What’s hot to read this summer

Rabbi Hershey Novack

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

So what are you reading this summer?

When we posed that question to a number of St. Louis area rabbis and Jewish professionals, we received a wide variety of enthusiastic responses. In some cases, the books choices were light and breezy — kind of how we hoped summer in St. Louis would be — and in other instances… well, take a look at what Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus at Washington University is reading: “The Heroic Struggle: The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn of Lubavitch in Soviet Russia,” edited and translated by Rabbi Dr. Alter B. Metzer. 

Novack says the “Heroic Struggle” epitomizes Winston Churchill’s statement, “history is written by the victors.” The book reviews the 1927 arrest of Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn (1880-1950) by Stalinist authorities, his brutal interrogations, and ultimately — after international pressure including a foreign policy stint by Justice Louis Brandeis — his release from imprisonment. 

His crimes? Maintaining a network of underground Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues and mikvahs, which the Soviet regime considered anti-revolutionary activity. “The ‘Heroic Struggle’ is a testimony to the triumph of human spirit in the face of impossible odds: a turn of events that Churchill himself would have appreciated,” says Novack.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

OK, so maybe “Heroic Struggles” is no “Fifty Shades of Grey,” though interestingly none of our responders mentioned the latter as reading material (and it’s sold only 20 million copies worldwide!). 

No big surprise that Marcia Evers Levy, director of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, is catching up with some of the books by authors coming to town for the 2012 festival in November. Among them is “Drop Dead Healthy,” by AJ Jacobs, his latest, hilarious quest to become the healthiest human being alive, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. “He makes you think and ponder questions I couldn’t wait to discuss with my family and friends,” says Evers Levy.


Barb Raznick, director of the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, reports her  “summer read” is “The Columbus Affair,” a thriller by best-selling novelist, Steve Barry. She sums the book up this way: “In the genre made popular by Dan Brown and the ‘Da Vinci Code,’ this exciting combination of fact and fiction is centered around a wrongly disgraced world-famous reporter who is at the end of his rope when he discovers that his daughter has been kidnapped and he must help the kidnappers or she will be killed. Along the way we encounter numerous ‘red herrings,’ stories of the lost treasures from the 2nd Temple, conversos, the golem and perhaps the Jewish background of Christopher Columbus. This book is good escapist fiction for a hot summer day.”


Jewish Light blogger Pam Droog Jones recommends “Fiction Ruined My Family,” a memoir by Jeanne Darst. “I read an excerpt from it in a magazine and was intrigued by Darst’s St. Louis connections—old Ladue money, St. Louis politics, familiar names and places. Also I liked her writing style, so I bought the book,” says Jones. “The story itself is rather sad. She describes her parents’ descent due to alcoholism, and her own struggles with it. I can’t say Darst is someone I’d actually want to know. But the way she describes her unusual life often is hilarious, and I kept on reading to find out what happens to her.”


B’nai Amoona Rabbi Carnie Rose, who has returned from a yearlong sabbatical in Israel, emailed that he has been reading “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine” by Eric Weiner. “In preparing for the High Holy Days (and our theme at B’nai Amoona for the entire program year) is the famous teaching of Rav Kook — let the old become renewed and the new become sanctified,” says Rose. “The book strikes me as an important tool for those who are questing — desperately seeking — a relationship with Divinity. It underscores the essential and core teaching of Jewish Mysticism that one can only experience God after one does the hard (and heart) work of searching… the Heavenly flow only comes in response to the Earthly search.”

The rabbi also reports that the book is “readable, humorous, often irreverent and, for a popular book, well researched.” 


Gail Wechsler, at the Jewish Community Relations Council, is reading “Great House” by Nicole Krauss.  “While not a typical summer read I would recommend this novel for several reasons,” Wechsler explains. “The writing is crisp and intelligent (Krauss also wrote the wonderful “The History of Love”) and the interlocking stories are intriguing.  The plot involves different protagonists living in New York, Jerusalem and London.  Their tales are connected because each owned the same antique desk at different points in their lives.  The book is about the power of language and writing.”


Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, reports that she is reading the first book she ever read about the Civil War (with the exception of a biography of Abe Lincoln, called)  “The Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust.

“This book brings into focus the large human fatalities of the Civil War,” she says. “More than 600,000 soldiers, proportionally equivalent to six million in today’s population, perished during the war. Gilpin Faust describes the devastating emotional impact it had on the collective American psyche through the viewpoints of soldiers, families, generals, preachers, slaves and a whole host of those affected.”

Cavender says the author actually succeeds in making this grim subject interesting as she explores the impact of the war from a material, political, intellectual and spiritual angles. 

Also reading non-fiction this summer is Nikki Goldstein, executive director of Crown Center, who just finished “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson. The book tells of a father, who is the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and his daughter who comes to live in Berlin just as Hitler is ascending to power.

“The most gripping and troubling aspect of the book is that it is a work of non-fiction. All of the quotes are from letters, journals, and other first hand documents/ accounts of their experiences,” says Goldstein.  “Larson provides a glimpse into the minds (and hearts) of the American diplomatic community of the time; and the complicated situation which was being faced by Germany itself, the United States, and the world- including the American Jewish community. The most frightening aspect is that the same forces may be gathering in our own day, and that we/our world may be similarly in a state of denial.” 

Goldstein’s good friend and Millstone Leadership Institute helmer Marci Mayer Eisen says she just finished “Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg.  

“The author discusses how focusing on one small, yet significant behavior or message can create powerful change personally or in your organization,” says Eisen. “ So much of what we do, frequently without thinking, is the result of habits. In order to change we must be motivated by a very clear, specific reward. One positive change can lead to others.”

And finally, I could not put down Gillian Flynn’s “Dark Places.” A thriller of sorts, it centers on Libby Day, whose mother and sisters were murdered, seemingly by Libby brother, when she was seven. Now, 25 years later, her inheritance is running out. So when she is offered money to sell family mementos, she agrees but begins to have second thoughts as to whether her brother was the murderer after all.

Over the weekend, I started on Flynn’s latest “Gone Girl,” which promises to be even better. So good, in fact, that this girl is gone … to keep reading.