The Reader’s Shelf: May 1, 2013

Celebrating the Best of Jewish Literature

The recent winners of the Sophie Brody Medal, awarded by the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), demonstrate the importance of learning and memory in Jewish culture.

As the people of the book, Jews take great pains to preserve and study sacred texts. Matti Friedman received the 2013 medal for The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (Algonquin. 2013. ISBN 9781616200404. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616201548). In tracing a perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible written 1,000 years ago and its journey through various Middle Eastern countries, Friedman followed the trail using secret documents, interviewing the key players, and examining court proceedings to determine the book’s rightful owners. The result is an exciting mystery involving secret agents, pious clergy members, unscrupulous dealers and collectors of antiquities, and highly placed government officials who want the manuscript. The book also offers a glimpse at the once vibrant Jewish communities in Islamic countries.

The 2012 winner, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Schocken. 2011. ISBN 9780805242584. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780805242904) tells the story of intrepid Scottish twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, maverick Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter, and their discovery of one of the most important collections of Jewish manuscripts in the attic of an old synagogue in Cairo. The collection included holy texts as well as documents portraying daily life in a lively Jewish community: letters, poems, marriage contracts, money orders, and political tracts. The work of putting the documents back together and bringing history to life illustrates the Jewish commandment to remember in a vivid fashion.

Judith Shulevitz received the 2011 medal for The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (Random. 2011. ISBN 9780812971736. pap. $15). She eloquently examines the concept of a day of rest, which is holy but also a utopian idea: a tranquil, purer world without pressure. The author looks at both the Jewish and Christian Sabbaths, speculating on the nature of time and discussing her personal struggle with observing a day of rest. Is the tyranny of religious law any less repressive than the tyranny of the clock? Can one observe the Sabbath in a meaningful way without following restrictive rules?

The committee also names honor books. Here are the 2013 choices.

Anouk Markovits’s emotionally gripping novel I Am Forbidden (Hogarth: Crown. 2013. ISBN 9780307984746. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9780307984753) follows four generations of a Satmar family from the horrors of World War II in Central Europe to Paris and then contemporary Brooklyn. Two girls, Mila and Atara, raised as sisters after Mila’s parents are deported by the Nazis, grow up in a strict, insular Satmar home. Mila’s orthodox faith intensifies, while Atara discovers a wider world of books and learning that she cannot ignore.

Having dreamed of writing a novel about Moses for 50 years, 97-year-old Herman Wouk produced The Lawgiver (S. & S. 2012. ISBN 9781451699388. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781451699401), a witty epistolary tale about a group of movie people trying to make a contemporary film about the biblical hero. Letters, memos, emails, journal entries, news articles, text messages, recorded phone calls, and Skype transcripts tell the story of Margo Solovei, a young writer/director who has rejected her Orthodox Jewish upbringing to pursue an artistic career. Wouk himself and his late wife, Betty Sarah, are also characters in the story because the rich Australian who offers to finance the endeavor insists upon the author’s approval.

Nathan Englander, who won the 2008 medal for his novel The Ministry of Special Cases, was honored in 2013 for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Vintage. 2012. ISBN 9780307949608. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780307958730). Exhibiting a stunning command of the short story form, Englander explores diverse aspects of Jewish life including the conflicts between orthodoxy and assimilation that appear in the title story; the dramatic tale of a woman who gives her daughter to another to protect her from an unknown evil; and the story of a Jewish lawyer with a Christian wife and an addiction to peep shows.

This column was contributed by Barbara Bibel, chair of this year’s Sophie Brody Medal committee. She is a Reference Services Librarian, Oakland Public Library, and a longtime consumer health reviewer for LJ

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at


  1. I actually listened to the audiobook The Aleppo Codex, and found it fascinating, and very well narrated. Here is my ecstatic review:
    In fact, I even considered this book my most favorite audio non-fiction listened to in 2012

    • Neal says:

      Hi Emma,

      So glad you enjoyed it so very much. I thought it was astounding. I heard Matti speak at the Literary Tastes Breakfast at ALA this past summer and he was wonderful. The Sophie Brody Medal is one of the best things RUSA/CODES does each year. I always look forward to the committee’s selections.