Work was OK today. I was very tired and could hardly do any Torah study on the train in, but I was OK once I got to work and drank a second cup of coffee. The morning was mostly spent sorting out paperwork. I don’t mind doing this, although it’s fairly routine. I’d say it’s not challenging, except I seem to find almost everything challenging these days. Anyway, it left part of my brain free to be miserable (see below).

The afternoon was mostly spent trying to phone people to get them to pay their membership fees. It was not always easy. To my secret relief, a lot of phones weren’t answered, or went to number not available.


I feel that I haven’t done much reading this year. This is not true, although arguably I have not done much recreational reading. I’ve been doing quite a bit of Torah study/reading. I tend to do Torah study on the way to work or volunteering. I would normally do recreational reading on the way home, but J gives me a lift home from work, which becomes dead time in the car, as these days I can’t read in the car without getting motion sick, plus it would be rude to read and, anyway, J has the radio on so I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

A while back I decided to alternate fiction reading with non-fiction, not least because I had accumulated a big pile of non-fiction books from charity shops and library withdrawals. Worse, these were books I was often not that fussed about, but owning them meant I wasn’t buying or reading non-fiction I might like more. So I started adding in more non-fiction to get through the backlog and maybe buy books I might like more, but now I worry that my writing will not be so good if I read less fiction, especially as, on a page-by-page basis, I read fiction faster than non-fiction, both because it’s easier and because I’m more likely to pick up a fiction book than a non-fiction one. So one non-fiction book probably displaces more than one novel. Then again, having a wide general knowledge is also good for a writer.

I also have some classics to read or re-read (on the grounds now I’m older and will understand them better) which I never get around to reading either. In the last few years (decades, if I’m honest, since I was depressed), they have often seemed too daunting. I’m not sure why. When I was very depressed it was understandable that I didn’t want to read “heavy” books, whether fiction or non-fiction (although periodically I did read them, and sometimes enjoyed them), but now I’m just tired so much of the time, it’s still hard to read heavy-going things.

Lately I’ve come to realise that although the book I’m working on is mainstream and somewhat literary fiction, I’m never going to be a “serious” author. I want to write science fiction, fantasy and maybe horror hybrids with Jewish themes and characters, partly for my own amusement and hopefully to amuse others, partly to get Jewish ideas out there, to Jews who don’t know their own heritage and non-Jews who see Judaism as weird, or more likely just don’t see it at all.

So I feel I need to be reading quality popular fiction. This isn’t such a problem, as I already read a lot of it. My problem is more that I tend to read particular authors in great depth rather than read around particular genres. There are quite a lot of authors on my bookshelves where I have all, or at least a significant amount, of their work, often piled up vertically to save space. I also re-read books I’ve already read. On the other hand, while I’ve always been a fan of what I once pompously referred to as “non-mimetic fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, horror… anything that doesn’t aim at reflecting the world just as it is), I often feel like I’ve never explored any genre in great depth. I’ve always been quite a small-c conservative reader, afraid of trying new things in case I don’t like them, or simply because I’m autistic and love to turn to the same things again and again to explore them in depth. I feel this is not ideal for an aspiring author. I want to write a Jewish fantasy/horror/time-travel book, and I feel I need to do a lot of research reading fantasy and horror (and Jewish books, I guess) as well as the more obvious research on the relevant time period.

This was taken six years ago, in our old house, on my old bookshelves, but it gives you some idea both of space issues and variety of content


I’m nervous of writing the next bit, because I can see myself being attacked from two sides, but I have been thinking about it and feeling miserable about it all day. There’s a video going around on social media showing Israeli youth on a march shouting “Death to Arabs!” I’m not sure why this upset me so much. And I think it was shame, sadness and maybe even anxiety I felt, not righteous indignation and superiority (which seems to be the main thing people feel when they criticise Israel). I wasn’t naive enough to think that there’s no racism in Israel before this, so it wasn’t shock per se. I’m aware of the internal “Jew vs. Arab” violence inside Israel during the war a few weeks ago, which had not really happened in previous conflicts. I’m also aware of a Kahanist (Jewish Fascist) party getting a member elected to the Knesset in the most recent elections. I suppose I should say that I was worried about the chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name — making it look like God supports violence) or about pushing off the coming of the Messiah again (and with the Three Weeks around the corner), but I wasn’t thinking it through that much, I just felt emotionally sick and fixated on returning to it again and again all morning (and never has Mishlei’s/Proverbs‘ simile of the dog returning to its vomit seemed more apposite).

