In the annual Forward Fives selection we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of our favorite works of non-fiction of 2012. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
Joy Ladin, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders”
With “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” Ladin, who holds the David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Stern College, has luminously expressed her situation and has become an advocate of transgender rights and issues in the Jewish world. In it, she describes in sometimes heart-wrenching detail her transition from Jay, the male English literature professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, to Joy, the first ever openly transgender person to teach at an Orthodox Jewish institution.
Peter Beinart, “The Crisis of Zionism”
It’s not often that the publication of a book is preceded by months of debate about its central argument. But that was the fate of Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism,” for which defenses and denunciations stretch back to 2010. For those inclined to his views, Beinart’s book made a brave argument that the Israeli government, in its treatment of the Palestinians, was quickly losing the support of the traditionally liberal American Jewish community.
Jonathan Safran Foer (Ed.), “New American Haggadah”
The most prominent trend of new Haggadot is that of marquee names producing marquee products. This year obviously belongs to the aforementioned “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, translated by Nathan Englander and with commentaries by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Lemony Snicket. Englander’s translations are crisp and clear, and the themed commentaries — Deutsch provides a semi-traditional “House of Study”; Goldstein a literary-themed “Library;” Goldberg a Jewish-peoplehood-themed “Nation” and Snicket a hilarious “Playground” — are excellent, multi-vocal and concise.
Harry Ostrer, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People”
In “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, claims that Jews are different, and the differences are not just skin deep. “Legacy” may cause its readers discomfort. To some Jews, the notion of a genetically related people is an embarrassing remnant of early Zionism that came into vogue at the height of the Western obsession with race, in the late 19th century. But Ostrer sees it as central to Jewish identity.
Harvey Pekar and J.T. Waldman, “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me”
Harvey Pekar produced a sizable number of works, most of them autobiographical and dealing with Jewish content only occasionally. As Pekar reached the end of his life, the Jewish issue came to interest him a great deal not only in a personal way, but also in a broader historical sense. In “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,” illustrated by J.T. Waldman, Pekar launches into a straightforward, although clearly Pekaresque, version of Jewish history, from the biblical period until today.