickson, Hillel Halkin, Moshe Koppel, and Natan Sharansky. And in the years prior to that, Ronen Bergman, Daniel Gordis, Yoram Hazony, Einat Wilf, Haim Sabato, Gil Troy, Asher Weiss, and others.
Here is my selection of best reads for the past year (2022-2023).
The Sacrificial Service: Gestures of Flesh and Spirit, by Jonathan Grossman (Koren/Maggid, Hebrew). This is the most creative, and heavy, book I studied this year. Rabbi Prof. Grossman offers a brilliant reading of the many korbanot (sacrifices) that predominate the book of Leviticus, making them intelligible to modern man as expressions of religious and psychological sentiment, meant to create and repair man’s relationship to God.
Psalms: A Companion Volume, by Hayyim Angel (Kodesh). This slim volume offers pithy and beautiful commentary on about 25 chapters of Psalms, divided into themes such as repentance, redemption, creation, transition, praise, reward, and faith.
Modern Science and Ancient Faith, by Nathan Aviezer (Ktav, Hebrew). This is the famous physics professor’s fourth book on this broad topic. He deals with the age of the world, intelligent design, photons and rainbows, miracles and statistics, the atheism of Richard Dawkins, and more. His previous books on science and faith have been translated into ten languages and made into educational films.
Healing and Repairing: Essays on Sefer Bereishit, by Ari Kahn (Kodesh). Rabbi Kahn is one of the finest expositors in English of Torah and Jewish mysticism. Here he offers learned interpretations of dysfunctional relationships in the book of Genesis, including chapters on The Inadvertent Trial of Sodom, The Terrible Secret of the Tower of Babel, and The Imagined Trials and Real Tribulations of Joseph.
The Steinsaltz Tanya, Volume One (Koren). This is a groundbreaking commentary on the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s classic kabbalistic work. The late Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz reveals the author’s powerful fire and spirit through explanations and metaphors from daily life along with stories from the lives of Hassidic masters. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s elucidation, now in excellent English, makes this dense work accessible. A second volume (forthcoming) focuses on Tanya’s treatises on Divine Unity and on The Path to Repentance.
The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity, by Doron Perez (Gefen and Mizrachi World Movement, upcoming). The author culls a plethora of biblical and rabbinic sources, and Greek political philosophers, historians, and Zionist leaders, to suggest a broad cultural platform for Jewish unity. He reminds readers of their covenantal relationship with G-d and their responsibility to build a society in Israel involving real dialogue between Jews of all types.
Bibi: My Story, by Benjamin Netanyahu (In English: Simon & Schuster. In Hebrew: Sella-Meir). I was pleasantly surprised at how good a read this autobiography is, especially the first third of the book in which Netanyahu relates his upbringing, military service, and entry into diplomatic service and then politics. The many chapters devoted to grappling with US President Obama are fascinating, and important, too. The need for judicial reform is not mentioned once in the entire book, although his “unrelenting defamation” by the media and Attorney General’s Office certainly is.
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, by Henry Kissinger (Penguin). He will be 100 years old in May, but Henry Kissinger is as sharp as ever. Here, he analyzes the careers of Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher to demonstrate how deep understandings of history and abiding values are the magic combination that give true leaders an “intuitive grasp of direction.”
Breaking History: A White House Memoir, by Jared Kushner (HarperCollins). Those who can only hate former US President Trump do not like this book because Kushner offers no regrets for serving in the administration of his father-in-law. But this flowing memoir is instructive regarding the dysfunctionality of Washington, and the mindset of Trump on major policy matters including his breakthrough Mideast policy initiatives.
Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, by Barak Ravid (Yedioth Ahronoth, Hebrew). This is by far the best and most-detailed book, based on hundreds of in-depth interviews and solid investigative reporting, about 20 years of secret diplomacy leading to the Abraham Accords breakthrough. It is biased towards the role of Israeli foreign ministry professionals and against the contributions of Mossad personnel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and some Trump team executives, but overall, it is telling and fascinating. The book should be out in English soon.
Bedouistan: How the State of Israel is Losing the Negev, by Meir Deutsch (Sella-Meir). The CEO of Regavim NGO horrifyingly details the lawless anarchy and reign of fear that has taken root in Israel’s south: drugs, agricultural terror, protection rackets, stolen land, water, and electricity, weapons smuggling, and more. It is also worth looking online at the NGO’s “Sde Boker Initiative” for a renaissance in the Negev over the next 25 years, involving real law enforcement and governance, settlement regulation, and massive investment in infrastructure and quality of life.
Strategy for a New Comprehensive U.S. Policy on Iran, by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies). This outstanding 50-page monograph provides hundreds of specific and actionable recommendations for relevant agencies of the US government in “deploying multiple elements of national power” to support the Iranian people and confront the ongoing threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
New Under the Sun: How Israel Will Lead the Global Energy Revolution, by Ofer Yannay (Sella-Meir, Hebrew). The fascinating memoir of a young Israeli entrepreneur, businessman, and philanthropist who only ten years ago founded Nofar Energy and turned it into a multi-billion-dollar solar energy company. Yannay offers a vision of global leadership for Israel in this field, if only government regulators would back-away from their backwards thinking.
Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, by David L. Bernstein (Post Hill). A veteran leader of Jewish advocacy organizations and a self-described liberal who has broken with the far left, Bernstein shows how the core ideological tenets of “woke-ism” such as privilege, equity, whiteness, and the oppressor/oppressed binary have been weaponized against Jews and the Jewish state. Frightening.
Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning, and Community, by Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer (Brandeis U Press). Nine case studies of best practices in North American Jewish schools of all types and denominations, looking at pedagogy, technology, curriculum, and values. Key takeaways: The importance of tight interface between community leadership and school administration, and of course, more community funding for Jewish education.
Beware Her Pinky: Temptations and Faith in the Ultra-Orthodox Community, by Tuvia Tenenbom (Sella-Meir, Hebrew). This abrasive author has given us yet another of his revealing travelogues, this time through Meah Shearim in Jerusalem where he grew up. Like previous books, Tenenbom is hilariously coarse and biting, yet he offers a portrayal of haredi Jews that is deep and surprisingly sympathetic.