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The Year’s Best Jewish Books

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.