Books I Recommend

Image: Four book covers

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World by Seth M. Siegel. If I were looking for scintillating subject matter for a book, I would probably not think of “water policy.” I began reading this page-turner after hearing from Consul General David Siegel (no relation) that this was a worthwhile book. He had also mentioned that California Gov. Jerry Brown is a fan of the book. Lo and behold, it is wonderful reading. Israel is the world’s leader in water conservation and policy; this book explains how that came to pass.

Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition by Carmel Chiswick. This is a fascinating look at the present state of American Judaism through the lens of economics.

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea by Reuven Firestone. Rabbi Dr. Firestone is one of my teachers, and his books always hit a sweet spot in my curiosity. He was thinking about this book my last year in rabbinical school, and his ideas have shaped much of my own understanding of the tensions around Chanukah, among other things. Now I’m finally getting around to reading the book.

and just for fun:

The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian. This is my third read through O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin 20 volume series. There’s something comforting about this story of a friendship – I read it before I go to sleep.

Readers: What are you reading these days? Recommendations?

Lehrhaus Judaica Online Courses, 2016

Lehrhaus Judaica offers eight online courses over the next several months. (Full disclosure: I teach two of the eight classes.) The classes are taught using Adobe Connect, a platform which allows a learner with a computer and a reliable Internet connection to participate in class without a lot of special software.

All times listed are Pacific (US) time.

Here are the offerings, with links. For more info, or to register for a class, click on the class link:

Prelude to Rabin with Riva Gambert – Thursdays, Jan 28 – Feb 25 7-8:30pm ($70) – In this 20th anniversary year of Rabin’s assassination, we will take a look at four milestones in the nation’s history. (1) Socio-political climate that led to modern political Zionism (2) The post WWI French and British mandate system ((3) Palestinian Jewry’s response to WWOO and (4) American political landscape following the war that shaped President Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Lost Goddess: The Life and Death of the Divine Feminine in the Biblical World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Thursdays, March 17-April 21, 7-8:30pm, ($50). Like it or not, most of us consciously or unconsciously think of God as “He.” But scanning through the ancient religious lives of Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, Canaanites and also Israelites, we see a generous number of goddesses. Who were they and what can we learn about them?

Israel and Texts with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, Jan. 10 – Mar 6, 3:30-5pm, ($90) The land of Israel has been central to Jewish history, both ancient and modern. This class will examine the history ancient Israel, the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, and the modern return to the land. With that history as a backdrop, we will learn about the great texts of Judaism, including the synagogue service. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Traditions of Judaism with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, April 3 – June 5, 3:30-5pm, ($90) There have been many different expressions of Judaism since the days of the Second Temple. In this class we will study the varieties of Judaism: Ashkenazi Judaism, Sephardic Judaism, and the modern streams of Judaism. We will also look at some of the elements that make American Judaism distinctive. The class will also explore the phenomenon of antisemitism from ancient times to today. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Prayerbook/Biblical Hebrew with Jehon Grist, PhD – Sundays January 24 – March 20, ($95, $90 seniors and students)

Bible Circle: The Text in its World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Tuesdays, Feb 23 – Mar 15, 7-8:30pm ($35)  Since childhood, we’ve all visited some of the great Bible stories, but we’ve also sometimes scratched our heads, not really understanding everything they have to say.

To fully explore the story, you need to go full circle and discover the Biblical world from which it came. That’s what this course will do. We’ll study selected texts, covering everything from the basic story line, to the meaning of obscure words and phrases (all in English translation), to the fascinating differences found in other ancient versions of the Bible.

But we’ll also visit the places and cultures that thrived when these stories were composed, from Biblical villages and the Jerusalem temple to Egyptian palaces and more. Richly illustrated with hundreds of images and numerous video clips, we will time-travel through four selected Bible texts, bringing them and their world to life.


2015 in Review

What a year!

This is my 327th post of the year, up from 288 posts last year.

There have been 121, 794  visitors to this blog in 2015.

There were 190,063 page views.

Many people sought out the blog from search engines, looking for answers to particular questions. They were, in fact, the bulk of the readers. The ten articles accessed most often:

All of these are older articles, but they seem to become more popular year after year. I’m glad: one of my goals is to provide simple answers to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.

