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:
- Jewish Holidays and Life Cycle
- Jewish Holidays
- Jewish Life Cycle
- Jewish Parenting
- Jewish Home
- Jewish History Through Texts
- Bibles and Commentaries
- Books about the Bible
- Jewish History
- Sephardic & Mizrahi History & Culture
- American Jewish History
- Antisemitism & Holocaust
- Bibles and Commentaries
- Traditions of Judaism: Jewish Unity and Diversity
- Jewish Prayer
- Jewish Ethics & Social Justice
- Jewish Thought
- LGBTQI & Gender
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Adin Steinsaltz. This is a guide to prayer by one of the most respected rabbis in recent memory.
A Book of Life, Embracing Judaism as a Spritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld
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
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.
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.
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.