“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”

The title of this post is an old Yiddish saying, meaning “People plan, and God laughs.” We can plan all we want, but sometimes things turn out in unexpected ways. I thought I was done with Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog– then God laughed.

I will definitely continue to teach Intro to the Jewish Experience, but in a new place: Jewish Gateways, in Albany, CA. The classes will all be online, via Zoom. Classes will start in September, 2021, after the High Holy Days. I will tweak the syllabus a bit. More about that in future posts.

I will return to keeping this blog, although I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, yet. There will be new posts from time to time, and they’ll have to do with topics that interest me. Again, more about that as clarity emerges.

Here’s a question for regular readers: What topics interest YOU? What would you like to hear more about? You can reply in the comments.

Image: A photo of a little lemur with a surprised look on its brown and black face. Image from Pixabay.com.

Shabbat Shalom: Shelach L’cha

Summary:

  • Moses sends twelve spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the people are frightened. (13:1–14:10)
  • God threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel but relents when Moses intercedes on their behalf. To punish the people, God announces that all those who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel except for Joshua and Caleb. (14:11–45)
  • Moses instructs the Israelites regarding setting aside challah, the observance of the Sabbath, how to treat strangers, and the laws of tzitzit. (15:1–41)

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change. 

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hoshea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yod, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save (Hoshia) you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

“See the Priest”- Tazria/Metzora

Image: Two people talking at the beach by wei zhu from Pixabay

Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant, embarrassing things. Medicine addresses disease these days, but what if we used the teaching in this portion to address modern plagues: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has told us that an opinion we voiced is racist. Our first impulse on hearing such things may be denial.

The Torah offers us a different path: it directs us to go to the priest (in our day, a trusted counselor) and say, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my child dated a black person.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are issues to address. Then they could help us toward change for the better.

Seeking guidance requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “So-and-so said that my behavior was racist.” 

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others. Some are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to someone, and that person passes along their pain to a third party.) These problems can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage. Besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is also for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

This D’var Torah appeared in a slightly different format in the CCAR Newsletter.

Changes at Coffee Shop Rabbi

Image: Logo of HaMaqom | The Place

As Ecclesiastes 3 points out so eloquently, there is a time for everything.

I began Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog in March of 2010. I wanted to write simple explanations about Jewish life, and to correct misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. At that time, if you Googled “Talmud” the first page of citations that came up were antisemitic web sites. Thanks to changes made by Google, and an explosion of Jewish participation in the World Wide Web, that’s no longer the case. MyJewishLearning.com came into being, with articles from genuine experts, not just one rabbi. Sefaria.org came into existence, making Jewish texts available to anyone who wishes to “Ta Shma” — Come and Learn!

Over the past four years, my mission shifted: I tried to address the challenges of living in a world of what seemed like increasing darkness. What I learned was that in such a time, we Jews need community, not lone voices. I spent more time teaching classes at HaMaqom, more time on social media, and felt that here on the blog, I was mostly repeating myself.

Then came March of 2021.

HaMaqom | The Place has hired me as their new Executive Director. I will still teach Intro to the Jewish Experience on Sunday afternoons and evenings, but the bulk of my time will be spent nurturing its brilliant staff, raising funds, and representing the organization in the community.

HaMaqom | The Place creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. That is its mission statement, which is perfectly in line with my own mission, which you can read in another post, Passing the Torah. I’m going to put my heart, my soul, and my energy into building HaMaqom into a place — The Place — where Jewish friendships and connections are nurtured and from which new Jewish leadership can bloom.

I invite my readers to join me on this journey. How?

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog. I suspect that its job is done. I will keep the domain name and make sure it is maintained — it is, after all, ten years of work, still useful when someone wants a quick answer to a simple question! — but I don’t expect to post new material here, unless I use it to tell you about programs at HaMaqom.

Thank you for reading, thank you for your questions, your feedback, and your encouragement. I hope at least some of you will follow me into my next chapter.

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, Passing the Torah

Stop AAPI Hate

The text of this graphic is below:

The Jewish people know all too well how hate

can move from words to actions.

For years, the Asian-American community has

reported increasing incidents of prejudice and

hatred, and yesterday in Atlanta that bigotry erupted

into devastating violence.


