Basic Jewish Book List – 5779 Update!

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

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

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, 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.

*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.)

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) 

Jewish Home

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)

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices) 

 

Jewish Lifecycle

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 Parenting

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 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

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.

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A Course in Basic Judaism!

Image: My first “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class, in 2009. Photo by Scott Wexelberg.

Right after the High Holy Days, I start my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” series over again.

Intro to the Jewish Experience is a course in Basic Judaism offered by Lehrhaus Judaica and taught by Rabbi Ruth Adar – me.
Who takes this class? People who for whatever reason never got a basic Jewish education and want one. They may be born-Jewish, they may be considering conversion, they may be marrying into a Jewish family, or maybe they’ve taken a job at a Jewish institution. This class will give a good foundation in the basics, and also some insights about how Jewish communities actually work.
My goal is to equip all my students for whatever Jewish connections they want in their lives.
Class in the San Francisco East Bay:
Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
Online Class:
If Wednesday evenings are not convenient, we offer the same course online on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
The course takes place in three terms, which may be taken in any order:
  • In the Fall (Oct – Dec) Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle Events.
  • In Winter (Jan – March)  Israel & Texts. (History of Judaism and Jewish Texts)
  • In Spring, (April – May) we learn about the the diversity in world Judaism and the similarities that hold us together, in a class we call Traditions of Judaism.

Information about the class is available at the class website, Jewish Experience Online.

 

Summer Reading List, 2018

Image: Person sitting in a chair looking at an e-reader. (pexels/pixabay)

In the summertime, I catch up on reading. Some of it is professional, and some is just fun. Here’s my list, in no particular order.

 

Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright.

White Like Me: Reflections on Race by a Privileged Son by Tim Wise.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Thurston

Cultures of the Jews: A New History  ed. David Biale

Hasidism: A New History by David Biale, et al.

Shady Characters & Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston.

Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.

What’s on your summer reading list? Do you plan your reading list, or just read what looks interesting when you are ready for a new book? How do you choose your reading?

 

 

Building Your Jewish Library

Image: Bookshelves of Jewish books, art, and objects. (Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.)

What books should be part of a Jewish household? Beyond that, how does one build a Jewish library?

  1. Every Jewish home should have a Jewish Bible. Not an “Old Testament,” not a “Living Bible,” not the “King James Bible” or any of its descendants – a Jewish Bible. How can you tell if it is a Jewish Bible? There will be no New Testament in there. It may have the word “Tanakh” on the cover. It will be arranged into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. There are several good Jewish Bibles on the market. One excellent option is to get one that comes with a commentary, such as:
    1. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut.
    2. Etz Hayim, Torah & Commentary, ed. Lieber.
    3. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds Eskenazi, Weiss
  2. For quick answers to Jewish questions, you either need access to some of the excellent Jewish web sites on the Internet, or a good basic reference workJewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one excellent choice.  A Guide to Jewish Practice by David A. Teutsch is a three volume set of books that is even more detailed. The text I use for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience class is Settings of Silver, by Stephen Wylen. It is a single volume with a good index.
  3. A Jewish home should have a siddur (Jewish prayer book,) or a book of Jewish prayers for the home, or both. The siddur should be the one you normally use at synagogue (ask your rabbi.)  On the Doorposts of Your House has home rituals of many kinds, from hanging your mezuzah to celebrating the holidays. At a minimum, a card or bentcher with the basic blessings for Shabbat will come in handy.
  4. Every home should have at least one haggadah, the script for the Passover seder. There are a zillion haggadot on the market, ranging from free give-aways to very expensive art books. Which one(s) you choose will depend on your tastes.

Beyond the absolute basics, your interests will shape your Jewish library. For instance, if you are interested in Torah study, you may want to own one or more commentaries. If you are interested in Jewish film, there are a number of good books on those subjects.

For more suggestions of books and topics, see My Basic Jewish Book List.

 

What’s a Good First Book about Judaism?

Image: A single book, open, with a pair of glasses atop it. (PhotoMIX Company/Pixabay)

I got the question again last night: “Rabbi, what’s the FIRST book I should read about Judaism?” My answer to that is always a set of questions. So here are some “first books” and why I might or might not recommend them to a particular person.

Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief but good history, and it has an index.  It’s good for people who are comfortable reading and want a comprehensive book with up-to-date information.

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. This is a great book for someone who wants a short book that explains the Jewish approach to life in manageable bites. It’s also a good book for Jewish adults who had bad religious school experiences but who are looking to re-connect as Jews. I have also suggested it to Christians whose children converted to Judaism or married a Jew – it conveys the feeling of Judaism.

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. If the person tells me they are particularly interested in the Torah, this is where I point them for a Jewish take on the texts. Simply reading the Torah won’t teach you how Jews read Torah. It is also the book I recommend for people who are upset by the stories in the Bible.

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme is a very succinct introduction to Jewish ideas about God. I suggest this book for the person who tells me they are very interested in Judaism, but the idea of God is very difficult for them. I also suggest it for people who are interested specifically in theological questions.

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper – This book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities. It’s intended as a college “Intro to Judaism” text, so it’s a bit more challenging reading but will give you an interdisciplinary approach to the big subject of Jewish identity. This is NOT “how to keep Chanukah” but “Who are the Jews, and what are they like?”

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This is my go-to book for those who specifically want a book about Jewish holidays.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. If you want a glimpse of Jewish life and liberal observance, this is a really good book.

Judaism is such a large topic that no book is going to be the right first book for everyone. Was there a particular book that brought Judaism into focus for you? Please share those titles in the comments!

 

Book Review: “Judaisms”

Image: Cover, Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is a wonderful exploration of the Jewish world as it exists today.

The organization of the book is a radical departure from the average “Intro to Judaism” text. The book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities.

The author arranges Jewish topics into themes such as “Sinais,” “Zions,” “Diasporas,” “Genocides,” and “Futures.” He takes an interdisciplinary approach, consulting theological, sociological, historical and literary resources to examine Jewish life in terms of each theme.

Looking at this book as a rabbi, I am challenged and fascinated. Where I have been trained to look to traditional rabbinic literature for insight (and let’s face it, for rules) Dr. Hahn Tapper gets right at the questions that bother my students most by using a multiplicity of disciplines to examine Jewish reality on the ground. This approach is important because the last 50 years have brought enormous changes to Judaism. The intermarriage rate is nearly 70% in some communities. The status of women has shifted dramatically in liberal Judaism: women serve as rabbis and as rabbinical school professors and deans. LGBTQ Jews are challenging old norms while reexamining traditional texts for new insights.

The title, “Judaisms” may give some pause. Personally I find it refreshing to acknowledge that while we can all say the Shema we may understand it quite differently, and live out those understandings in different ways. We have a common history, with smaller communal side-trips, and both the common history and the local variations are authentic. Too often we frame these differences as a test of authenticity and then use them to bully one another.  We may all observations of difference a game of “I’m Jewier than you,” an ugly little pastime that does not serve our communities well.

I like this book so much that I’m adding it to my list of recommended texts, and considering it as an additional text for my Introduction to Judaism classes next year. It is substantial but not heavy reading, as it was written to be a text for an undergraduate-level college Introduction to Judaism course. The illustrations are beautiful and plentiful. It comes with online resources as well, provided via the University of California Press website.

Dr. Hahn Tapper is  the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, and the Founder and Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Good Books about Modern Israel

Image: A modern Israeli highway runs beside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. (Public Domain)

Some general histories of Modern Israel:

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Nation and Its History by Rich Cohen

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert

My People: The Story of the Jews by Abba Eban

Some books about particular parts of Israeli history:

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World by Seth M. Seigel

O, Jerusalem! by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Primary Sources:

The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl

Memoirs by David Ben Gurion

The Jews in their Land by David Ben Gurion

Abba Eban, an Autobiography by Abba Eban

So, regular readers, what books have I neglected to mention that would help a beginner understand Israel? What histories do you like? What books give the reader the flavor of contemporary Israel? What memoirs and primary sources are particularly good?

I look forward to your additions in the comments!