The ten most popular new articles this year:

I notice that many of these articles came from questions that readers sent me, or that they asked in the comments section. I appreciate your questions because they help me focus on my mission: to offer simple explanations to answer your questions.

Perhaps the most exciting development, to me, is that the Comments have really come to life this year. You left 1,868 comments – more than 1,000 more than last year! I am particularly pleased that you teach and learn from one another, and that the community that gathers here is able to disagree without rancor.

Most of all, it is a pleasure to learn with you and from you.

Thank you for a great year!

10 Great Jewish Websites

Jewish Holiday Calendars & Hebrew Date Converter – If I had a browser that could go to one website, and one website only, I’d get a new browser. But if I were stuck with it, this is the website I’d set it to. It is an essential Jewish calendar, date converter, and reference.

The Times of Israel – Only have time for one source for news about Israel? The Times of Israel is as middle-of-the-road as anything you will get about news from Israel.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency – This is my go-to site for news anywhere in the Jewish world.

My Jewish Learning – This is a great reference site for questions about Jewish holidays, rituals, and practice. I appreciate that it is respectful of all streams of Judaism.

Virtual Jewish Library – This is an encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture produced by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

Sefaria – Sefaria calls itself “a living library of Jewish texts.” It provides access to Jewish texts and commentaries on the texts. Teachers can use it to make source sheets. Volunteer translators are constantly working on making the texts accessible. It’s a lovely cooperative effort. There are other sources for Jewish texts (notably Mechon Mamre) but Sefaria’s interface is more sophisticated.

Jewish English Lexicon – Want to know the meaning of that word your father-in-law keeps using? Come as close as you can to spelling it and look it up here. This site is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Benor of Hebrew Union College.

Judaism 101 – Another encyclopedia of Jewish practice and belief, this one from an Orthodox point of view. Amazingly, it is the work of a single individual, Tracey Rich. You may also recognize it by its net address,

Anti-Defamation League – The ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry; it defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all. It is a good source of information about how to deal with incidents of antisemitism or bigotry, also.

Reform Judaism – The institutions of Reform Judaism offer a website that you can search for articles specifically from the Reform point of view.

There are many great Jewish websites on the Internet. Which resources do you use and trust? Please add to this list by joining the conversation in the comments!


Meet An Expert on Islam

rabbi-reuven-firestone-phdRecently the Jewish Journal carried an article by one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone, Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College (HUC). It reminded me that he has written books and articles that are quite accessible and might interest some of you.


I first met Dr. Firestone in the context of a class in which he taught me how to read Mikraot Gedolot – the traditional commentaries on Torah, all neatly bound together in a few volumes. I enjoyed learning with him, and when I finally reached the point that I had the option of elective courses, I took every class on Islam that he offered.

I had many good teachers at HUC, and a few great ones. Dr. Firestone is among the greats. I admired the courage of his scholarship, because he did not just sit in Los Angeles reading about Islam. He spent a sabbatical in Cairo (this was before the revolution) He took his whole family with him. Even then, it was not a friendly place for Jews, and he has a realistic view of Jewish-Islamic relations.

Much of the information about Islam that we get from the news media and politicians is sadly ignorant. Talking heads quote the Quran and hadith literature without any understanding or context, much the way antisemites quote snippets of Talmud. These pundits don’t read Arabic, haven’t studied the literature, and don’t understand what they are quoting.

So if I have tantalized you, if you would like to learn more about Islam from a reliable source, let me suggest these articles and books by Dr. Firestone:

Heads of the Hydra” (Jewish Journal article)

No, Pamela Geller, the Quran is not Anti-Semitic” (The Forward)

An Introduction to Islam for Jews

JIhad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam

Lehrhaus 360 Lecture “War and Peace, Jewish Perspectives” (VIDEO)


My Basic Jewish Book List

I just updated the list of recommended books I give to my beginning students. I thought I’d share the update with you.

I can recommend all of these books. As far as I know, all are currently in print. Many are available inexpensively as used books. Obviously, which you choose will depend on availability and your curiosity.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The 1st text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green (The other text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg. A classic text, first published in the 1950’s but still good.

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

Jewish Bibles

Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in some form. 

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

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. Jewish Publication Society

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

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

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.


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 (but free!) 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.

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. 