The women’s Rabbinic Network mourns with

the families of those who were killed, we

offer support and comfort to our Asian-American

members, and we stand with the Asian-American community.

#StopAAPIHate

FREE Passover classes at HaMaqom | The Place!

HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA is offering free online Passover classes and events over the coming month. Are you ready to learn? Ready to get ready? Worried about how you’re going to get into the mood for Passover this year? Interested in learning some new and interesting possibilities for enjoying the holiday? Help is one the way!

All events are free of charge, but you need to register in order to attend. To register for each event, use this link.

Passover 101 (Tuesday, March 9, 2021, 7-7:30 pm Pacific Time.

Passover, also known as Pesach or Chag HaAviv, celebrates the Israelites Exodus from Egypt and includes themes of liberation, redemption, and renewal. Join us to learn more about this holiday and its traditions in this interactive session with Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Bsisa 101: Celebrating the New Jewish month of Nissan with Libyan and Tunisian Jews (Tuesday March 16 7-7:30pm Pacific Time

The new Jewish month of Nissan brings with it themes of renewal and hope for prosperity and health, as Passover is just around the corner. Join Asher Grinner and Tamar Zaken as they share the home-based tradition of Bsisa, where family members gather to bless and be blessed, celebrating the season of renewal marked by Rosh Hodesh Nissan.

Come to the Seder Table (Thursday, March 18 7-8pm Pacific Time

At HaMaqom, we celebrate and lift up the diversity of our Jewish community and practice. Passover is the perfect time of year to showcase the ways different families celebrate this holiday of liberation and new beginnings. This event will feature 6 family seder traditions from HaMaqom and One Table community members and staff. Get ready for Passover with us!

Community Cafe: Stories of Liberation, Deliverance, Revelation, and Rebellion (Tuesday, March 23 5:30-6:45pm Pacific Time)

Stories connect us and add meaning and depth to our lives. Come to HaMaqom’s community cafe event, where you will hear inspiring, Passover-themed storytelling this Spring. This semester, HaMaqom’s Community Cafe participants workshopped true stories from their lives about liberation, resilience and other Passover themes.  Join us to hear these moving stories as our participants perform them for a live zoom audience.  

Mimouna 101: Moroccan Post Passover Celebration (Sunday April 4, 7-7:30pm Pacific Time)

Mimouna, a celebration that marks the end of Passover, is celebrated in Moroccan and North African Jewish communities. Mimouna includes themes of renewal, joy, coexistence, and inviting in neighbors. Join Ziva Trau as she shares her family Mimouna traditions, featuring special foods, music, and other rituals.

Passover @ The Place is generously sponsored by The Douglass-Pearlmutter Family, the Kabat Family, and Fred Isaac & Robin Reiner.

HaMaqom’s commitment to keeping our learning opportunities affordable and inclusive is a part of who we are and is only possible because of the generous support we receive from our wonderful community.

Are You Curious About Judaism?

Image: Three people learning, and the HaMaqom Logo. (hmqm.org)

Are you curious about Judaism? Have you ever wanted to have a chance to ask a rabbi a few questions?

I’m offering a class titled “Sampling Judaism” online this month and next, three meetings in which I’ll make a 30 minute presentation about:

  • What do Jews think about God?
  • What is Torah, exactly?
  • Who are the Jews and what do they want?

Then in each class, students can ask questions about the presentation or about anything else about which they are curious. This is a very basic class, an introduction to Jewish learning and life, and it is built around YOUR questions. No Hebrew required, no credentials required.

If this is something that interests you, Sampling Judaism is easy to sign up for. Just click the link to go to the HaMaqom website and there you can get all the info about cost, times, and registration.

The class is offered on a sliding scale and financial aid is available. Class will meet on Monday nights from January 25 through February 8, from 7-8pm Pacific Time.  

10 Survival Strategies for Tough Times

Image: Toy boat floats on green pond water. Photo by SofiLayla/Pixabay.

Here are the things that keep my boat afloat during these difficult times.

