The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (Schocken, 1977 [1690–1719])
This book provides an easy and interesting way for students to understand the complexities of pre-modern European Jewish life, including such issues as piety, the economic role of Jews, the role of women, and Jewish attitudes to non-Jewish society. It helps set the stage for the modernization of the Jews, my central focus.
Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (Oxford University Press, 1991)
Kaplan explains so cogently and so interestingly several important issues: how the Jews in Germany—and by extension everywhere in Western and Central Europe— assimilated into the society and culture in which they lived; how they retained Jewish identity and Jewish community; and the central role of women in both of those processes. She does so by examining everyday life and the role of German and Jewish culture in the lives of ordinary people. Students thus understand immediately the complexities of German and Jewish identity formation.
Dawid Sierakowiak, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Reading this incredibly moving diary of a Jewish teenager in the Lodz ghetto, students can understand the terrible privations of life in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland, the ways that Jews coped with those privations, and how they understood (without the benefit of hindsight) what the Nazis were trying to do to them. They also learn a good amount about Jewish life in prewar Poland. Because Sierakowiak is a young man, students identify with him and thus find the diary extremely compelling.