Jewish Book List, 5782

Image: A drawing of a range of library shelves, loaded with books. By Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.

This is a list of books I recommend to my students taking Introduction to the Jewish Experience. The only required texts for this class are listed as such. The rest are suggestions for the student who would like to go deeper into a given topic.

Required Text for Intro to the Jewish Experience:

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. I chose this as a text because it is a good book, at a reasonable price, and it has an index that will allow students to use it as a reference book after the class is done.

Also: Read at least one of these two books:

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. When people ask me for a “first book” about Judaism, this is the one I offer. It is little but it gets at what I regard as the heart of the matter.

Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic by Rachel Adler. A simple story that introduces the reader to the language used to talk about observant Jewish life and Jewish mysticism. Excellent glossary included.

Also, one book of Jewish History, chosen from the list later in this document.

General Introductory Books on Judaism

Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub. A good Intro text, and the best introduction I know to Reconstructionist Judaism.

Here All Along: Finding Meaning Spirituality & a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There by Sara Hurwitz. Highly recommended.

Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. This is a college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. It is more of a reference book than a basic introduction, but it covers such a broad scope that it seemed to fit best here in the list.

The rest of this book list roughly follows the outline of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience courses:

  1. Jewish Holidays and Life Cycle
    1. Jewish Holidays
    2. Jewish Life Cycle
      1. Jewish Parenting
      2. Jewish Home
  2. Jewish History Through Texts
    1. Bibles and Commentaries
      1. Books about the Bible
    2. Jewish History
      1. Sephardic & Mizrahi History & Culture
      2. American Jewish History
      3. Antisemitism & Holocaust
      4. Israel
  3. Traditions of Judaism: Jewish Unity and Diversity
    1. Jewish Prayer
    2. Jewish Ethics & Social Justice
    3. Jewish Thought
    4. LGBTQI & Gender

Jewish Holidays

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel The greatest book ever written about Shabbat.

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book has been around for a while, but it is my favorite because of the format. Rabbi Waskow explains the origins of the holidays, the how-to’s of observance, and makes some interesting speculations on how each holiday may develop in the future. Our holidays are not static; they evolve to meet the needs of the Jewish community in each age.

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin. A largely secular Jew decides to observe all the holidays in one year, and she reflects on the experience.

High Holy Days

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon This is a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah, collected and commented upon by the first Israeli Nobel laureate in literature.

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew 

Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal by Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath

Passover & Haggadah

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot – A time-tested guide to Passover written with the beginner in mind.

Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring free haggadot to very expensive art books. The best for use at the table fall in between those two extremes. To find your Haggadah, go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Ask friends what Haggadah they like. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders and have seen what you do and do not want in your haggadah.

Jewish Lifecycle

Living a Jewish Life, Updated and Revised Edition: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, by Anita Diamant

Navigating the Journey: The essential guide to the Jewish life cycle. Peter S. Knobel, editor. 

The New Jewish Wedding, Revised by Anita Diamant

Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg. The author is a rabbi and a parent.

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

Jewish Home

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme. A basic guide to keeping a liberal Jewish home in the 21st century.

On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format) This book includes very detailed explanations of home rituals, from hanging a mezuzah to lighting the Chanukah candles. It is a great reference book to own.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Ms. Greenberg is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and a thoroughgoing feminist. Her book offers us a view inside traditional observance. (Hollywood depictions of traditional Jewish observance are often problematic – don’t believe everything you see at the movies.)

Bibles and Commentaries

Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) A Christian Bible is not a good substitute for a Jewish Bible: the translations are different, as is the arrangement of the books.

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read the article Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible. If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, I recommend any of these:

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (in many Reform synagogues)

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. JPS (in many Conservative synagogues)

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss. In this commentary the JPS translation has been amended slightly to deal with the most egregious cases of gendering God. This is by no means a book just for women.

Books About the Bible

Jewish Study Bible by Adele Berlin. An excellent one-volume resource for text study, no Hebrew required.

The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel. One of the first books to wrestle with Torah from a feminist point of view, and still with excellent insights on the text.

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman is a basic, readable explanation of the “documentary hypothesis,” the idea that the Torah is a blend of several different voices.

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts. By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. This book explores what archaeology can and cannot “prove” in the Biblical text. 