  1. Rituals. Life’s small rituals are very important. When I get up, I want my coffee. But I don’t want someone to hand it to me, I want to make it, because the making of coffee is one of my morning rituals. I measure the coffee, put it in the cone, heat the water, pour it over, and… coffee! After I have drunk the coffee, I’m ready for the world. For others it may be a bedtime ritual, or a bathing ritual, or the ritual of putting on cosmetics. These little rituals of life orient us so that we can keep our equilibrium.
  2. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  3. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  4. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. Or I cook some food to share, and drop it off on someone’s porch.
  5. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  6. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  7. Creative action, aka Arts and Crafts. I am not a great artist, but I enjoy putting the colors together for my knitting. I draw cartoons — mostly pictures of turtles or lions– on blank cards, for my wife to color. She loves to color, and I love to draw the cards. Then we put notes on the bank and mail them as postcards to friends. Finally, we cut each others’ hair and laugh at the results. Making a little bit of beauty in the world makes us feel better. Getting our hair out of our eyes is a relief!
  8. Saying “I love you” and “Thank you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too. Another daily vitamin for the spirit is gratitude: thanking someone. They might be a public person who has done something I like, or someone who has done me a kindness, but I try to give thanks to someone every day. Thanking God is good, but I find that thanking people has a special oomph of its own.
  9. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  10. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. I need the art of others. The arts affirm the best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. If you have a little Jewish knowledge, you may also have noticed that most of these things are mitzvot, commandments. Torah is an excellent guide to living!

What keeps you going in these difficult times? What keeps your boat afloat?

Basic Jewish Books: 5781 Edition

Image: Two of my bookshelves. Photo by Ruth Adar.

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 many 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 for time and money, I’d require all of them.

Required Texts 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.

*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. Excellent glossary included.

*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.

General Introductory Texts 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. New and 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.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. 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.

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (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, I recommend any of these:

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book is rather old, but it is my favorite because of the format, looking at the origins of the holidays as well as how-to’s of observance.

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

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

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

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days) This is a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah.

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

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin

Passover & Haggadah

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 and have seen what you do and do not want in your haggadah.

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

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 saw in a movie.)

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.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

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

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

Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life, by Harvey Goldberg

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

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)

5 Things to Do If You Want to Become a Jew, by Ruth Adar (article)

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?

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

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg.

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

Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, by Judith Plaskow. One of the first books to address Judaism from a feminist point of view. A classic.

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.

Queer Jews, by David Schneer & Caryn Aviv, Published in 2002, this is already a little out of date but it will acquaint you with many of the queer Jewish voices out there.

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.

Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, by Daniel Boyarin. Heavy going but worth the effort. Boyarin is a major talmudist, and in this book he looks at the sexual lives and preoccupations of the sages of the Talmud.

Jewish History

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

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.

A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman. I have not read this yet, but have heard good things about it.

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

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.

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.

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

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.

American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna. The best source on American Jewish History.

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

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.

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.

The Star

I saw it tonight: the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that people are calling the Christmas Star.

I looked for it without much hope. My patio has a wonderful view of the San Francisco skyline and the peninsula to the south, but I was sure the lights of the cities would obscure the light.

Still, there it was, right where it was supposed to be: a bright light in the Western sky.

I watched it for a while. It glimmered and winked, as “stars” do in urban pollution, but it was definitely a bright point that hung still amidst all the airplanes coming and going from the three major airports nearby.

And I thought: those two planets came together, tonight, and they are brighter than they’ve been in hundreds of years, brighter than they will ever be for hundreds more. They look down on a hurting world, a world in a lot of trouble.

At first I thought: they hang up there, oblivious. They don’t care.

It is true, the planets can’t care, but that doesn’t change the miracle that I can see them. I can see them despite the fact that there are a million lights shining just below me. I can see them despite growing cataracts in my eyes, despite everything. They are just there, objects of wonder.

The miracle is not only that they are there, in alignment. The miracle is that they are there, and we know what they are. They are two huge planets, “gas giants,” and they reflect the light of our sun so brilliantly that I can see them from my patio tonight.

We human beings make messes all the time, but we are capable of science, and art, and insight into matters much larger and infinitely smaller than ourselves.

If two planets can come into alignment, why not we?

If we can recognize the wonder in the sky, maybe there is still hope for this messed-up world. Maybe we can recognize the wonder in each other. Maybe we can SEE.

It was cold on the patio, and I had to come inside. That “star” is so bright I can see it through the window. I can see it hanging there, telling me:

“Miracles are all around you. All you have to do is look and see.”

Image: Night sky with large star. Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay