Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November is Jewish Book Month: Jewish Humor Central's Top Ten List for Chanukah Reading and Gifting

November is Jewish Book Month, and Chanukah is when most Jewish books are bought for gift giving. What a happy coincidence! And don't forget, some of the best gifts are those you give yourself.

So before November ends and before Chanukah begins, we'd like to share with you our list of ten choice books for gift giving and receiving. While humor is the common denominator, they also touch on learning, mystery, science fiction, food, and music.

In other words, something for everyone. This is not a countdown list from number ten to number one. In our opinion, every one of these books is at the top of the list.

We present a short review of each book and links to Amazon.com where you can buy them.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post, giving us your thoughts about these book choices. Let's start a lively discussion about books that bring out the best in Jewish humor.

Save the Deli by David Sax
As a journalist and life-long deli obsessive, David Sax was understandably alarmed by the state of Jewish delicatessen. A cuisine that had once thrived as the very center of Jewish life had become endangered by assimilation, homogenization, and health food trends. He watched in dismay as one beloved deli after another—one institution after another—shuttered, only to be reopened as some bland chain-restaurant laying claim to the very culture it just paved over. And so David set out on a journey across the United States and around the world in search of authentic delicatessen. Was it still possible to Save the Deli?
Join David as he investigates everything deli-- its history, its diaspora, its next generation. He tells about the food itself—how it’s made, who makes it best, and where to go for particular dishes. And, ultimately, he finds is hope-- deli newly and lovingly made in places like Boulder, traditions maintained in Montreal, and iconic institutions like the 2nd Avenue Deli resurrected in New York.

Shtick Shift by Simcha Weinstein

In this slim volume (142 pages) Simcha Weinstein analyzes the shift in shtick (modern Jewish humor) from Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Adam Sandler. Along the way, he reviews the success of Jon Stewart and his fake news show, The Daily Show.

Weinstein defines the shtick shift as the new comic sensibility where today’s Jewish comics aren’t afraid of proclaiming their ethnicity, and have the confidence to laugh about their frailties.

The book addresses issues of Jewish identity and assimilation, and covers years of Jewish comedy from the lower east side to vaudeville, movies, and sitcoms.

It contains a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words, and 20 pages of footnotes.
Murder at the Minyan by Shulamit E. Kustanowitz
Murder at the Minyan is much more than it seems. Sure, it’s a mystery, but it is filled with situations that anyone who attends synagogue or is involved with Jewish organizations will find humorous and wistfully familiar.
Of course, there is a murder. One congregant finds a most dastardly solution to inadequate shul attendance because it interferes with his need to say Kaddish. But there’s a lot more to the story than the murder.
As the plot unfolds, we meet the many Jews that make up our people and the conflicts that they live with: the religiously observant Conservative rabbi and his unschooled congregants; the dedicated lay leaders who lack any loyalty to tradition; the Orthodox rabbi who won’t judge a big donor’s motives; Holocaust survivors with divergent views of non-Jews; one child who has just goodness in his heart and another who has only selfish needs, and the woman who expects her rabbi to deliver “enough bang for the buck.”

And then there’s the rabbi’s Chanukah shopping trip to a mall that is all decked out in its finest December decorations and plays Christmas carols to increase seasonal joy. And the rabbi knows all the words! That scene alone makes this book a perfect gift for Chanukah.
The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. explores the Bible chronologically, from Old Testament (crucial, given the Ten Commandments) to the New Testament (crucial, given America's powerful evangelical movement and its literal interpretation of the Bible) -- and lives the Bible on every level. He obeys the Ten Commandments, he is fruitful and multiplies (A.J.'s wife had twins during his year!); he remembers the Sabbath and keeps it holy. But he also obeys the oft-neglected rules, such as avoiding clothes of mixed fibers, and refraining from shaving the edges of his beard (Leviticus 19:27). So throughout the year A.J. is commonly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. Or Moses.

Jewish Humor by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
First published in 1992, this book is a classic in the field of Jewish Humor. Rabbi Telushkin, a well-known author and authority on Jewish life, focuses on comedy as the mirror of Jewish culture, woven around more than a hundred of the best Jewish jokes -- some classic, some new. This is not just a compilation of jokes, but an analysis of w hat is Jewish about Jewish humor, the inescapable hold of the Jewish family, Jewish intelligence and theplayful logic of the Jewish mind, the Jew in business, self-loathing, self-praise, and other Jewish neuroses.