It fed into something I’ve been feeling for a while, but haven’t spoken aloud, the feeling that Israel was manipulated into the last war by Hamas. To clarify, Hamas started and was morally responsible for the war, but Israeli politics created the situation where Hamas thought it was worth firing at Israel and where it thought it could get away with it. Once the rockets started flying, Israel had a right and duty to defend its citizens; my — not anger, but astonishment and fear — is how a civil court case about occupancy that didn’t even involve the government and that had been drifting through the courts for years led suddenly to war. It is hard to avoid blaming Binyamin Netanyahu, if not directly, then at least indirectly for causing the constitutional crisis that led to politicians desperately scrabbling around trying to put together some kind of government to avoid the fifth election in two years, because of Netanyahu’s refusal to accept defeat and step down. Because I can’t see Hamas chancing their luck in this way without that context, thinking things were confused enough in Israel that they might get away without much in the way of reprisals.

As an editorial in The Times of Israel said towards the end of the war, in Hamas has been thinking strategically, while Israel has merely been thinking tactically, not just now, but for years. The war enabled Hamas to position itself (and not Fatah) as the leader of the Palestinians, and of “resistance” to Israel generally. It let Hamas show its value as a proxy army to its funders in Iran. It won a propaganda war in the Islamic world and in the West (actually two propaganda wars, with very different messages: to the West they presented themselves as passive victims, but to the Islamic world even the dead were martyrs and mujahideen — warriors on jihad). It may well have sabotaged a potential Israeli-Saudi peace deal, which could have improved Israel’s strategic position. All Israel managed to do was destroy some of Hamas’ arms, which will doubtless be restocked soon by the Iranian government.

Contrary to most people who berate Israel’s position, I don’t have a magic solution. Years ago, the political scientist Shlomo Avineri suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble and the focus should be on de-escalation, not solution, as per other long-running conflicts. Some problems are insoluble, at least within the terms available. Hamas is not interested in compromise, but is not powerful enough to destroy Israel. Israel is neither willing nor interested in genocide (contrary to what its enemies say). This being the case, neither side can win, and all that can be done is kick the can down the road a bit further with sporadic outbursts of violence until something game-changing happens (like an Iranian nuclear weapon, God forbid).

I guess I sound depressed. Well, lately I am depressed, not clinically, but when I look at the world. There is an idea in Judaism that the Messiah (if you don’t believe in a Messiah, think of utopia) will come when everyone is absolutely good, or when everyone is absolutely terrible. In the first instance he comes not so much as a reward as the culmination of the individual narratives of redemption. In the latter, God gets so fed up with mankind’s misbehaviour that He intervenes to pull the plug on history before we wipe ourselves out. I feel that we are not absolutely good (obviously!), but the world isn’t absolutely terrible either. Despite excitable media coverage, I can’t see the world today, or the position of the Jews in it, as anything like as bad as the 30s and the 40s. Or even later (think of Cold War flashpoints like the Berlin Airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis where a nuclear war seemed likely). I wonder how long the world can go on being awful, but not absolutely awful.

Ugh. I feel I’m just rambling, and I’m afraid what the comments will say, so I’ll wrap this up. Genetic testing shows that the ethnic group most closely related to the Jews is (you guessed it) the Palestinians. Some people think the Palestinians are the descendants of Jews who weren’t exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans, but hung around and, when the Arabs invaded a number of centuries later, converted to Islam and forgot their Jewish past. The similarities between Judaism and Islam are manifold, much more so than the more well-known similarities between Judaism and Christianity. The conflict seems just pointless. I can’t do very much about that, but since the war I’ve been reading Islam by Alfred Guillaume (tying this back to my reading) to try to understand more. To be honest, I probably already knew a lot more about Islam than most Jews, having studied some Islamic history at university. I want to read the Qu’ran (I do actually have a copy), although I think a person can misunderstand a lot by reading ancient religious texts without context and interpretation. But I want to understand more, even if I can’t actually do anything. I’ve said before htat, contrary to the “You can change the world!” message endlessly repeated in the media, I don’t think individuals can do very much at all to change the world, but I think we can aim to improve our understanding and empathy and gain some kind of personal redemption for ourselves and those around us.

