5 Good Books on Israel and Zionism

Last night I had an hour and a half to cover “Zionism and the Modern State of Israel” with the Introduction to the Jewish Experience class. As I told them at the beginning, there’s no way that that is enough time to even scratch the surface of such a complex and important topic. What I hoped they would take away was a single sentence, “It’s complicated.”  I promised them a list for further reading, with my hope that they would avail themselves of at least one book on that list:

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit. When I heard voices both on the right and on the left complaining that Shavit’s book was too far to the left and too far to the right, I suspected it might be a really good book. What makes it so good is that it is personal, teasing out individual stories that illuminate the complexities of the land and its people. It does not claim to be a scholarly work.  Rather, it is a way to get to the emotions and human beings that too often get lost in talk about sides. Shavit is a journalist with HaAretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times.

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History. By Rich Cohen. This is an informal history of Israel written by another journalist, this time, an American Jew who loves Israel. He makes a strong effort to be even-handed and mostly succeeds.

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert. This is a more scholarly work on Israeli history, written from a secular Jewish point of view.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar. This is one of the histories of Israel you might read if you were taking a college class on the subject. Not for light reading, but very thorough. 

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur. As one reviewer wrote, this book will either seem like the most wonderful resource you’ve ever seen on the subject, or it will cure your insomnia. The editor has made an effort to collect all the documents you might ever need to see about the Israeli-Arab conflict. These are the raw documents.

Is there a book you particularly recommend on the subject of the history of Zionism, the Jewish State, Palestine, etc? Please add to this list in the comments!

Preparing for Exodus: Books

syzk

For Jews, the month before Passover is busy, busy, busy. We have a house to clean, seders to plan, lists to check. The same old decorations may be getting a little shabby – time to spruce things up!

In just the same way, the knowledge of Passover acquired in Hebrew school might not really meet our needs as adults. The same old thoughts are feeling, well, same and old. If you’d like to refresh the inside of your head as well as the inside of your house (or if this whole thing is new to you) it might be the time to check out some pre-Passover reading.

If you are struggling to come up with the right “hostess gift” to take to a seder, a good book is always a welcome addition to a Jewish home. Some of these are inexpensive, some are extremely so, but any would make a lovely gift.

About the Seder

Steingroot, Ira, Keeping Passover – This is a personal favorite of mine. The book is simple enough for beginners and informative enough for those looking to deepen their practice. I like that he encourages freedom in producing a very personal seder for your family.

Arnow, David,  Creating Lively Passover Seders Arnow offers wonderful suggestions for enriching your seder.

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

Art Haggadot

The tradition of making beautiful illuminated haggadot goes back centuries. We can learn from texts, sure, but we can also learn from illustrations.

The Moss Haggadah: A Complete Reproduction of the Haggadah Written and Illuminated by David Moss for Richard and Beatrice Levy, with the Commentary of the Artist. This haggadah was originally produced as a private commission. Linda and I were given a copy as a wedding present, and it is one of our most treasured possessions.

The Szyk Haggadah, by Arthur Szyk. This haggadah was illustrated and published by a Polish artist during the rise of Hitler. It is one of the great treasures of the Jewish people.

Epstein, Mark, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. This art book will give you a glimpse of four of the beautiful medieval haggadot, all produced between 1300 and 1340 in Europe. The art is accompanied by commentary by Mark Epstein, a historian who puts them all in context.

There are many other beautiful art haggadot. The way to see them is to find a bookstore with a seder display and usually the art haggadot are its stars.

For information about regular haggadot for use at the table, see Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

Passover Cookbooks!

Passover cooking is a miracle of its own. Imagine cooking completely without chametz: products of wheat, rye, oats, spelt or barley!  For Ashenazim (Jews of Eastern European traditions) add kitniyot (rice, legumes, corn, etc.) to that list. Perhaps because of the strictures, Pesadik (kosher for Passover) recipes have become an art form.

Nathan, Joan. Joan Nathan’s Holiday Cookbook. This is a cookbook with commentary. The recipes are great (and include more than Passover!) but there are also stories and information to help you enjoy the holidays. This book is a classic.

Amster, Linda, ed. The New York Times Passover Cookbook: More than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Cooks and Writers. Another classic, now in a second edition.

 

Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

One of my students asked this evening about suggestions for Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) and books about Passover. What a great idea!

