The Anthology of Great Jewish Books is a genre with a long history—and it always reveals more about the needs of its readers than about the books it includes. The first instance is right in the Bible itself: The Book of Chronicles, eager to emphasize the centrality of the Jewish kingdom and the Temple in Jerusalem, cheerfully summarizes all the preceding biblical books while leaving out details of little interest to its readers—like the Exodus from Egypt. Every generation gets the anthology it deserves.Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus are featured as well.
Our generation, in which many Jews can’t even name the Five Books of Moses, might not deserve Adam Kirsch, but we are lucky to have him. Mr. Kirsch is one of America’s finest literary critics—I would gladly read him on anything from Genesis to a Geico commercial—and his latest book, “The People and the Books,” is an astute and accessible introduction to 18 Jewish literary classics.
Mr. Kirsch’s choices are just as carefully selected as those in Chronicles: He includes Deuteronomy but not Exodus, Talmudic aphorisms but not Talmudic arguments, philosophy but not poetry, Yiddish literary master Sholem Aleichem but not Hebrew Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, and, strikingly, no works published in the past 100 years.
Regular readers of PaleoJudaica will recognize Adam Kirsch as the writer of a weekly column on the Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud readings. I have been following this column for the last several years and have found his writing on this difficult subject to be lucid, sensitive, and entertaining.