The Union for Reform Judaism recommends two Significant Jewish Books each quarter for individuals and book groups. Discussion guides for these books appear at urj.org/books.
Beaufort by Ron Leshem, translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
(Delacorte Press, 368 pp., $24)
Beaufort Castle is a crusader fortress on a mountain in southern Lebanon. In June 1982, the Israeli Defense Forces wrested it from the PLO, which had been firing rockets from there into northern Israeli towns. From 1982 to 2000, the IDF used it as a military base and observation point. In May 2000, Israel pulled out of Lebanon and evacuated the base.
Ron Leshem’s novel, Beaufort, tells the story of the last soldiers to occupy this base in the year prior to its evacuation. Just as the fortress had become a symbol of Israeli courage and accomplishment, the experience of these thirteen young men and their twenty-two-year-old squadron leader, Liraz Liberti, sums up the ethos of a new generation.
Liraz (nicknamed “Erez”) wanted to lead a squad of fighters at the top of Beaufort more than anything else in the world; he had fought for this privilege and takes pride in protecting Israel’s northern border. Self-important, hot-headed, and hard on his men, this small-town boy loves the army, loves the camaraderie of the close quarters, and dreads returning to the ordinariness of civilian life. Meanwhile, the boys in the unit are counting the days until their tour of duty is up—dreaming of trips to faraway places, girlfriends, thick mattresses, and hot showers. Day and night, there are rocket and mortar strikes from Hezbollah and scary, lonely rounds of guard duty at the outpost. Despite their different backgrounds and personalities, soon they are a band of brothers, ready to die for each other.
But the dying does not take place in combat, for which they were trained. Instead they are taking fire from Hezbollah, defending a base they already know will be abandoned. The men become demoralized, questioning the government’s plans for the pullout and for them. Several of them confront Erez: “If the prime minister promised to pull the IDF out of Lebanon in another eight months, then why not do it now? Yeah, right now. This morning. Because we’re just going to draw fire up there for nothing.” By the time the unit leaves the mountain, having lost four men, Erez too wonders if it was all for nothing.
Hailed as a brilliant war novel (a film version was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film in 2007), Beaufort asks the questions that a young generation of Israelis is now asking its political leaders.
An Introduction to Islam for Jews by Reuven Firestone
(Jewish Publication Society, 304 pp., paperback $18)
Jews and Muslims have a tendency to misread each other, sometimes precisely because of the subtle similarities and distinctions between them,” writes Reuven Firestone, a scholar of Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. “We usually are not aware when we are misreading the ‘Other,’ but we tend to notice quite intensely when the other is misreading us.”
This balanced survey of Islam—its history, theology, and practices—has no other agenda than to provide a much-needed introduction to the core beliefs of Muslims, including the Five Pillars of Faith, the Qur’an, Sunni and Shi’a traditions, and the meaning of jihad (“to oppose evil”) in various historical contexts. Firestone deals with our most basic questions: Is suicide bombing sanctioned in Islam? Is holy war mandated by the Qur’an? The scriptures of all the monotheistic faiths have both quietist texts and militant texts, he explains, but which texts will resonate depends on historical and political circumstances. Firestone suggests that religion is not the main cause of conflict in the world, as some would have it, but he does see religion as “a very effective means of rallying large numbers of people to engage in extraordinary behaviors, sometimes tremendously inspiring and sometimes terribly malevolent.”
In writing this introduction to Islam for Jews, Firestone seeks to make the “Other” more known and less “Other.” (For more on this subject, see the video of his lecture at Sixth and Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C.)