Books about Jewish History

Image: A stack of books, with flowers and an apple. (congerdesign /Pixabay)

“What’s a good book about Jewish history, Rabbi?” I get that question several times a year, and the answer is, there is no single definitive history but there are a lot of good books out there. Here are some books I recommend to my students:

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. This is a comprehensive history of the Jewish People, written in a very accessible style. It’s probably the most exhaustive one-volume history currently in print.

Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Potok is a master novelist, and this very readable history is a good introduction to Jewish history. It’s available as a used paperback.

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” 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.

Scheindlin, Raymond. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood. This history is brief and very readable, by a distinguished scholar who is also a Reform rabbi. Used copies are easily available online and sometimes in local used bookstores.

Mack, Stan. The Story of the Jews . This history is written in graphic novel format. Reviewers have pointed out a few historical inaccuracies in it (for example, the specifics of Hitler’s rise to power are incorrect.) On the plus side, it does a good job of describing a lot of the Jewish story and putting things into a chronological framework. This one is a very easy read, but it still has lots of good information.

Not a history per se, but a great resource:

Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People from the Time of thePatriarchs to the Present. This is an excellent historical resource, especially if you are drawn to pictures, time lines and graphics.

Is there a book you recommend that isn’t on this list? I’d be delighted if you’d share it in the Comments.

Talking Amongst Ourselves: Voices of Torah

Image: Voices of Torah, Volumes 1 and 2.

Every quarter, I write one or two divrei Torah (words of Torah, short reflections on a bit of Torah) for the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR.) Many other rabbis write similar short articles, bringing their learning and insight to the other portions. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman edits each piece, making it much better, and then it appears in a little rabbis-only newsletter. And for years, that was that.

Now the CCAR Press has collected these words of Torah into Voices of Torah, Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are arranged by Torah portion, from Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) through V’Zot Habrachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12,) with a few additional pieces for holidays (High Holy Days, Purim, Passover, et al.) I’m honored that several of my little pieces were included in Volume 2.

Each short d’var Torah (word limit 250 words! practically Haiku!) is written about a specific Torah portion. Each was written by a rabbi for their colleagues: for rabbis, by rabbis. Some of them are little gems. The editors have polished them up for a lay audience, de-obfuscating the jargon and translating the rabbi-speak into Standard English. It is now a nice resource for someone seeking insight into a particular Torah portion, or someone who needs to give the d’var Torah for a meeting.

The books are for sale directly from CCAR Press or from other online bookshops, including Amazon and Powell’s.

Interested in Learning Talmud?

Image: Logo from Ten Minutes of Talmud. (Blog)

A number of people have asked me about resources for learning Talmud. While the classical way to study is with a teacher and a chevruta [learning partner] there is an online resource I can heartily recommend.

Ten Minutes of Talmud is a weekly offering from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a scholar-rabbi who is both an expert with the texts and a superb teacher. Her posts introduce readers to a juicy bit of text, then guide them through the process of learning the text themselves.

Selections are short and simply written. If the reader brings a long experience to the study, that will enrich the learning, but it is also accessible to and worthwhile for a beginner.

Rabbi Scheinerman is the author of The Talmud of Relationships, a recent two-volume offering from the Jewish Publication Society. The book is a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.

Blog Link

Basic Jewish Books: 5780 Edition

Image: A bookshelf with several of these books.

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

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The only text I require for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

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.

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.)

Jewish Bibles

*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, I recommend any of these:

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss

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

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

A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields

About the Bible

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

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.

*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.

Jewish Holidays

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.)

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 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

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme

*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.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener (A superb guide for mourners)

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

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg

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)

Jewish Thought

*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

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 (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 great 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

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.

Surpassing Civilization: Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Image: My dog-eared copy of The Sabbath.

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

The paragraph above is from the book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, written by Rabbi Heschel in 1951. Periodically I reread this book, because it always has something new to teach me.

In the midst of all the political turmoil of the present, with climate change looming and so much meanness on social media that every visit there makes me want to cry, this passage comforted me even as it challenged me. The task of the Jew – my task – is to live a life of Torah within the world, to live a life that elevates this world, or at least my part of it.

I often talk about Shabbat in very practical terms, talking about the benefits of connecting with loved ones, or the need for actual rest from work. Those are definitely a part of Shabbat, strengthening our families, our bodies, and our souls, but Shabbat is much, much more.

Done properly (and I would argue that “properly” will be different for every person and every household and for every stage of life) Shabbat affords us a moment to will into being a better world. I aspire to a home of light and love; on a well-kept Shabbat, I make an extra effort to make that happen. Perhaps I cannot pull it off for a full 24 hours, much as I would like, but every moment of it that I can manage will transform me and my household in ways that will not disappear when Shabbat is over.

Even more, this passage reminds me that Judaism is not about a rejection of this life – it advocates engagement in life, living fully and present to all that life brings. Judaism is not about looking down our noses at the rest of the world, nor is it about sitting in judgment on the rest of humanity – it’s about saying, “Hineni!” – “Here I am!” – both to my loved ones and also to those whom it is hard to love.

This is only a tiny scrap of what this little book has to offer – if you haven’t read it, you are missing out. For those who have read it, share your favorite passages in the Comments!

Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”

Book List: Jewish Spirituality

Image: Two old books, open and stacked. (Photo: Woman1907 / Pixabay)

A rabbi friend and I were talking about good books about Jewish spirituality. Here’s my list – do you have any books to add? If so, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. This book is the best I know of for learning about the spiritual richness of Shabbat.

Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, by Alan Morinis. Mussar is about personal development, and it has seen a revival in recent years.

Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan. Meditation is a universal practice, but Kaplan writes about some specifically Jewish approaches to the art.

One God Clapping by Alan Lew. Rabbi Lew was both a Conservative rabbi and a credentialed Buddhist teacher. This is his account of his spiritual journey from American Judaism to Buddhism and back again.

Eyes Remade for Wonder by Lawrence Kushner. This is a collection of Rabbi Kushner’s writings; I could easily add many of his books to this list.

Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit, by Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal. Granted, this book addresses the challenges of aging, but it advocates spiritual growth for wise aging, and points the way.

Nurture the WOW: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting, by Danya Ruttenberg. Another life-stage focused work on spirituality by a rabbi living in the thick of it.