Keep in mind that the Haggadah is merely a script for the evening. What you choose to do with it is up to you: do everything, do only some parts, add favorite bits from other haggadot, do parts of it as skits, interpretive dance, whatever. OK, I was mostly kidding about the interpretive dance. But if that idea excites you, please send video! My point is, it’s your seder, do it in a way that will be meaningful for you and the people at your table!

A complete set of haggadot can be a considerable investment, unless you inherit some or use the free ones that some grocery stores in big cities give away. The absolute best way to buy one is to go to a real bookstore and browse them: hold them in your hands, see how the pages turn, feel the weight, imagine them on your table. Look at the pictures or lack thereof, look at the text. If you must buy via the Internet, then buy one or two and try them out before you take the plunge.

The other possibility is that maybe you want to collect haggadot and mix and match the contents for your own seder. More about that in another post.

Haggadot (hah-gah-DOTE)

ChildrensHA Children’s Haggadah, Text by Rabbi Howard Bogot and Rabbi Robert Orkand, Illustrated and designed by Devis Grebu. I especially like this one when there are going to be children and/or folks who are new to the seder. It’s very well done but also quite simple.

goldbergPassover Haggadah, by Nathan Goldberg. A traditional haggadah text, with both English and Hebrew. Pages and lines are numbered which will help after two glasses of wine. (“Where are we now?”)

HaggadahCCARA Passover Haggadah,  Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, ed. Illustrated by Leonard Baskin. This classic has been around many seder tables for years.

 

diffnighthA Different Night, the Family Participation Haggadah, by David Dishon and Noam Zion. This book changed my whole approach to the seder. I used to feel bound by the seder and terribly anxious if we skipped anything. This book made me feel free to tailor the seder to the group at the table, and seders have been much better ever since. There is also a “compact edition” of this that you can buy to have at each place at the table (less expensive, and easier to handle.) The “leader’s edition” really qualifies not only as a Haggadah but also as a book about Passover.

santacruzhThe Santa Cruz Haggadah, by Karen G.R. Rockard. Affectionately known at my house as “that hippie haggadah,” this is another personal favorite. Besides the bizarro name (it was written in 1991 in Santa Cruz, CA – there are no “holy crosses” in it, I promise!) it has cartoony illustrations and lots of alternative readings about tikkun olam, our responsibility to heal the world. You’ll either love it or hate it. It, too, comes in a “leaders edition” and a “participant’s version.”

Beautiful Haggadot

Some haggadot are gorgeous art books and not really intended for the table. OR they are commentaries on the haggadah, intended more for the study table in the weeks leading up to the seder. Either way, they can be wonderful to own in addition to the regular haggadot you will stain with wine and brisket gravy. Trust me: you do not want to juggle an art book or a ten pound commentary at the seder table!

I have mentioned a few of my personal favorite haggadot. I’d like your help in expanding this list: what’s your favorite haggadah to actually use at the seder table? Please tell us about it in the comments with enough information for readers to find a copy!

Happy preparations, everyone!

 

Bridging the Gap

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL

Today my country is observing a solemn day, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. I remember that day. I remember it from the point of view of a white child who was nowhere near Selma, who was told that the communists were having a march down there in Alabama.

I grew up in a conservative white Catholic family in Tennessee. I mostly held conservative political views until I spent my early 20’s in a company town and realized there were an awful lot of questions I’d never thought to ask.  Coming out as a lesbian in my 30’s raised more questions and gave me a taste, a small taste, of being Other in America.

Lately I’ve been working a private study project on Twitter. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that I wasn’t as knowledgeable about race as I’d like to be, but I was not clear what to do about it. I felt stuck until I realized that on Twitter, I could just listen and learn from people who actually know something. People mostly welcome a “follow” as long as you don’t tweet stupid things to or about them.

I agreed with myself that I was going to be quiet and listen. When something interested me, I would back up and read for context and do some research. If I were truly, truly lost I could ask a question, but I wouldn’t argue and I wouldn’t defend. Mostly I just listened and followed links.

Holy cow, I have learned a lot from listening to conversations and following links! It helped that my little project coincided with the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

I thought my heart and my mind were open, but I was kidding myself. If, reading this, you are assuring yourself that you’re pretty knowledgable, I challenge you to follow some smart people and listen for a while. Follow their links. Follow the articles they write, their blog posts. Find some thought-leaders in their fields, and see where they lead your thoughts. You will know you have found the right ones to follow when it gets uncomfortable.

