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.

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Do Not Believe These Lies

Image: Person w/ name tag, “Mr. Know-It-All.” (Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

I just had a conversation online with a very nice gentleman. He had been given a bunch of misinformation by a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer (SAJM.)

The question in this case was, “Can a person convert to Judaism?” The SAJM answered, “No, a person has to be born Jewish.”

It happens that I had that same conversation many years ago, with another SAJM. There was no reason to doubt this person, so instead of converting early in my twenties, I converted at age 40, after a better-informed Jew told me that the previous answer was bunk. I lost almost 20 years of Jewish living to that Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer.

SAJM’s do a lot of damage to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel.) They spread all kinds of misinformation, for instance:

NOTE: ALL OF THE STATEMENTS IN THE LIST ABOVE ARE UNTRUE! If you want to learn more about them, click the link for each UNtrue statement.

Sometimes misinformation (or even information, poorly delivered) can be cruel. For a real-life example, read “my teacher said im not jewish.”

How not to be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer:

  • Refer questions of Jewish identity or status to a rabbi. If you want to show off, offer the questioner names and contacts of several rabbis.
  • If you thought you learned it somewhere but you can’t remember where or from whom, at least look it up before you reply.
  • Remember that there is great diversity in Judaism. Not everyone is from your shul, your movement, your particular Jewish heritage. Even for rabbis, not all answers apply to all Jews!
  • Remember that humility is a virtue, and teaching error is a sin.

Don’t be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer! By making appropriate referrals, looking things up, and remembering the vast variety in Judaism, you can contribute to the Jewish world.

What’s With the Skullcap?

Image: A table covered with kippot for sale.

You’ll never hear a knowledgeable Jew calling any of these hats “skullcaps.” That’s an English word with a European background: according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it’s “c. 1200, probably from Old Norse skalli ‘a bald head, skull,’ a general Scandinavian word.” Someone thought the little round caps look like the tops of skulls, I guess.

There is a long tradition in Judaism for covering one’s head. For men, it’s about respect: an acknowledgement that we are creatures made by God, not deities ourselves. Some Ashkenazi men cover their heads at all times, others just for prayer or study.

For women, it used to be about covering our hair, which was seen as a highly sexualized part of the body. That intent changed over time: now it is the Ashkenazi practice of using women’s hair covering as a sign that they are married, signaling a woman’s unavailability. Sephardic women may cover for prayer or studying Torah. There has been an effort by some rabbis in Israel to persuade Sephardic women to cover their hair all the time.

For me, as a modern Reform Jew, it’s about modesty, or tzniut (tznee-OOT.) I cover my head for teaching, learning, and prayer because it is a reminder that I am only one little person, not the universal spokesperson for the Holy One. If I become puffed up and impressed with myself, I am useless as a teacher of Torah. In some settings, as in a hospital, it is a signal that I’m a religious Jew and/or a rabbi, but not Orthodox.

These little hats and coverings have many names. The ones that look like a little bowl are called kippot (singular kipah) in Hebrew and yarmulke (YAHM-a-kah) in Yiddish. The ones that look like a pillbox hat may be Bucharian kipot, or they may be pillbox hats. I collect vintage pillbox hats to wear when I’m in the mood.

Women’s head coverings have other names. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are also head scarves called tichels (TIKH- els) in Yiddish and mitpachat (mit-PAH-khat) in Hebrew. Remember, for observant Ashkenazi women, it’s a privacy thing: if they are married, their hair is only visible to their husband and in public, they wear a covering of some kind. I have also met Jewish women who have adopted the sheitel because it is an expression of their Jewishness, married or not.

Some Haredi men wear a variety of hats, often over a kippah. That’s a whole article by itself, as is the “kippah code” of Israeli men. For more about that, read What different styles of head coverings say about Israeli Jewish men from Pew Research.

So what can you assume from seeing a Jew with a head or hair covering in public ? It’s an expression of their Jewish identity, and they may or may not see it as compulsory. Generally it’s a good idea not to assume much more – every Jew observes in their own way.

Moses’ Prayer for the Sick

Image: Sunrise over Sinai. (MountainsHunter/Shutterstock)

Yesterday I wrote about the Mi Shebeirach, a long and beautiful prayer we say when someone is sick. But what if we want something short and easy to remember?

There is such a prayer in the book of Numbers chapter 12. Moses’ sister Miriam develops tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a disfiguring illness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El nah refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

So what do we learn from this? One way to read this is that prayers for a sick person can be helpful, but that prayer is not a substitution for proper treatment. Miriam has to take the treatment for tzara’at, she has to be isolated for a while, but she will be healed.

If you wish to use the prayer, you can certainly pray in English. But if you wish to pray in Hebrew, here are some choices:

  • El nah refah nah lah! “Please, God, heal her!”
  • El nah refah nah loh!”Please, God, heal him!”
  • El nah refah nah hem! “Please, God, heal them!”
  • El nah refah nah hehn! “Please God, heal them!” (females only)

I sometimes combine this prayer with my breath, thinking or saying softly “El nah” on the in-breath and “refah nah lah” on the out-breath. This sort of breath prayer can become almost automatic, so that “with every breath” the prayers become a part of us.

