Eight Nights, Eight Books: Suggestions for Hannukah Gifts to Give a Person of the Book

These eight must-reads will make your holiday complete

No Hebrew books on display in our house. Not for now: Hebrew Book Week in Tel Aviv
Tomer Appelbaum

When choosing a Hanukkah gift for your favorite Person of the Book, you can’t go too wrong with giving, uh, a book. Here are eight good ones.

Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press, by Eddy Portnoy (Stanford University Press)

Portnoy’s self-proclaimed “underground history of downwardly mobile Jews” – including drunks, thieves, murderers, wrestlers, beauty queens and even a violent, roving gang of Jewish mothers – is ripped from the headlines of the old Yiddish newspapers.

The Book Smugglers, by David E. Fishman (ForeEdge)

Saving the written word was the motivation of the “Paper Brigade,” a band of poets-turned-partisans who tempted death by hiding and smuggling thousands of manuscripts in and out of the Vilna ghetto during the Nazi occupation. (Alas, the Soviet liberation of what once was “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” did not mean these rescued Jewish cultural treasures were any safer.)

Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert (Pantheon)

It may be a bit of an overstatement to call this beautifully woven novel an “impartial” Holocaust story, yet British author Seiffert — provoked by the knowledge that her German grandparents had supported Hitler’s regime – endeavors to relive three days of the 1941 Nazi invasion of Ukraine. This is achieved through the perspectives of multiple characters – some of whom will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander (Knopf)

Built on twin narratives – the flashbacks of an unnamed prisoner in a secret cell in the Negev and the dreams of his comatose nemesis, identified only as The General – the story by the best-selling author blends action and intrigue with tragedy and even a touch of rom-com, all in the service of Englander’s complicated but masterful exploration of the many contradictions of the modern State of Israel.

Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss (HarperCollins)

Krauss’ fourth novel introduces readers to two contemporary characters of different generations: Noted attorney Jules Epstein, 68, and well-known but writer’s-blocked novelist Nicole, 39. Both find themselves at a life-redefining crossroads that brings them from New York to Tel Aviv. Interesting subplots touch on figures such as King David, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Franz Kafka.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury USA)

The New Yorker cartoonist’s hilarious illustrated guide and graphic memoir should leave you both satisfied and well-informed. The native Brooklynite turned suburban commuter offers readers a glorious escape (as in fire escapes, which she refers to as “those West Side Story-things”) and the chance to really see Manhattan (primarily) in all its “gum-wad-dotted sidewalk” glory.

Modern Jewish Baker, by Shannon Sarna (Countryman Press)

Sarna, editor of The Nosher, offers a range of innovative, fresh-baked treats that are perfect for holidays (or any old day). Subtitled “Challah, Babka, Bagels & More,” the “More” is really where it’s at: Among the delightful recipes are Chocolate Chip Hamantaschen, Tomato-Basil Challah, Everything-Bagel Rugelach and S’mores Babka.

When Basketball Was Jewish, by Douglas Stark (University of Nebraska Press)

Basketball’s evolution into a worldwide phenomenon began in the early 20th century, gaining popularity among urban, immigrant communities – and many of those playing happened to be Jewish. Stark has compiled archival interviews with 20 of the most prominent Jews to play, coach or referee the game.