Jewish History

Your choice of history book will depend on your taste and preferences. Choose the one that works for you. Please read at least one of these general histories.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

Jewish History: The Big Picture by Gila Gevirtz. This book is adapted from the two-volume The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner. It is a more accessible version of a distinguished scholarly work.

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.

The Story of the Jews, 2 Volumes, by Simon Schama. This is a take on Jewish history through the eyes of a British Jew and art historian — quite different than a rabbi’s point of view. The link given is to volume 1, but don’t miss the second volume.

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack This is in graphic novel format and is quite good. It is an excellent choice if wordy books put you off.

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a great story teller, and this history reads like a novel.

The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” by Simon Schama.  These volumes (with a third volume expected in the near future) are a cultural history of the Jews written by an art historian and scholar.  These are companion volumes to Schama’s PBS and BBC series. Schama tells this history differently than a rabbi would tell it — and I think that’s the strength of this series.

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. The “general” books above tend to be somewhat Ashkeno-centric. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

Sephardic History & Culture

The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane Gerber. A solid history of Sephardic Judaism.

Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism by Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez 

The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home. Joyce Goldstein. Explore Sephardic and Mizrahi culture through their food.

JIMENA.org — Not a book, but a website full of stories, photos, news and information. You can also follow the organization on Facebook and Instagram.

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge, by Paul Kritzler 

North American Jewish History

American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna. A scholarly but readable work on American Jewish History.

The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America, by BethWenger. In addition to the voices, the book is full of excellent photos.

No Better Home?: Jews, Canada, and the Sense of Belonging, David Koffman, editor. The Jews of Canada have their own history, distinct from their cousins to the south. Leading scholars take the title question seriously and look deeply at the present as well as the past that underlies it.

Antisemitism & Holocaust

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Antisemitism: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it matters. by Julia Neuberger.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein. A close examination of the best-documented pogrom before the Holocaust.

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo. It is a literary memoir by a resistance leader, a non-Jewish woman.

*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Psychiatrist Frankl wrote a memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps, and wrote this book of lessons for spiritual survival.

Night by Elie Wiesel. The classic first-person account of the Holocaust through one man’s eyes.

The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. An excellent novel about the Holocaust.

Israel

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert A detailed history of Israel from 1862-1997. Predominantly Zionist in its point of view.

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen Very readable. There are a few minor errors, but it is remarkably clear-eyed about the complexity of Israel and its emotional connection for American Jews.

Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine. Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, Eyal Naveh, editors. An effort by an Israeli and a Palestinian scholar to present the two competing narratives of the region. 

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar A scholarly approach, staunchly Zionist.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist. If you are curious about the roots of the current situation and the occupation of the West Bank, this is a good choice.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur A reader of primary documents. Better if you already know a little bit of the history of Modern Israel.

Jewish Prayer

A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Adin Steinsaltz. This is a guide to prayer by one of the most respected rabbis in recent memory.

Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration, by Naomi Levy

A Book of Life, Embracing Judaism as a Spritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld

Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, by Alan Lew

Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind & Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement and Meditation, by Tamar Frankiel.

Lost in the Service? by Ruth Adar. For the person who feels completely lost in a Jewish service. (article, accessible online)

How do Jews Pray for the Sick? by Ruth Adar. (article, accessible online)

Jewish Ethics & Social Justice

The Book of Jewish Values: A Day to Day Guide to Ethical Living by Joseph Telushkin

Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to choose words wisely and well. By Joseph Teluskin. A good book explaining the rules for Jewish speech.

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Jonathan Sacks

There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, by Jill Jacobs

The Passionate Torah: Sex & Judaism by Danya Ruttenberg

Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, by Deborah Hart Strober, and Gerald H. Strober.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary by Barry H. Block. A commentary on the Torah focusing specifically on social justice issues.

Jewish Thought

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God? I was tempted to require this little book as a text.

Thinking About God: Jewish Views, by Kari Tuling. An excellent book by a distinguished Reform scholar-rabbi.

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg. A memoir about embracing one’s Judaism.

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism , by Abraham J Heschel. A beautiful, challenging book outlining Heschel’s theology of radical amazement.

Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, by Arthur Green.