If you insist on a short cut, there’s an essay I can suggest. I found it challenging to read with an open mind, but well worth the effort. How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility by Ta-Nahisi Coates is an eye-opener, especially if you’ve wondered to yourself how a well-meaning 21st century white person can be held responsible for the legacy of slavery in the US. Put the shields down for a few minutes and read it – easier said than done. If that’s too raw for you, too much information and anger for you, I recommend the writing of Michael Twitty on his blog Afroculinaria. He is a gentle healer of a man, but what he has to teach is no less powerful.

If, as a rabbi, I were to say, “I know all I need to know about Torah,” I would be a fool. If, as a citizen of the USA, I were to say that I know all I need to know about an issue as big as race, I would be no less a fool. We learn by listening, by reading, and by asking an occasional question. If we only talk to people who agree with us, then what we think today is all we’ll ever know.

I am writing this because I think I’ve found a way for a good-hearted person to learn without being a pain-in-the-neck, demanding that on top of everything else people of color should educate me. Twitter is great; it comes in tiny bites. It links to articles available on the Internet. It lets me listen quietly and digest.

Anyway, I thought perhaps there might be a reader interested in my study project, who might have a project of their own for which Twitter is a great medium to learn without being a pest.

Maybe for you it’s some other category. How many LGBTQ people do you know? How many Muslims? How many people with mental illnesses? How many with disabilities? Just remember, when you find some good folks to follow, don’t defend, don’t explain. Listen and learn. Follow the links. Take it in.

Rabbi Nachman said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.”  The next line is usually translated “the important thing is not to be afraid” which is not quite right. What the Hebrew really says is, “The important thing is not to panic.” I think that the marchers of 50 years ago would say that the important thing is not to give up, even if panic was all you could do the first time out. Let us not give up, not now, not ever, not on ourselves – and never on one another.

My “handle” on Twitter is @CoffeeShopRabbi.

Passover Preparation, for Beginners

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  To any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that has been wet at one time for more than 18 minutes.

Anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it on purpose or by accident is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all the chometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  Some thinkers have suggested that chometz can be spiritual rather than physical. If this idea intrigues you, here are some articles that explore it:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, the way we observe the mitzvah may shift.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.
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This is an update of a post from 2012.

Six Steps to Passover

todoPurim is over. It’s time to get ready for Passover! Here’s my to-do list:

1. Figure out where I’ll be for seder. – The Passover seder is an obligation. It’s also the primary Jewish learning experience in which we share a meal, a story, and insights on the story. I need to be at the table first night, and I want to be at the table second night, but I need to decide if I’m hosting a seder or if I will be a guest at someone else’s table or a community table. No matter which, I need to be proactive.

2. Get rid of my chametz! My mantra for chametz (food containing the 5 grains forbidden for Passover) is: Use it up, give it away, throw it out!  If you are new to Judaism, or new to keeping Passover, read my post, Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It will explain what chametz is and a gentle way to begin this observance. There is no need to make yourself or your family miserable, nor do you get “Jewish points” for doing so.

3. Clean my house.  The tradition says that I have to get rid of chametz, but if I do a good job of it, then I will clean my house in the process. Passover prep is my yearly reminder to get rid of the things I don’t need, to clean up old messes, and to get my house back in order.

4. Recycle my emergency supplies. I live in California on an earthquake fault, so I have a stash of food, flashlights, and batteries in various safe places around the house. This time of year, I get last year’s canned goods, etc and take them to the Food Bank. Then I go to a discount store and replace them. That way people in need get food and batteries before they go bad, and I renew my supplies. It isn’t part of the halakhah for Passover, but it’s a great time to do it (see #2 above.) This is part of my annual tzedakah budget.

5. Locate my Passover dishes and recipes. Not every Jew keeps double sets of everything. I have a couple of boxes of Passover-only things, and I supplant the rest with (compostable) paper plates and such. I learned the hard way one year not to leave this till the last moment, because maybe I remember exactly where it all is, and maybe I only imagine I know.

6. Buy Passover supplies. For some ritually observant Jews, this means a huge expensive trip to the kosher grocery. I don’t keep kosher, but I do keep Passover, and that means I’ll need matzo and other products that substitute for all the stuff I cleaned out. Don’t wait till the last moment to get your matzo! Some years it can be hard to find in the last week.

It’s a lot of work, especially on top of my regular work! Time to get cracking: the next time the moon is full, it will be Passover!