Great nonfiction for enjoyable winter reading




It’s time to get serious…well, not too serious. This month we take a look at some recent nonfiction titles. Biography and history lead the pack but there are more. Curious? Read on.

AMY: Looking at all the Netflix comedy specials showcasing female comedians, it’s hard to believe that in comedy, women used to perform only as part of a male/female team or group. “In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy” by Shawn Levy takes us through the early days of women in comedy, from WWII to the 1970s. Film critic Levy, whose previous books explored the Rat Pack and Jerry Lewis, traces the difficult path to stardom faced by these “pioneers,” including grueling travel schedules and blatant sexism. Levy points out that Phyllis Diller was the first woman admitted to the Friars Club, and that did not happen until 1986. In this well-researched book we learn about the careers of several Jewish women, including Diller, Joan Rivers, and the lesser-known Belle Barth.

MINNA: The name Sassoon may evoke a recollection of Vidal Sassoon, the famous hairdresser of the 1970s, but “The Sassoons” by Joseph Sassoon is a history of the family known for their global business interests beginning in Baghdad in the early 19th century and moving with the generations to India, Egypt, England, and Shanghai. With wealth deriving from cotton and opium, the family’s fortunes declined in the 20th century and the history ends with the death of Victor Sassoon in 1961. The book is filled with fascinating photos of homes, synagogues, and correspondence, and features a detailed family tree to help readers follow the saga.

MINNA: At the same time the Sephardi Sassoons were building their empire, the Ashkenazi Rothschilds were building theirs. In fact, the families were connected—Aline de Rothschild married Edward Sassoon in 1887. While the history of the male members of the Rothschild family and their banking empire is well documented, “The Women of Rothschild: The untold story of the world’s most famous dynasty,” by Natalie Livingston, focuses on the lesser known women of the family. Since the female members of the family were excluded from the banking business, they made their impact by marrying well (or out), educating their children, engaging in philanthropy, and supporting their husbands’ political ambitions— often gaining renown as remarkable hostesses. This collective biography spans from the Frankfurt based life of Gutle Rothschild, the founding matriarch, in the 18th century, up until the beginning of the current century.

AMY: Josh Lambert, who directs the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley College, takes a close, scholarly look at the role of Jews in publishing during the Postwar period in his new book, “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature.” This was a time when Jewish authors flourished and figured prominently in the industry, leading such writers as Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac to allege that there was a “Jewish Literary Mafia” controlling access to editors and publishers. Lambert looks closely at the process that brings a book from manuscript to published title, and concludes that, despite the overwhelming presence of Jews in publishing in that era, Jews did not in fact control the industry.

MINNA: Emily Tamkin has titled her history of the last hundred years of American Jewry “Bad Jews,” but what does that term mean? The subtitle, “A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” while not as catchy, reveals more of the book’s contents. With nine chapters each covering a different sort of Jew— Zionist, Civil Rights, Laboring, Refugee, Right-Wing, etc., the author’s premise is that there are no bad Jews, and that levels of religious observance or political leanings don’t define Jewishness. She includes her own background—her mother converted before marriage and then raised her in a secular environment. Emily Tamkin is married to a non-Jew, but plans to raise her children Jewish; she first visited Israel in the course of writing this book. Her progressive politics are also apparent, although her research included interviews with 150 Jews of all political backgrounds.

AMY: “For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story” by Rabbi Steve Leder is a step-by-step primer on writing an ethical will. Unlike the traditional will emphasizing transfer of material objects, an ethical will strives to tell a person’s life story, focusing on sharing wisdom earned through a lifetime: Joys and sorrows, lessons learned through adversity, mistakes made that could be avoided. Ethical wills have long been part of Jewish tradition, and Rabbi Leder has guided many people in creating them. In this new book, he uses provocative questions (“What was your most painful regret and how can your loved ones avoid repeating it? When was a time you led with your heart instead of your head?” and more) to help readers create their own.

For more information, contact us: Minna Siegel at Temple Beth Sholom (; and Amy Kaplan at Cong. Beth El (

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