LGBTQI & Gender

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Denise L. Eger. A collection of essays, prayers, and blessings, specifically around LGBTQI issues.

A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, by Noam Sienna

Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening, by Haviva Ner-David

Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, by Daniel Boyarin. Just as interesting as its title: eye-opening about gender roles and Judaism.

Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. Not an easy book, but a groundbreaking 1998 book that demonstrates that “Jewish Law” need not be a patriarchal straightjacket.

Vayechi: Last Wishes

Image: Adult family members having a discussion. (Shutterstock: Zinkevytch)

This parshah, the crown and close of Genesis, offers us two end of life accounts: the end of the stories of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all of the Jewish People.

Both Jacob and Joseph are models in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when he knows that he is dying, Jacob calls all his sons together. After blessing them, he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, giving voice to the mitzvah of burial in a family plot. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 363)

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. While Joseph already had given his promise, Jacob gave his very disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. After his death, Joseph directed that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah.

Later, when he was dying, Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up [to Canaan] from this place.” Hundreds of years later, Moses made good on the promise of his ancestors: he carried the bones of Joseph out of Egypt and back to Hebron.

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors, but it is also important to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time.

Registration for Winter “Intro” Now Open!

Image: Two hands fit two puzzle pieces together, with the words “Introduction” above and “To the Jewish Experience” written below. Artwork from pixabay, modified by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

On January 2, 2022, Introduction to the Jewish Experience will begin its winter session. There will be two separate classes offered every Sunday afternoon, Pacific Time:

Jewish History Through Texts

What is the Torah? Where did it come from? What are Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud? What is “Jewish Law”? Where did antisemitism come from? How did the modern State of Israel come into being? How are these questions all connected?

This class is a look at Jewish history from the earliest times through about the year 1000 CE, with a quick look forward to the 20th century.  Sessions will alternate between stories about history and the texts of the Jews in that time. In the text weeks, we’ll experience the ways that Jews study text. 

No Hebrew is required, and no previous knowledge is assumed. This is one of three terms of Introduction to the Jewish Experience, but anyone is welcome to take this class.

Tuition is $200 for 8 sessions, or pay what you can. 

Class dates & times: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Sundays, 3:30-5:00pm Pacific Time, via Zoom.

Please note that registrations will close–no exceptions!–before class on January 2. Please register before the end of 2021! Jewish History Through Texts will be offered again in January, 2023.

REGISTER HERE for Jewish History Through Texts.

Traditions of Judaism (Jewish Diversity)

Some things hold the Jewish world together, things we all share. Other things express the cultural, historical, and geographic diversities of Judaism. This class looks at both. Topics include those things we share, such as Shabbat, the synagogue, and the prayer service. Then we’ll look at the diversity of Jewish traditions: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and other groups, as well as North American Judaism. We’ll look at the movements of Judaism: Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal. We finish up by looking at Jewish food customs, which are both shared and diverse.

No Hebrew is required, and no previous knowledge is assumed. This is one of three terms of Introduction to the Jewish Experience, but anyone is welcome to take this class.

Tuition is $200 for 8 sessions, or pay what you can. 

Class dates: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Class dates & times: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Sundays, 1:30-3:00pm Pacific Time, via Zoom.

@Please note that registrations will close–no exceptions!–before class on January 2. Please register before the end of 2021! Traditions of Judaism will be offered again from March – May, 2022.

REGISTER HERE for Traditions of Judaism.

Registration will close with the beginning of each class – no late registrations. After January 2, write to me at CoffeeShopRabbi -at- gmail.com to get on my mailing list for the next classes, which will begin in March, 2022.

Chanukah 2021: Lights in the Darkness

Image: The rabbi, on her scooter, enjoying the Chanukah lights outside her house. Yes, she knows this is a nontraditional display.

Chanukah arrives on the 25th of Kislev as always — this year, that’s Sunday evening, November 28, 2021.

I don’t know about you, but I approach this holiday season feeling rather beat-up and disillusioned. This has been a year of personal, medical and professional crises for me, set against the backdrop of general political unrest, rising antisemitism, climate change, and pandemic. Several individuals and institutions have disappointed me deeply and personally.

So why on earth would I want to bother with a minor holiday like Chanukah? What’s the point?