A Fine Romance by David Lehman

Does It Ain't Necessarily So, George Gershwin's song from Porgy and Bess, have its basis in the blessings before reading the Torah? Is his introduction to Swanee based on the melody sung while returning the Torah to the ark? That's what David Lehman suggests in his warm, humorous, nostalgic look at the period between 1914 and 1965 when most American popular music, now known as the American Songbook, was written by mostly Jewish songwriters and composers.

During that rich musical time, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, and the Gershwin brothers were responsible for creating the music that America sang and played. These Jews were immigrants or their American-born children, and they used wit and romantic lyrics and melodies to express the American dream. Even Cole Porter, a millionaire Episcopalian from Indiana, told Richard Rodgers that he found the key to success by writing "Jewish tunes."
The Big Book of Jewish Humor by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks
If you have a collection of books of Jewish humor in your house, you almost certainly have this one. The Big Book of Jewish Humor is one of the true classics in the field. But just in case you don't, here's a quick summary of what you're in for when you pick up this book. The editors, William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, have produced a volume that has Talmudic overtones, with two facing columns in the center and two narrow columns of commentary on many pages. But unlike the Talmud, readers should be aware that some of the jokes are not family-friendly and use language that some may find offensive.

After a 25 page introduction to the 25th anniversary edition published in 2006, and the 15 page intro to the first edition (1981) we get into the book itself, which comes with instructions on how to read its 308 pages.

The Big Book of Jewish Humor also has lots of cartoons, and contributions from dozens of famous writers and comedians. It will keep you busy and laughing for a long time.
Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction by Jack Dann (Editor)
Wandering Stars is the landmark collection of Jewish science fiction and fantasy. The first of its kind, it is an established and enduring classic.

This is the first time in a science fiction collection that the Jewish People—and the richness of their themes and particular points of view—appear without a mask. Wandering Stars is a showpiece of Jewish wit, culture, and lore, of the blend of humor and sadness, cynicism, and faith. In these pages you’ll find superlative tales of fantasy and science fiction by masters.

Oy! by David Minkoff
David Minkoff has probably compiled more Jewish jokes than anyone on the internet or in the universe. Last month his second "ultimate complilation" of Jewish jokes, "Oy Vey: More" was published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press in hardcover.

The first book, Oy: The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes is now out in paperback. I keep a few copies on hand to give as get-well gifts to friends who have been hospitalized. They say that laughter is the best medicine, and I include a fake prescription blank recommending two jokes three times a day and three jokes just before bedtime. It works wonders!
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

In meticulously drawn detail, the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and other 1960's comic classics successfully tackles the formal English text of the first book of the Bible and brings it to life in a surprisingly sympathetic and non-critical form.

This book is hard to put down as it draws you from one page to the next, pulling you deeper and deeper into the stories that have been told and retold for millennia. The difference is that this time, seeing each sentence depicted with images of real people forces a human connection between the reader and the characters who we thought we knew so well, but who always seemed distant and other-worldly.

The characters that Crumb draws are real, maybe too real. The women are zoftig and the men are hairy and grubby, probably a more accurate depiction than the people we imagined while reading the weekly portion of the Torah. After all, the events depicted predate Avon, Clinique, Gillette, and Aqua Velva.

The illustrator, a declared atheist, surprised me with his reverential treatment of all the Bible stories. In his introduction to the book and in the endnotes for the chapters, he uses the term B.C.E., not B.C. as is usual in non-Jewish writings. He also reveals that he studied the midrash on Bereishit to get perspectives on the stories that enabled him to make them come alive.

I was prepared to dislike this book, given Crumb's association with the hippie movement of the 1960's, but he deserves a lot of credit for bringing new life to the oldest book known. He even draws a unique face for each of the "begats", not an easy piece of work.

Though it took Crumb three years to produce this volume, the material he had to work with in Genesis included lots of interesting characters and lots of stories. I can't wait to see what he does to illustrate Vayikra (Leviticus.)

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