Image: A wall of books surrounding a blue doorway. (pixabay/ninocare)
Every year I take a hard look at the list of books I recommend to the Intro to the Jewish Experience students. This year’s list omits some oldies and adds a few new books. No one needs to own ALL of these – I offer this list as a browsing list for your next step in growing your interest in specific Jewish topics.
*Books with an asterisk are those I strongly recommend to my Intro students. If I weren’t so concerned about their budgets, I’d require them.
General Introductory Texts on Judaism
What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.
Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant.
Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.
Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (A college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book.)
*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.)
If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?
If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, some of the most popular are:
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 Rabbi Andrea Weiss
A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields
About the Bible
What’s In It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Jewish Narratives by Stephen Fuchs This little book is helpful for those who wonder what a collection of old stories and rules has to say to modern Jews today.
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.
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. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders.
Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.
Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel.
*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (Specifically has to do with Shabbat.)
Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot
The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days)
This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (High Holy Days)
The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme
How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices)
Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin
The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant
A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe
Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener (A guide for mourners)
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
How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant
The New Jewish Baby Book 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
Conversion to Judaism
Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)
Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff (conversion)
*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green
*Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?
The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin
Your choice of history book will depend on how you feel about history. Choose the one that works for you. *Do read at least one of these!
The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good, an excellent choice if you are ambivalent about fat volumes.)
Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a story teller.
My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban Eban was Israel’s first representative to the United Nations, and he was a major player in the foundation of the State of Israel.
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.
A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.
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.
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.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. The writer is controversial, but the book is excellent and centrist in stance.