Chanukah is one of the Jewish holidays I call “National Holy Days.” That is, they memorialize historical events with complicated legacies, events that temper the idealism of the Fall and Spring Holy Days.

Chanukah reminds us that in the second century BCE, the Maccabees won their war against the Selucid Empire only to find that the Temple was filthy. Greeks and Greek-minded Jews had rendered just about everything in the Temple precincts traifeh [ritually unfit.] The Hasmoneans cleaned it up, and rededicated it (hence the name Chanukah, meaning dedication.) Their joy was so great that they instituted an eight-day festival to remember the occasion.

(Yes, there’s another story about a cruze of oil. For more about the tensions between the two stories, look at Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays.)

Periodically the Jewish People disgrace ourselves with temptations from without and within. In the 2nd century BCE, we responded to Greek culture by dividing over it — the Maccabean war was not only a war against the Greeks, it was a civil war against Jews who admired the Greeks. We thought we cleaned up afterwards, only to find that the “pure” Hasmonean rulers were far from ideal, as well.

Welcome to imperfect humanity. All we can really do is dust ourselves off, clean up the mess, and rededicate ourselves to the project that is Torah. And that’s what I’m doing for the rest of 5782 — cleaning up the mess, and searching the tradition and my heart for genuine Torah.

A Mitzvah for Shmini Atzeret

Image: A laptop covered with post-it notes. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. Today is Shmini Atzeret, and then Jewish life will settle down for the quiet month of Cheshvan. Only one holiday, Sigd, twinkles at the far end of the month — otherwise it is quiet. It’s the longest such break in the Jewish Year, and it comes at a good time, because anyone involved in putting on all those celebrations is worn out.

Your clergy and staff at synagogue are exhausted from the past two years of Covid, Israel, political upheaval, rising antisemitism, and whatever has been going on locally in your community. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Notes, emails, silly homemade postcards– it’s all wonderful.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They often wonder who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

To the person who says, “Well, it’s their job!” I have one thing to say: no, it isn’t “just a job.” It’s a labor of love, and particularly for staff, it is often a very poorly paid job. For clergy, it is months of work informed by years of training, and it is often done in tandem with volunteers who are full of good ideas and enthusiasm that have to be coordinated into a manageable whole. It’s WORK.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I substituted for a colleague who was injured, so I had none of the preparations to do, just showed up to officiate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even at part-duties, it was a big job, and I appreciated their thanks very much. In fact, those notes gave me a boost I needed after a stressful summer of other work — something of which they had no inkling. They refreshed my rabbinate more than they will ever know.

The expression of gratitude is a mitzvah: it restores the soul of both the speaker and the recipient. We are at the official end of the High Holy Day cycle. If there was anything you liked about your High Holy Days, whether it was the services, or the way the signups worked, or the call that was returned after you left a message, or someone’s cooking — this is a great time to say, “Thank you.”

The Lesson of COVID-19

Image: The world pictured as a giant coronavirus. By Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every one of us is interconnected. Within a species, we are intimately connected: we have the same vulnerabilities and we breathe the same air. We are not separate beings, not really, and what happens to one has a potential effect on everyone else.

I got a powerful lesson about this last Sunday morning. I’ve spent my week recovering from a fall on my patio last Sunday about noon. I tripped and fell, unable to keep my forehead from hitting the concrete. I’m on blood thinners, so this is potentially very serious: it could start a hemorrhage inside my skull and kill me.

I was able to get up unassisted, and I never lost consciousness: good signs both. Still, I had instructions from my doctor to go to the emergency room if I hit my head. Linda and I immediately went for help. I could tell that the hospital triage folk deemed it serious; they swept me into a treatment room and got an IV started immediately. A doctor came in quickly to look me over, order tests and a CAT scan.

As it turned out, I was lucky: no brain bleed. I have a nasty black eye, a bruised nose, and assorted scrapes, but I am alive.

I was even luckier to be living in Alameda County, California, where we have a relatively low COVID-19 transmission rate. I needed an emergency room and skilled docs and nurses and I got them. I needed a CAT scan, and I needed to sit for 12 hours so they could watch me to see if I was going to have a problem.

In Alaska and in Idaho, I’d have had a very different Sunday afternoon. There entire hospitals are overwhelmed and they cannot do much for aging ladies who trip over their own feet, even if they might die.