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon

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

Jewish Home

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

On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format)

Jewish Lifecycle

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

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

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

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff

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?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good)


Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert 

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar

The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur


Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas

Judaisms Ten Ideas front cover.indd

I have a new favorite “First Book about Judaism.” I like it so much, I’m going to add it to the required reading for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience students this fall.

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, by Rabbi Arthur Green, is a wonderful guide to the most important aspects of Judaism. All else: the holidays, the mitzvot, the life cycle events, the institutions – all of that! is a vehicle for learning and living these essentials. And frankly, without these ten, the rest of it is theater. Living Judaism may take many different forms, but it always begins and ends with these ten ideas.

What are they? I can give you Rabbi Green’s chapter titles, although the book will flesh it out for you:

  1. Simchah – Joy
  2. Tzelem Elohim – Creation in God’s Image
  3. Halakhah – Walking the Path
  4. Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World
  5. Shabbat – Getting off the Treadmill
  6. Teshuvah – Returning
  7. Torah – The People and the Book
  8. Talmud Torah – “Teach Them to Your Children”
  9. L’Hayyim – To Life!
  10. Echad – Hear, O Israel!

Lay hands on a copy if you can. Split the cost with a friend if need be (at less than $10, it’s a bargain.) Read it and find someone to chat with about it. It will stir up your heart and your mind and you will know where you want to go next: learning, doing, action, something.


Books for Elul & the High Holy Days

Wondering how to prepare for the High Holy Days? One way many Jews prepare is with a good book. Here are some  books I have used for this purpose:

And now, dear readers, what have I left out? Is there a book you’ve used for High Holy Day preparation that you particularly recommend? Please share it with us in the comments!

More For Your Summer Reading List

A while back I asked for ideas for Jewish-themed summer reading, and you responded with a great list in the comments section. I asked the same question on another social network, and got more great suggestions. I can’t summarize them or vet for quality, but they came from people who enjoyed them:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wacker

“Anything by Herman Wouk

Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen

Joshua, a Brooklyn Tale by Andrew Kane

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

The Tin Horse by Janice Steinberg

A Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic

And then these, which are Jewish-authored but not Jewish-themed:

Books and stories by Harry Turtledove (alternate histories)

And some online lists for fun and profit:

Tablet Magazine’s List of 101 Great Jewish Books

Goodreads Best of Jewish Authors List of Jewish Fiction in the 21st Century

Jewcy: The 50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years 

These should keep us reading for a while!

How About Some Fun Summer Reading?

Summer and vacation are on their way, and I am looking for some entertaining light reading.  Here is my offer: I’m going to suggest some books with Jewish content that I have enjoyed recently in hopes that the denizens of the newly-lively comments section (you know who you are*) can suggest other books. Then we’ll all have a nice list for prowling the used book store or the library or the e-book shops.

Why specifically Jewish reading? There are lots of lists online for finding generic beach books and pleasure reading. Let’s make this the list that is harder to find: Jewish-themed pleasure reading – doesn’t have to be recent, it just needs to be something you’ve enjoyed.

My suggestions:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – This book won a Pulitzer in 2001 for telling a story about young comic book writers among the Jewish immigrants of NYC.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon – What if the Arab armies had succeeded in extinguishing Israel in 1948? What if Jews had been given a limited lease on a sliver of Alaska as a temporary refuge and the lease was about to run out? What if this story were structured as a whodunit?

Rashi’s Daughters, Books I, II, and III by Maggie Anton – Historical fiction about the three daughters of the most famous commentator in Jewish history.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok – A classic story about two fathers and two sons in NYC in the 1940’s. If you are in the habit of referring to “The Orthodox” and think they are all more or less alike, this is one way to learn better. I will not list all his other fiction in this list, but anything he wrote is good.

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg – This novel brings the sages of the Talmud to life.

The Saturday Morning Murder by Batya Gur – This is the first in a series of murder mysteries by Israeli writer Batya Gur. Her hero, Chief Inspector Michael Ohayon, is a likeable Israeli of Moroccan descent. Six of the mysteries are available in English translation.

Fax Me a Bagel by Sharon Kahn – This is the first in a mystery series which features a rabbi’s widow, Ruby, as the protagonist. The series is fun and quite authentic: the author was married to a rabbi for 31 years.

So, nu? What books do you suggest? What have I missed? I await your comments!

*You need not have commented before to recommend a book. In fact, it would be a special treat to get recommendations from readers who have thus far been silent.