What I’m Reading Lately

Some books I’ve been reading since the secular New Year:

Didion, Joan – The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion wrote a painfully honest book about the year following her husband’s sudden death. Didion writes honestly but artfully, using her considerable craft to walk us through a year of irrationality. It is a magnificent book; I could hardly put it down.

Boyne, John – A History of Loneliness. Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I do not want to give away too much about this book, but it is about the price to be paid when good people refuse to see what is before their eyes. It is a book about paralysis of the soul.

Laymon, Kiese – How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I don’t recall who recommended this book to me – someone on Twitter – but I thank them. Laymon is a brilliant essayist and I am going to look for his novel, Long Division.  This one slim volume convinced me that I’m woefully ignorant about African American realities and I plan to remedy that.

Bliss, Eula – On Immunity: An Inoculation – This is a wide-ranging book on the history and science of vaccination, on the fears that may underlie current controversies around it, and about this one mother’s uncertainties in facing motherhood. I found it fascinating and yet eventually the confessional portions wore me out. Ms. Bliss is not a great writer, merely a competent one, but I will grant her this: she made me think and stirred my compassion.

Almog, Shmuel, ed. – Antisemitism Through the Ages – Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, editor Almog was born in Berlin in 1926. He (and presumably his family, although I do not know for sure) emigrated to then-Palestine in 1933. The book is from 1988 and is no longer in print; copies are expensive, so I have not provided a link. This is one of the books recommended in a class I’m taking on antisemitism. When I have a book on the topic I can recommend that’s a bit more available, I’ll do that, I promise.

What have you been reading? Anything to recommend?

Good Books for Basic Judaism

Jewish bookshelf

Are you looking for a list of good basic books about Judaism?

This is the list I give to my students in Exploring Judaism and Intro to the Jewish Experience.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (text for this course)

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.

Living Judaism by Wayne Dosick.

To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner

Jewish Bibles

I don’t require you buy one for this class, but 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?

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

The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme

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

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

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin

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

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

Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert 

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen

Ten Books That Influenced Me

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs published My Ten Most Influential Books on his blog today and invited his readers to post theirs. I thought it made an interesting exercise, and perhaps an interesting blog post. Here goes, in no particular order:

Bible1. Exodus – I read the second book of the Torah for the first time when I was in second or third grade, in a Catholic Bible. I was absolutely riveted by the story and the characters, so much so that I read it over and over, memorizing parts of it. The story of an enslaved people making their way to freedom thrilled me. I was as impressed by their cowardice as by their courage: every time things got tough, the Israelites got scared. I could identify. I still love that story with all my heart.

2. Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. Ceram. The summer before sixth grade, I came down with mono. In the 1960s that meant that I spent the whole summer on bed rest and teasing (it was “the kissing disease,” and I got very tired of insisting that I hadn’t kissed any boys.) I found this book on the shelf in the den at home and it entertained me for hours. It is a history of archaeology, with an emphasis on glamour and adventure that probably makes real archaeologists laugh, but I loved it. I’ve been interested in ancient civilizations ever since.

Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends3. Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends – Part of the reason the previous book appealed to me was that my mother had read to me from Myths and Legends from the time I was little. Greek and Norse mythologies were as real to me as the Disney Princesses are to little girls today. This book led me to read and love Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The illustrations enchanted me, too.

4. To Raise a Jewish Child, by Hayim H. Donin – I read this book because back about 1990 I had had several conversations with Jewish friends that left me feeling embarrassingly ignorant. I saw it in a used book store, and thought, “that should answer my questions.” By the end of the book, I was on the path to Judaism. Why that book? I have no idea. It was there. It was cheap. I was ready.

5. Judaism as a Civilization, by Mordechai Kaplan – This book made me think deeply about Jewish life and Jewish theology in ways I hadn’t dreamed were possible. I don’t subscribe to it 100% or even 80%, but Rabbi Kaplan approached his enormous subject with such creativity that the phrase “blew my mind” applies.

6. Berakhot, Artscroll Edition – Not too long after my conversion, I joined a little group in Oakland who were reading books of Talmud together. It wasn’t traditional Talmud study. We gathered once a week and read the Artscroll edition of Tractate Berakhot to each other, including all the footnotes. Reading it, I developed an affection for the rabbis and a fascination with the literature from which I hope I never recover.

7. Anne of Green Gables, entire series – I loved these books as a little girl, and over time I’ve come to realize that a lot of my values came into focus reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne. Not a bad choice, really: the books advocated for kindness, honesty, and education for women.

The Marvelous Land of Oz8. The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum – This is the second book in the Oz series. It stirred up all sorts of interesting ideas in me. It raised questions about feminism, about politics, and most of all, about gender and orientation. Most of the story was about Tip, a boy who’d been raised by a witch. It eventually comes out that he’s not a boy at all, but an enchanted girl, Princess Ozma of Oz. When I was small I identified powerfully with Princess Ozma. Now I think that I was looking for a role model to help me make sense of my feeling that I didn’t quite fit in the role conservative Southern society laid out for me. Granted, Tip/Ozma was more transgender than anything else, but that was as close as I got to a lesbian role model for my first thirty years.

