What to Read Before a Jewish Heritage Trip


Jewish culture in Europe and Israel has been explored deeply in literature. Below, three books look at Jewish heritage, the Holocaust and what has followed.

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THE IRON TRACKS
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Jeffrey M. Green
195 pp. Schocken Books. (1998)

This novel, which explores the inner world of a Holocaust survivor, is narrated by Erwin Siegelbaum, who was released from a concentration camp 40 years before the events in the book takes place. Erwin spends his time riding the trains of postwar Austria, traveling to small towns for a few nights before moving on. Slowly the reader learns more about him — that he is a traveling salesman of sorts, who buys and resells remnants of Jewish culture, like Kiddush cups and sacred books, and that he is searching for Nachtigel, the man who murdered his parents during the Holocaust, hoping to seek revenge by killing him. The reader also learns about his life before the Holocaust: His father raised him as an assimilated Jew, depriving him of both German and the Jewish culture. This quiet, powerful novel explores the devastation of the Holocaust, as well as the years immediately before and after. Our reviewer called Appelfeld the “quiet master” of Israeli writing.

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EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
By Jonathan Safran Foer
276 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. (2002)

Foer’s narrator is Alex, a Ukrainian translator for his father’s travel agency, Heritage Touring, which arranges trips for American Jews “who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and the Ukraine…where their families once existed.” The book is largely written in Alex’s idiosyncratic English — to sleep is to “manufacture Z’s,” to have sex is to “be carnal” and nearby is “proximal.” Alex is assigned to accompany a tourist he refers to as both “the hero” and the “spoiled Jew.” His name is, as it happens, Jonathan Safran Foer, and he has traveled to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. What follows is a tale that is filled with humor even while exploring hefty themes such as the frailty of memory, the importance of myths, and the legacy of the Holocaust. Our reviewer called the book “endearing, accomplished” and “just so much fun.”

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KINGDOM OF OLIVES AND ASH
Writers Confront the Occupation
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
448 pp. Harper Perennial. (2017)

In this collection of essays, an all-star roster of writers including Dave Eggers, Jacqueline Woodson and Mario Vargas Llosa bring fresh insight to the issues surrounding Israel and the West Bank. Most of the writers have never before given the issue “more than a glancing consideration.” They go on weeklong tours of East Jerusalem and other cities and villages where the tension between Israelis and Palestinians is most present. The collection was published in time for the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, which gave Israel control over huge swaths of land overnight. The writers meet with community organizers, workers, artists, activists, farmers and Israeli settlers, and report on what they learn. Dave Eggers calls Gaza “a prison,” and stories of houses being evacuated and ransacked abound. Our reviewer wrote that the accumulation of similar details across the essays speak to the “gray permanence” of the situation in Israel.

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