19 thoughts on “Reading Lists

  1. That is indeed interesting about the genetics. I admire you for trying to learn more; many make up their mind and that’s the end of the discussion. I didn’t realize that Islam and Judaism shared so many similarities.

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  2. I can see Hamas trying to manipulate something, but I wonder if it was somehow the opposite of thinking there would be no reprisals. If there was anyone who was going to hit back hard, it would be Netanyahu.

    Interesting that you mention Israel not being interested in genocide. I absolutely agree, but the fact that they do have that capacity serves as a disincentive to make major concessions toward a two-state solution. And Hamas ceases to be meaningful if there’s a prospect of peace, so no way they’re motivated to concede anything.

    And all the while, Iran and my Nasrallah relatives in the Hezbollah watch and wait. Although my relatives were Christian, so Hezbollah probably wouldn’t want them anyway.

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  3. I hear both mindsets when it comes to reading. On the one hand, yes, a writer should read a lot from a variety of authors and genres. On the other hand, time and energy are limited and there’s a limit to how much you can spend on a genre/author that doesn’t speak to you. I feel this way about slam poetry. I appreciate it as an art form, but it’s just not my cup of tea and I have no interest in writing/performing slam poetry myself. Also, sometimes, I just really want to re-read what I already know I like. I enjoy re-reading my favorite James Patterson books and re-watching my favorite Leverage episodes many times over. I guess I don’t have much sense of adventure!

    I identify with everything you say re: state of the world, Messiah/redemption, and individual actions.

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  4. I have often pondered on the fact that Jews and Arabs are both Semitic people, and have more in common than just language. As a Sephardi Jew, I feel more physically related to the Arabic people than the European.

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  5. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote about Israel, although I think part of the reason Hamas picked this particularly moment was that they knew Bibi would respond aggressively, which is good for their international PR.

    I’ve also often wondered why it’s so hard for people to accept that Israel/Palestine is home to two indigenous peoples who are related and also hate each other. It’s hardly an unusual concept, throughout history. (I mean, I guess it’s because that means there’s no easy moral solution, vs. if Jews are evil oppressor colonists who need to leave, or Palestinians are lying opportunists who swarmed in to take advantage only after the Jews started turning Israel into a good place to live and thus need to leave.)

    I don’t know if children’s (mostly middle grade) fantasy is at all relevant to your writing, but if so we should talk; it’s one of my favorite genres. I’ve also read a decent amount of Jewish fantasy, in as much as it exists, although tbh I haven’t been wildly impressed with most of it. There’s one adult Jewish fantasy author who’s also a literary agent; she might be worth a look for your future projects.

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    1. I’m not sure if children’s fantasy would be relevant. I keep going back and forth about whether the novel would be Young Adult or adult, but it probably wouldn’t be younger than YA.

      What Jewish fantasy I’ve read hasn’t really grabbed me, and the stuff I’ve liked most was written pre-Holocaust when there wasn’t a fantasy genre as such.

      The Jewish fantasy author/agent might be worth speaking to, yes.

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        1. Oh, I have The Sisters of the Winter Wood on my ‘To Read’ list!

          Admittedly this comes mostly from just one (very big) anthology of Jewish fantasy, but people like Mendele Mocher-Seforim, Der Nistar, Scholem Asch and YL Peretz. Mostly late nineteenth, early twentieth century Yiddishists. The contemporary Jewish fantasy and science fiction I’ve read often seems fixated with the Holocaust and the “Who is a Jew?” question to the exclusion of all else.

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          1. What’s the anthology?

            I totally hear you re: contemporary Jewish fantasy and sci fi. It takes a lot to get me interested in Holocaust fiction these days, and I’m SO over all permutations of the “Who is a Jew?” discussion.


            1. Great Works of Jewish Fantasy. I think it’s from the seventies, but most of the stories are much older and already out of copyright when it was published. I have a couple of other anthologies (Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars), but I don’t rate them that highly.

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  6. I don’t know what to think about the moshiach. When I see the chaos today and how much people are at each other’s throats, I can’t imagine one man’s arrival changing the world and bringing about world peace. Humans are humans. But I’m all over the place on this issue and don’t know enough yet to form an opinion. I just wish he’d get here already.

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    1. Sometimes I try to imagine how Mashiach would change the world. I can sort of see how it might happen, in the way certain politicians have really motivated a nation at a time of crisis, like FDR in the Depression and World War II or Churchill in the war. But I guess it does require a leap of faith to see the whole world changing.

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