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General Background

Josephus's The Jewish Wars is on every English-speaking Israeli's bookshelf. A Jewish general in the Galilee during the revolt against Rome in A.D. 66 -- and an eventual traitor -- Josephus was also a historian who provided volumes of historical commentaries and anecdotes about almost every area you'll see in Israel. The Earthly Jerusalem, by Norman Kotker (Scribner, 1969), is a graceful, wryly intelligent history of Jerusalem from earliest to modern times; Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, by Amos Elon, is another highly readable history of that city. Jerusalem on Earth, by Abraham Rabinovich (Macmillan, 1988), contains wonderful real-life stories about people in contemporary Jerusalem by one of the Jerusalem Post's finest human-interest writers.

Archaeology

Yigael Yadin, the Israeli archaeologist whose father, Professor E. L. Sukenik of Hebrew University, identified the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, has written a beautifully photographed, thrilling book about the final archaeological search of the Dead Sea Caves in the early 1960s. The book, Bar-Kokhba (Harper & Row, 1971), reads almost like a novel and is available in bookstores throughout Israel and in most American libraries. Perhaps no other book allows you to share the excitement of each amazing discovery and lets you understand what archaeology means to those who love Israel. Yigael Yadin is also the author of books on the Masada and Hazor archaeological projects.

Other recommended books about archaeology include Judaism in Stone, by Hershel Shanks (Harper & Row, 1979), a heavily illustrated survey of ancient synagogues in Israel and the Middle East; and In the Shadow of the Temple, by Meir Ben-Dov (Harper & Row, 1985), a lavishly illustrated and photographed volume that details recent archaeological discoveries in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

Fiction & Poetry

Israeli writers face the problem of creating literature in a language that was mainly used for prayer and religious study for more than 2,000 years. Working in a tradition so long interrupted, writers face many problems.

Among the Israeli writers most accessible to English-speaking readers are Amos Oz, whose early novel, My Michael, with its delicate narrative voice, has been beautifully translated into English; Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry is personal yet filled with evocative Israeli locales, imagery, and a graceful, visionary wit; and Aharon Appelfeld, who writes in the surreal, European tradition of Kafka. S. Y. Agnon, Israel's Nobel Prize-winning writer, worked in a disciplined Hebrew that drew intensively on a knowledge of east European legends and Jewish intellectual and religious history; try his novel, The Bridal Canopy. Emile Habiby is an award-winning writer from Israel's Arabic community; his wry approach can be sampled in The Secret Life of Saeed, The Ill-fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel. Anton Shamas displays an interesting blend of both Hebrew and Arabic style and sensibility. His novel, Arabesques, points to rich, new directions in which Israeli writing may develop. Among other outstanding modern novels are The Smile of the Lamb, by David Grossman, and A Late Divorce, by A. B. Yehoshua.

Murder mystery fans will find the works of Baya Gur interesting not only for their plots but also because they detail the many odd quirks of Israeli society. I especially like the books in the Detective Ohayon series, such as The Bethlehem Road. Murder On A Kibbutz: A Communal Case is another favorite. Matt Beynon Rees, a journalist from the U.K., writes about murder, politics, and intrigue inside the West Bank. His popular and revealing The Collaborator of Bethlehem is his most successful thriller in this genre.

For a sampling of Israeli poetry, read The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, an anthology edited by Stanley Burnshaw (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965); and Poems of Jerusalem (Harper & Row, 1988) and Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers (Harper Books, 1991), both by Israel's preeminent poet, Yehuda Amichai. The venerable and very moving Taha Muhammed Ali (who owns a tourist shop in Nazareth) writes poems of elegance and wisdom about the personal and political complexities of war and of being an Arab Israeli. His books, including So What and Never Mind, have been translated into English and Hebrew by Gabriel Levin, Yahya Hijazi, and Peter Cole. Israeli novelist David Grossman's The Yellow Wind, containing interviews with Palestinians just before the First Intifada, reveals the depth of despair and bitterness that has become a way of life for so many Palestinians.

Other Books

Jerusalemwalks, by Nitza Rosovsky, is filled with detailed, interesting guided walking tours in Jerusalem. Rosovsky's family has lived in Jerusalem for more than a century, and her anecdotal information is fascinating.

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