Jewish Book List, 5782

Image: A drawing of a range of library shelves, loaded with books. By Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.

This is a list of books I recommend to my students taking Introduction to the Jewish Experience. The only required texts for this class are listed as such. The rest are suggestions for the student who would like to go deeper into a given topic.

Required Text 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.

Also: Read at least one of these two books:

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.

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 and Jewish mysticism. Excellent glossary included.

Also, one book of Jewish History, chosen from the list later in this document.

General Introductory Books 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. 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. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. It is 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.

The rest of this book list roughly follows the outline of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience courses:

  1. Jewish Holidays and Life Cycle
    1. Jewish Holidays
    2. Jewish Life Cycle
      1. Jewish Parenting
      2. Jewish Home
  2. Jewish History Through Texts
    1. Bibles and Commentaries
      1. Books about the Bible
    2. Jewish History
      1. Sephardic & Mizrahi History & Culture
      2. American Jewish History
      3. Antisemitism & Holocaust
      4. Israel
  3. Traditions of Judaism: Jewish Unity and Diversity
    1. Jewish Prayer
    2. Jewish Ethics & Social Justice
    3. Jewish Thought
    4. LGBTQI & Gender

Jewish Holidays

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

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book has been around for a while, but it is my favorite because of the format. Rabbi Waskow explains the origins of the holidays, the how-to’s of observance, and makes some interesting speculations on how each holiday may develop in the future. Our holidays are not static; they evolve to meet the needs of the Jewish community in each age.

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin. A largely secular Jew decides to observe all the holidays in one year, and she reflects on the experience.

High Holy Days

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon This is a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah, collected and commented upon by the first Israeli Nobel laureate in literature.

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

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

Passover & Haggadah

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot – A time-tested guide to Passover written with the beginner in mind.

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. The best for use at the table fall in between those two extremes. To find your Haggadah, go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Ask friends what Haggadah they like. 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.

Jewish Lifecycle

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

Navigating the Journey: The essential guide to the Jewish life cycle. Peter S. Knobel, editor. 

The New Jewish Wedding, Revised by Anita Diamant

Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

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

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

How to Raise a Jewish Child 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

Jewish Home

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.

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 see at the movies.)

Bibles and Commentaries

Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) A Christian Bible is not a good substitute for a Jewish Bible: the translations are different, as is the arrangement of the books.

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read the article Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible. 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 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 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.

Books 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.

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.

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts. By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. This book explores what archaeology can and cannot “prove” in the Biblical text. 

Jewish History

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

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

Jewish History: The Big Picture by Gila Gevirtz. This book is adapted from the two-volume The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner. It is a more accessible version of a distinguished scholarly work.

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.

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.

The Routledge Atlas of Jewish History by Martin Gilbert. A good choice if you are more of a map person than a words person. Pricey, but there are e-books available and it has been around long enough that there are also used copies for sale.

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

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

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. The “general” books above tend to be somewhat Ashkeno-centric. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

Sephardic History & Culture

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.

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge, by Paul Kritzler 

North American Jewish History

American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna. A scholarly but readable work on American Jewish History.

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

No Better Home?: Jews, Canada, and the Sense of Belonging, David Koffman, editor. The Jews of Canada have their own history, distinct from their cousins to the south. Leading scholars take the title question seriously and look deeply at the present as well as the past that underlies it.

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.

Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine. Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, Eyal Naveh, editors. An effort by an Israeli and a Palestinian scholar to present the two competing narratives of the region. 

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.

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

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

Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to choose words wisely and well. By Joseph Teluskin. A good book explaining the rules for Jewish speech.

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

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.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary by Barry H. Block. A commentary on the Torah focusing specifically on social justice issues.

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? I was tempted to require this little book as a text.

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

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg. A memoir about embracing one’s Judaism.

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

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.

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.

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.

Jewish History Books, 5781 Edition

Image: Several books, piled and open. (moritz320 /Pixabay)

“Jewish History” is a huge topic. The Jews have been around a long time — more or less 3000 years — and we have lived everywhere on the globe. Jewish history is an enormous tapestry of ideas, people, and events.

So when a student asks me, “What’s the best history book, rabbi?” I usually ask, “What did you have in mind?” Some people are looking for an overview to orient them in the Jewish timeline. Others have something more specific in mind. Here are my suggestions:

Overview of Jewish History:

Givertz, Gila. Jewish History: The Big Picture. This book is adapted from the two-volume The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the JewsThis 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 StatehoodThis 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. While it is not a scholarly history, it does a good job of describing the Jewish story and putting it into a chronological framework. It 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 PresentThis 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.

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.