How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

Image: A figure is sick in bed, thermometer in mouth. (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay)

One Jew says to another, “I am so sad, my mother is sick.”

The other replies, “I will make a mi shebeirach for her – may she have a refuah shleimah!”

The beginner, listening, wonders, “What just happened?”

Mi Shebeirach (mee sheh-BEH-rakh) is the name of a group of prayers the most common of which is a prayer for the sick. They may be said as part of the Torah service, between Torah readings, but increasingly they are also said both publicly and privately outside the Torah service.

The words mi shebeirach are the opening words of the prayer, and they mean “may the One who blessed.” Here is what it says, in English:

May the One who blessed our ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — bless and heal the one who is ill: ________________ son/daughter of ________________ . May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!

Refuah schleimah (reh-FOO-ah SHLEY-ma) or (reh-foo-AH shley-MAH) means “a complete healing.” It is important to keep in mind that a “complete healing” might mean “a cure” but it also might mean a peaceful conclusion to the illness. We do not assume that God is in the business of dishing out miracles, but it is possible for there to be wholeness (shleymut) without a return to the exact same level of previous health. Therefore we can say this prayer even for someone we believe to have a terminal illness: in that case, if there is no chance of a return to health, we can hope for the easiest possible progress of disease and for shalom, peace, at the end of life.

Whether prayer can affect the course of illness is the subject of debate. It can be very comforting to a sick person or their loved ones to know that others care and are praying for healing. If for any reason the sick person is uncomfortable with the practice, however, it is important to respect their wishes.

Some congregations maintain a “mi shebeirach list” of people who are sick and who wish prayers said for them. It can serve not only as a list of people who wish for prayers, but also as an opportunity to send a card or offer a visit.

For the Hebrew and transliteration of the Mi Shebeirach, see this page on ReformJudaism.org.

High Holy Days for Beginners, 5780/2019 edition

Image: Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel of Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA blows the shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Sobel.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 29, 2019. It will begin the Jewish Year 5780. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] The proper reply is also “Shanah Tovah.” For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season will begin at sundown on August 31 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even accidentally, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against God. We atone for sins against other human beings through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, some synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. A growing number of synagogues offer free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services. Many non-orthodox synagogues stream services on the Internet, too.

Another Option: Even synagogues that have tickets for the main services also have other services for which there is no charge and usually smaller crowds. Selichot services (the evening of September 21, 2019) usually feature the music and prayers of the High Holy Days.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you put into this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays.

In October I shall offer an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, through HaMakom: The Place (formerly Lehrhaus Judaica.) The class meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. I will post information about registration as soon as the new catalog is up.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5780!

What is the Beit HaMikdash?

Image: Model of the Temple in Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. (noamhen / Pixabay)

Beit HaMikdash means “the holy house,” and it refers exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bayit means house (beit is a grammatical construct that makes it into “house of.”) HaMikdash comes from the root kuf-dalet-shin, which denotes holiness. The specific term Beit HaMikdash appears in rabbinic literature but not in the Tanakh.

In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, the Temple is usually referred to as HaBayit, the House. It is the dwelling place for God’s presence with Israel.

Some terms to know:

  • Beit HaMikdash – The Temple in Jerusalem
  • 1st Temple or Temple of Solomon – built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586 BCE.
  • 2nd Temple – rebuilt with permission of Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE.
  • Herod’s Temple – the 2nd Temple, expanded and elaborated by Herod the Great in 20 BCE.
  • Churban – (khoor-BAHN) The destruction of the Temple.
  • Holy of Holies – the centermost enclosure of the Temple where only the High Priest was permitted to go.
  • Kotel, Western Wall – An area on the western side of the Temple Mount where Jews traditionally go to pray (since the Temple Mount is forbidden.) Sometimes it is referred to as the “Wailing Wall” but Jews do not use that name for it, because it was coined in derision of the Jews who wept for the lost Temple.

A timeline of the Temple and its site:

  • 10th c. BCE – Built by King Solomon, heir of King David.
  • 587 BCE – Destroyed by the Babylonians. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 538 BCE – Rebuilding authorized by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
  • 168 BCE – Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes orders sacrifices to Greek gods in the Temple, Maccabean Revolt erupts.
  • 165 BCE – Rededication of the Temple (Chanukah)
  • 20 BCE – Expansion and decoration of the Temple by King Herod
  • 70 CE – The Temple is destroyed by Roman legionnaires. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 361 CE – Roman Emperor Julian makes plans to rebuild the Temple
  • 363 CE – Julian’s death and the Galilee earthquake of 363 put an end to rebuilding plans.
  • 7th c. CE – Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque.
  • 1967 CE – Israeli troops capture the Old City in Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six Day War. This marks the first time since 70 CE that Jews have been free to visit the Western Wall at will. The Muslim Waqf retains administrative control of the Temple Mount itself.

Some Jews continue to pray daily for the Temple to be rebuilt on the same site in Jerusalem. Other Jews believe that the time of the Temple is past and they do not look to rebuild it.