More For Your Summer Reading List

A while back I asked for ideas for Jewish-themed summer reading, and you responded with a great list in the comments section. I asked the same question on another social network, and got more great suggestions. I can’t summarize them or vet for quality, but they came from people who enjoyed them:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wacker

“Anything by Herman Wouk

Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen

Joshua, a Brooklyn Tale by Andrew Kane

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

The Tin Horse by Janice Steinberg

A Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic

And then these, which are Jewish-authored but not Jewish-themed:

Books and stories by Harry Turtledove (alternate histories)

And some online lists for fun and profit:

Tablet Magazine’s List of 101 Great Jewish Books

Goodreads Best of Jewish Authors List of Jewish Fiction in the 21st Century

Jewcy: The 50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years 

These should keep us reading for a while!

Jewish Dietary Law for Beginners

Jewish tradition sanctifies the entire process of obtaining food, preparing it, and eating it. This has always been the case with us; some of the earliest writings about Jews by outsiders have commented upon our food practices.

KASHRUT (kash-ROOT) is set of rules set forth originally in the Torah, refined in the Talmud and subsequent interpretation. The key texts for Jewish dietary law are in Exodus 23 and 34, Leviticus 11, and Deuteronomy 14. Those texts outline which animals are suitable to eat, which animals are forbidden, which birds and water creatures may be eaten and which are forbidden. For more about food laws in the Bible, has an excellent article.

To summarize the rules, animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not be predators or scavengers. No “creepy-crawlies” may be eaten (no shrimp, no snakes, no snails, etc.) Meat and milk must be eaten separately. One must not consume the blood of any creature. Over the centuries, rabbis have set the boundaries of practice so that these rules are not accidentally broken.

Animals are slaughtered according to the rules of kashrut, which is derived from the process by which animals were slaughtered for sacrifice in the Temple. Animals must be calmed, and the knife must be very sharp, so that the animal does not suffer unduly. Proper shechitah [slaughtering] severs the carotid and jugular as well as the windpipe very rapidly; animals die within seconds. Only certain parts of an animal are considered kosher, and a kosher butcher has to be specially trained to cut the meat up properly.

Some have tried to justify the rules of kashrut by speculating that they are for health or cleanliness. As expressed in the text, and as practiced by Jews for centuries, they are not rules with “reasons why.” The “why” is that they are commandments.

Today Jews who keep kosher do so for many reasons, for instance:

  • Kashrut is commanded by God.
  • Their parents kept kosher, so they continue the tradition.
  • Some keep kosher in solidarity with Jews everywhere.

Some Jews do not keep kosher, but they avoid forbidden animals: they do not eat pork or shellfish. Some keep a limited form of kashrut, but only at home; when they are out, they don’t worry about it. Some Jews do not keep the food commandments at all, but they are aware that they do not keep them; even in non-observance there is awareness.

There are many interesting modern thoughts about kashrut. Some raise ethical questions about the treatment of laborers and/or of animals in modern kosher food processing plants. Some raise questions about sustainable food practices and our stewardship of the earth.

I heard a sermon when I was a student that made a huge impression on me. Rabbi Gersh Zylberman suggested to us that when we look at the dietary law as a whole, what we see is a complex of practices that discourage and limit the consumption of animal products. Combined with other texts that advocate for kindness towards animals, he argued that we should allow kashrut to move us toward a vegan lifestyle. Inspired, I researched a vegan diet and kept it for a time; but eventually I decided I was not yet ready for that degree of holiness.

Do you keep kosher? Is your diet influenced in any way by your Jewishness? Why, or why not?

How About Some Fun Summer Reading?

Summer and vacation are on their way, and I am looking for some entertaining light reading.  Here is my offer: I’m going to suggest some books with Jewish content that I have enjoyed recently in hopes that the denizens of the newly-lively comments section (you know who you are*) can suggest other books. Then we’ll all have a nice list for prowling the used book store or the library or the e-book shops.

Why specifically Jewish reading? There are lots of lists online for finding generic beach books and pleasure reading. Let’s make this the list that is harder to find: Jewish-themed pleasure reading – doesn’t have to be recent, it just needs to be something you’ve enjoyed.

My suggestions:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – This book won a Pulitzer in 2001 for telling a story about young comic book writers among the Jewish immigrants of NYC.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon – What if the Arab armies had succeeded in extinguishing Israel in 1948? What if Jews had been given a limited lease on a sliver of Alaska as a temporary refuge and the lease was about to run out? What if this story were structured as a whodunit?

Rashi’s Daughters, Books I, II, and III by Maggie Anton – Historical fiction about the three daughters of the most famous commentator in Jewish history.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok – A classic story about two fathers and two sons in NYC in the 1940’s. If you are in the habit of referring to “The Orthodox” and think they are all more or less alike, this is one way to learn better. I will not list all his other fiction in this list, but anything he wrote is good.

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg – This novel brings the sages of the Talmud to life.

The Saturday Morning Murder by Batya Gur – This is the first in a series of murder mysteries by Israeli writer Batya Gur. Her hero, Chief Inspector Michael Ohayon, is a likeable Israeli of Moroccan descent. Six of the mysteries are available in English translation.

Fax Me a Bagel by Sharon Kahn – This is the first in a mystery series which features a rabbi’s widow, Ruby, as the protagonist. The series is fun and quite authentic: the author was married to a rabbi for 31 years.

So, nu? What books do you suggest? What have I missed? I await your comments!

*You need not have commented before to recommend a book. In fact, it would be a special treat to get recommendations from readers who have thus far been silent.

Liberty for all: An Elusive Goal  Quick Comment: Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)


Thank you for sharing this memory! Reblogged to help spread something that should not be lost.

Originally posted on Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives:


In vain I searched the  Internet for the words from Yitzhak Rabin seared into my memory but apparently forgotten by Google among his more famous speeches.

It was in July of 1974 when during his first term as Prime Minister Rabin addressed a joint session of congress and eloquently described learning the words on the Liberty Bell in their original Hebrew as a small child: “U’kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha – Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25: 10).”

Rabin pointed out that this cardinal foundation of both American and Israeli democracy comes form this week’s Torah portion.

 As recent events from Ferguson to Baltimore in the USA and the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel attest, the United States at age 238 and Israel at age 67 both fall far short of that biblical goal.

Though neither country has yet…

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On Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
for not everyone has a Hallmark life:

Some want with all their hearts to have a child to hold
and they can’t, just can’t.

Some yearn for the child who is gone
and their heart breaks over and over like clockwork every day.

Some ache for the children taken from them by politics
or murder, or a drunk driver, or bad luck.

Some gave a child up – it was “for the best” –
and now they wonder every day: where is she? What’s she doing?

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
because not everyone had a Hallmark life:

Their mom was sick or selfish
or she went missing one dark night and never came back
or she lived on her own private planet
perhaps some kind of hell.
Or it hurts even to be in the room with her
because she bites, like an injured mother cat
all claws and teeth.

Perhaps their mom was a child herself
Perhaps we’ll never know
They’ll never tell

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
Have mercy on all the mothers
All the children
Have mercy.