obojc past selections
Year 1. (2007-2008) – Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky
In 1980, a twenty-three-year-old student set out to rescue the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Twenty-five years and one and a half million books later, he’s still in the midst of a great adventure. Filled with poignant and often laugh-out- loud tales from Aaron Lansky’s travels across the country, as he collected books from older Jewish immigrants—books their own children had no use for—Outwitting History also explores brilliant Yiddish writers and enables us to see how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the Old World and the future.
Year 2. (2008-2009) – My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar
In a remote corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an enclave of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics, gifted storytellers and humble peddlers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born. This is his story.
Year 3. (2009-2010) – All Other Nights by Dara Horn
How is tonight different from all other nights? For Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union Army, it is a question his commanders have answered for him: on Passover, 1862, he is ordered to murder his own uncle, who is plotting to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. After this harrowing mission, Jacob is recruited to pursue another enemy agent―this time not to murder the spy, but to marry her. Based on real historical figures, this eagerly awaited novel from award-winning author Dara Horn delivers multilayered, page-turning storytelling at its best.
Year 4. (2010-2011) – By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan
Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and long-time friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend’s demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands. But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he’d lost…the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.
Year 5. (2011-2012) – The List by Martin Fletcher
London, October 1945. Austrian refugees Georg and Edith await the birth of their first child. Yet how can they celebrate when almost every day brings news of another relative or friend murdered in the Holocaust? Their struggle to rebuild their lives is further threatened by growing anti-Semitism in London’s streets; Englishmen want to take homes and jobs from Jewish refugees and give them to returning servicemen. Edith’s father is believed to have survived, and finding him rests on Georg’s shoulders. Then Georg learns of a plot by Palestinian Jews to assassinate Britain’s foreign minister. Georg must try to stop the murder, all the while navigating a city that wants to “eject the aliens.”
Year 6. (2012-2013) – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction. The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. Other stories deal with vigilante justice undertaken by a group of geriatric campers; the history of Israel’s settlements from the Yom Kippur Wawr to the present; and sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity and peril. And “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form.
Year 7. (2013-2014) – The Wanting by Michael Lavigne
In the galvanizing opening of The Wanting, the celebrated Russian-born postmodern architect Roman Guttman is injured in a bus bombing, causing his life to swerve into instability and his perceptions to become heightened and disturbed as he embarks on an ill-advised journey into Palestinian territory. The account of Roman’s desert odyssey alternates with the vivacious, bittersweet diary of his thirteen-year- old daughter, Anyusha (who is on her own perilous path, of which Roman is ignorant) and the startlingly alive witnessings of Amir, the young Palestinian who pushed the button and is now damned to observe the havoc he has wrought from a shaky beyond. Enriched by flashbacks to the alluringly sad tale of Anyusha’s mother, a famous Russian refusenik who died for her beliefs, The Wanting is a poignant study of the costs of extremism, but it is most satisfying as a story of characters enmeshed in their imperfect love for one another and for the heartbreakingly complex world in which that love is wrought.
Year 8. (2014-2015) – Henna House by Nomi Eve
This vivid saga begins in Yemen in 1920. Adela Damari’s parents’ health is failing as they desperately seek a future husband for their young daughter, who is in danger of becoming adopted by the local Muslim community if she is orphaned. With no likely marriage prospects, Adela’s situation looks dire—until she meets two cousins from faraway cities: a boy with whom she shares her most treasured secret, and a girl who introduces her to the powerful rituals of henna. Ultimately, Adela’s life journey brings her old and new loves, her true calling, and a new life as she is transported to Israel as part of Operation On Wings of Eagles. Rich, evocative, and enthralling, Henna House is an intimate family portrait interwoven with the traditions of the Yemenite Jews and the history of the Holocaust and Israel. This sensuous tale of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness—and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart—will captivate readers until the very last
Year 9. (2015-2016) – A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin
Lev Golinkin’s memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It’s also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible . . . and say thank you. Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin’s search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history is more than a memoir—it’s a portrait of a lost era. This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat—and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.
Year 10. (2016-2017) – ZAHAV: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
This visually stunning book is a unique combination of mouth-watering recipes and a memoir-like narrative about Solomonov’s search for a way to honor the memory of his brother, David, killed while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, and to connect his two homelands, Israel and the United States.For those who have been to Solomonov’s Zahav restaurant (2016 James Beard Foundation award winner for Best Cookbook/Mid-Atlantic) the book is a visually demanding invitation to try the recipes that he has made accessible to the home cook. He even tells the Philadelphia cook how he has altered traditional Israeli recipes to be more accommodating to the seasonal availability of foods in our community! For those who have not yet had the culinary treat of eating at Zahav, it is a chance to first become acquainted with the spices, techniques and history of foods that are so dear to Solomonov’s heart. For those who have been there, here’s your chance to recreate some of your favorite dishes.
Year 11. (2017-2018) – And After The Fire by Lauren Belfer.
Combining fact and fiction, And After the Fire takes readers on a riveting journey through 18th century Berlin to contemporary New York City, connecting the lives of two women: the real-life musician Sara Itzak Levy, tutored by the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the fictional protagonist Susanna Kessler. A lost, controversial cantata by Bach bridges the lives and times of both Sara and Susanna. During World War II, Susanna’s uncle finds, and then steals, the cantata, ultimately leaving it to Susanna in his will, connecting past and present. The fictional cantata has serious anti-Semitic undertones, setting the stage for one of the many moral questions raised in the novel: can art (music) do harm and can you love the art while despising the artist (musician)?
Year 12. (2018-2019) – The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas.
In this spellbinding novel, a young man journeys from California to Cairo to unravel centuries-old family secrets. Joseph, a literature student at Berkeley, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. One day, a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, pulling him into a mesmerizing adventure to uncover the tangled history that binds the two sides of his family. For generations, the men of the al-Raqb family have served as watchmen of the storied Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, built at the site where the infant Moses was taken from the Nile. Joseph learns of his ancestor Ali, a Muslim orphan who nearly a thousand years earlier was entrusted as the first watchman of the synagogue and became enchanted by its legendary--perhaps magical--Ezra Scroll. The story of Joseph's family is entwined with that of the British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 depart their hallowed Cambridge halls on a mission to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue.
Year 13. (2019-2020) – The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
Year 14. (2021-2022) – People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
Reflecting on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the blockbuster traveling exhibition called “Auschwitz,” the Jewish history of the Chinese city of Harbin, and the little known “righteous Gentile” Varian Fry, Dara Horn challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, as emblematic of the worst of evils the world has to offer, and so little respect for Jewish lives, as they continue to unfold in the present.
Horn draws on her own family’s life — trying to explain Shakespeare’s Shylock to a curious 10-year-old, her anger when swastikas are drawn on desks at her children’s school in New Jersey, the profound and essential perspective offered by traditional religious practice, prayer, and study — to assert the vitality, complexity, and depth of this life against an anti-Semitism that, far from being disarmed by the mantra of “Never forget,” is on the rise.