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every creature on earth is interconnected. Within our species of homo sapiens, we have the same vulnerabilities, we breathe the same air, we need the same resources. We may like to talk about being “free” but a virus knows and cares nothing about “freedom.” The virus crossed over from the animal kingdom, and it is chewing its way through humanity as I type this. We have the means to slow it down — vaccination — and to some of us, getting vaccinated seems like the smart thing to do.

For other people, it is a harder decision. They’ve heard rumors about reactions to the shots. They’ve heard misinformation from the Internet and from sources they thought reliable. For some people, it’s about not wanting to be told what to do by a bunch of people they experience as smug and annoying.

I can understand all that. But I also understand that in Alaska and Idaho they are unable to take care of people with heart attacks and possible brain bleeds, because they have had to move to “crisis standards of care” also known as rationed care. If one individual chooses not to get vaccinated, other people may lose their chances at life.

The ER was pretty busy Sunday. There was a person with chest pains, and another who had had a gnarly commercial kitchen accident. There were others I don’t know anything about, they just came and went during my 12 hour vigil. Care was available for us. That was because outside the hospital (and inside it too!) people are wearing masks, 77% of residents are fully vaccinated and 90.4% of residents have had at least one vaccination.

I am grateful that my fellow Alameda County residents are looking out for me. I’ll do my best to look out for them. When we thought COVID was “over” in July, and we ditched our masks, it came roaring back at us. Luckily for us, the mask mandates and high vax rate has brought all that back under control. Because it is under control, there was room for me in the ER.

A portion of the Book of Leviticus is known to scholars as “The Holiness Code.” A chunk of it addresses this interconnection of people, our responsibilities to take care of one another. I think it’s worth pondering in this context:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.

You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.

Do not go about as a talebearer among others; deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am Adonai.

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt because of them.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai.

Leviticus 19: 8-19.

We Jews are commanded to pay attention to our connections with others. We are commanded to take the needs of strangers seriously, to treat the rich and poor equally, to love our fellow as ourselves. There’s nothing there about “the deserving poor” or the “innocent victim” or any other such loophole that will allow us to exclude someone. There’s nothing about an exemption for wishing evil on people with whom we disagree. Just “love your fellow as yourself.”

We are all part of the web of connection: the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor, the clever and the simple, heck, even Democrats and Republicans. Like it or not, we’re in this together.

What, Another Jewish Holiday Already?

Image: A family picnicing in the park. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The High Holy Days are behind us.

One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue or in front of the computer screen, praying.  Yep, me too.

Sukkot is the perfect Jewish holiday for this year. The main idea is, get outdoors!

The good news is that this holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.

Or on the balcony.

Or on the roof.

You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.

Or — to keep things very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table.  Or a blanket on the grass. Don’t get too fussy and spoil the fun. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.

This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.

Maybe you can think of a friend who could also use a little outdoors time now.

The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.

The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.

Sukkot starts on the evening of Monday, September 20, 2021. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.

Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season. If it’s too hot outside, make some lemonade. If it’s too wet, stay inside by a window, or just get wet.

I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.

Prepare to enjoy yourself!

Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join me for Yom Kippur?

Image: Jewish Gateways Logo for High Holidays 2021. Colorful abstract.

I will officiate at online Yom Kippur services this year at Jewish Gateways. If you still need somewhere to attend, we would be glad to have you. For information, and to register, visit their High Holidays webpage. You must be registered to attend.

The schedule for Yom Kippur Services, all times Pacific:

Wednesday, September 15, 7:00-9:00pm, Erev Yom Kippur

Thursday, September 16, Yom Kippur Day                        

  • 9:00-9:45am: Yom Kippur Family Service for children under 9 and their families
  • 10:30am-12:30pm: Yom Kippur Morning Service
  • 1:00pm: Questions and Open Discussion with Jewish Gateways community members
  • 6:00-7:30pm: Yom Kippur Afternoon Services
    • 6:00-6:30pm: Healing Service
    • 6:30-7:00pm: Yizkor • Memorial Service
    • 7:00-7:30pm: Ne’ilah • Closing Service

G’mar chatimah tovah! (May you be sealed for goodness.)