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?

 

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbinic Insight from Chronic Illness

Image:  A woman walks through a greenhouse full of cacti. (Pixabay)

An op-ed appeared in the New York Times a while back. The piece, In My Chronic Illness, I Found a Deeper Meaning, is so good that I would be quite happy for you to stop reading now and go read it – even if you don’t read another word I have to say about it.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla describes the significant challenges of living with chronic illness. He writes about the problems of credibility every one of us with chronic illness face: it’s “in our heads” we are “making it up” we are “dramatic” and/or “lazy” and/or just plain “crazy.” You can hear all about that if you go onto Twitter and search for terms like “chronic illness” or “disability.”

He describes the horror of being a number, of having one’s troubles become “a monetized affair.”  The article would be valuable simply because he articulates all of this so well.

What’s different about this article is that Rabbi Kukla doesn’t stop with an eloquent description of the situation. He keeps moving towards meaning. “We are born needing care, and die needing care, and I am no exception.” Independence is in fact a delusion: we are all interdependent.

He maps a terrain that we will all travel someday, even the most fit and healthy among us. The take-away, though, is something that I think we all need right now: a reminder of the worth of every person.

In a time when human beings are treated as bargaining chips, when a small, wealthy part of humanity seems to care absolutely nothing for the rest, when it is so tempting to star in our own dramas and get lost in our private pain, this article takes the larger view. Go read it.

Rabbis I Read: Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Image: The words Martini Judaism in large brackets. It’s the logo for the column below.

There are a few rabbis I read whenever they publish something new. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is one of those rabbis.

In addition to being the senior rabbi for Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, he writes a column for Religion News Service titled: Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred. Just as the title suggests, it’s an informal approach to Jewish topics in the news. What isn’t so obvious from the title is that he brings scholarship and heart to every topic he covers.  Some recent examples:

Was Trump Right about Jerusalem?

Can Reform Judaism Reform Itself?

Meghan Markle is not Jewish. Big Deal.

How Neil Gillman Taught Me Judaism 101

The Secret Jewish History of Alice’s Restaurant

See what I mean? Some might say, “He’s all over the place” but I find that he’s good for my Jewish soul. Torah is everywhere, and it applies to everything in Jewish life. Rabbi Salkin helps me make those connections.

I will also admit he has inspired more than one blog post here!

Rabbi Salkin is also the author of Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights Publishing). His new book, The JPS Bnai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, was published in Spring, 2017.

Enjoy, in these closing days of 2017. You read it here: Torah is everywhere.