Engendering Judaism9. Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler – Rabbi Dr. Adler is my teacher and dear friend, but even if she weren’t, this book would have changed my view of Judaism and the rabbinate. I began reading the book with the idea that halakhah (Jewish law) was too inflexible to deal with some of the complexities of modern life. By the time I finished, I understood that what was inflexible was my (previous) understanding of halakhah. I would never again allow myself to be cowed by someone citing a medieval code as if it were the last and only word on a subject involving real human beings.

Margery Kempe10. The Book of Margery Kempe – Margery Kempe (c.1370 – c.1440) was an English Christian mystic who dictated the first autobiography written in the English language. Margery was a businesswoman, the mother of at least 14 children, and she was prone to depressive episodes and visions. She believed herself to be called by God to a life of devotion, prayer, and tears in public. She annoyed many members of the clergy by crying loudly during their sermons. She traveled the great pilgrimage routes of Europe, and left her account of them in a book that was “lost” and rediscovered in an attic in the UK in the 20th century. Google her – she’s a trip. During the period when I’d left Christianity and was not yet Jewish, I found in Margery a fellow-traveler.

So, which ten books have influenced you?

Reading List: Basic Judaism

Jewish Shelves

Looking for some basic reading about Judaism? Here are some of the best bets around:

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 history, and it has a good index.

Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Tradition, Belief, and Practice by Wayne Dosick – Another good basic text, used by many rabbis.

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg – Published in 1947, this is still a classic work. It’s small but powerful.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer – This book has a Q&A format and it’s extremely basic. If you are looking for just some basic facts without details, it might be the right book for you.

These are not holiday or “how-to” books – I’ll post a list of those soon.

Do you have a favorite basic Judaism text?

What I’m Reading – June 2014

Vacation time is reading time for a book junkie like me. Here are some of the books I’ve been reading this month:

schamaSchama, Simon – The Story of the Jews – Finding the Words, 1000 BCE – 1492 CE – This is a fascinating take on Jewish history. I liked the PBS special based on it, so I decided to read the book. Schama is a British art historian, which gives him an interesting point of view on history. He focusses on things we didn’t talk about a lot in rabbinical school, like the Jewish community of Elephantine in Egypt, so I’m fascinated. Almost done with this one; I recommend it highly.

Piketty, Thomas – Capital in the 21st Century – I’m not far enough into this book to say much about it, other than it is another unusual point of view on an important economic topic with huge moral implications. My undergraduate degree was in economics, so this stuff is catnip. I may have more to say about it later.

Levi, Primo – Survival in Auschwitz – Yes, I know: I should have read this a long time ago. Holocaust books tend to leave me in shreds, so I have been slow in getting some of the classics. This is a wrenching, beautiful book, rich in humanity.

LaPlante, Eve – Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother – A page turner. I planned to drive through Concord, MA on this trip and thought it a good time to read the new biography of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother and the model for “Marmee” of Little Women fame. The book was a page-turner – I read it on the plane in full – but by the end I was very aggravated with Bronson Alcott. No wonder Louisa never married!

The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Title Page, in the author's handwriting
Title Page, in the author’s handwriting

I just finished reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. The book was published in 2002, but I somehow missed hearing about it until I read a New York Times article this past September. I added it to my list of books to read, and it finally came to the top.

I love books that open up a window to history, and this one did not fail. “Hannah Crafts” is the pen name of Hannah Bond, a woman who was born and grew up enslaved in the antebellum South, and who as an adult made a successful run for freedom. The edition I read has both a Prologue by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and footnotes by Dr. Gates, which provide a context for the story, which appears to be heavily autobiographical. This is the only known written slave narrative that was not edited by white publishers.  The copy that was discovered appears to be the working manuscript, so we see not only the story as the author intended it, but also the rejected phrases and false beginnings that can reveal a great deal about the writer’s process, even her handwriting. As such, while the story in the narrative is wonderful and carried me into the history, Dr. Gate’s material and Ms. Crafts’ own notations offer the reader an even deeper trip into her experience.

Ms. Crafts makes clear that this world is not divided so neatly into black and white as many romanticists imagine, but that indeed, many if not most people in the novel’s world are or might be mixed race. Uncertainties about this form a major plot point, but it also led me to wonder how much of the later anxiety about “drops of blood” in the Southern psyche and legal system came from insecurity about this point. This carries me back to some of my other ruminations about authenticity (Who’s the Most Jewish?, The Problem of Legitimacy Part 1 and Part 2.) Sometimes I wonder if we human beings are cruelest to those we think may be a bit too much like ourselves.

The book itself was a page-turner. It’s clear she’d read some Brontë and similar novels, but her own voice shines through, and I’m glad that no helpful editor came along to “fix” it. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the difference small kindnesses can make in the world. I am horrified to think of all the Hannahs whose voices are forever lost.

The Torah connection to this? Do I even need to say it? Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt… [Genesis 15:15] We are commanded to pay attention to this topic, to continue to learn, to continue to fight injustice, to free the captive. Hannah Crofts voice speaks to us across time, reminding us what it is to be enslaved.