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

MyJewishLearning.com: 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!

What I’m Reading Now

bookI’m down with back problems at the moment, on orders not to sit too much. My posts will be limited until things improve. In the meantime, here’s what I’m reading lately on my e-reader:

Just finished The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor by Joel M. Hoffman. This is a wonderful book by an author who genuinely knows his subject. There is so much garbage available about “bible codes” and “secret books” and such nonsense, Dr. Hoffman’s scholarship and readability are a fresh breath. If you crave “Bible secrets,” check him out. He has real secrets to tell.

I’m just starting Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. I originally learned of it from a current Intro student, who recommended it highly. I did some quick online research on Dr. Snyder (distinguished scholar at Yale, widely respected for his scholarship, check!) and the reviews of the book (most agree it’s top notch scholarship) and I bought my copy. I’ll let you know what I think.

Also on my reading table (I like to keep a lot of things going at once, always have):

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea by Reuven Firestone. Full disclosure: Rabbi Dr. Firestone is one of my favorite and most-admired teachers at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam there and President Elect of the International Qur’anic Studies Association. I took every class he offered while I was at HUC/LA, and when he publishes a book, I read it. If you’d like to get to know him a bit, I recommend this article from the Forward.

Body Respect: What Conventional Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD. Linda Bacon’s previous book,  Health at Every Size, was a game-changer for me as a fat woman. I’m looking forward to reading this new book.

You’ll recognize these books, which I have in hardback on my study table at the moment. I listed them in a previous post about Passover reading:

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

OK, my time is up. I apologize for any typos and will come back and fix them when I have “sitting time.”

Preparing for Exodus: Books

For Jews, the month before Passover is busy, busy, busy. We have a house to clean, seders to plan, lists to check. The same old decorations may be getting a little shabby – time to spruce things up!

In just the same way, the knowledge of Passover acquired in Hebrew school might not really meet our needs as adults. The same old thoughts are feeling, well, same and old. If you’d like to refresh the inside of your head as well as the inside of your house (or if this whole thing is new to you) it might be the time to check out some pre-Passover reading.

If you are struggling to come up with the right “hostess gift” to take to a seder, a good book is always a welcome addition to a Jewish home. Some of these are inexpensive, some are extremely so, but any would make a lovely gift.

About the Seder

Steingroot, Ira, Keeping Passover – This is a personal favorite of mine. The book is simple enough for beginners and informative enough for those looking to deepen their practice. I like that he encourages freedom in producing a very personal seder for your family.

Arnow, David,  Creating Lively Passover Seders Arnow offers wonderful suggestions for enriching your seder.

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

Art Haggadot

The tradition of making beautiful illuminated haggadot goes back centuries. We can learn from texts, sure, but we can also learn from illustrations.

The Moss Haggadah: A Complete Reproduction of the Haggadah Written and Illuminated by David Moss for Richard and Beatrice Levy, with the Commentary of the Artist. This haggadah was originally produced as a private commission. Linda and I were given a copy as a wedding present, and it is one of our most treasured possessions.

The Szyk Haggadah, by Arthur Szyk. This haggadah was illustrated and published by a Polish artist during the rise of Hitler. It is one of the great treasures of the Jewish people.

Epstein, Mark, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. This art book will give you a glimpse of four of the beautiful medieval haggadot, all produced between 1300 and 1340 in Europe. The art is accompanied by commentary by Mark Epstein, a historian who puts them all in context.

There are many other beautiful art haggadot. The way to see them is to find a bookstore with a seder display and usually the art haggadot are its stars.

For information about regular haggadot for use at the table, see Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

Passover Cookbooks!

Passover cooking is a miracle of its own. Imagine cooking completely without chametz: products of wheat, rye, oats, spelt or barley!  For Ashenazim (Jews of Eastern European traditions) add kitniyot (rice, legumes, corn, etc.) to that list. Perhaps because of the strictures, Pesadik (kosher for Passover) recipes have become an art form.

Nathan, Joan. Joan Nathan’s Holiday Cookbook. This is a cookbook with commentary. The recipes are great (and include more than Passover!) but there are also stories and information to help you enjoy the holidays. This book is a classic.

Amster, Linda, ed. The New York Times Passover Cookbook: More than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Cooks and Writers. Another classic, now in a second edition.

 

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?

People of the Library

Jewish bookshelf
Part of my library

We Jews are often called the people of the book, but one could easily argue that we are really the people of the library. A Bible, after all, is not a single book: it is a collection of books, each separate and distinct. Even our Sefer Torah, our Torah scroll, is not a single book but a collection of five books in a single scroll.

The holy books, the s’forim, don’t stop with the Tanakh (Bible.) We have collections of midrash, sermons and stories that launch from verses in the Tanakh. We have the process of Mishnah and Gemara, in which centuries of rabbis clarify the ways in which actual lives of Torah might proceed from the document, Torah. We have mystical literature, and poetry, and law codes, on and on.

We love our books. We write books about our books, and notes within our books. If you look in a used book store or library for old Jewish books, often you will find neatly pencilled notes in the margins, references to the words of our teachers or to other books. I assembled much of my library at used book stores and sales, and I especially value the books with marginalia that came from the hands of other rabbis.

Of course, nowadays all of these books are available in electronic formats, many of them online. I suspect the ancient rabbis would have loved this technology, books that can be searched and indexed in a zillion different ways, all at the touch of a few buttons. Many different writers have pointed out that Talmud was an early precursor to hypertext, so the ancient rabbis might have felt right at home with it!

An observant Jew says the words of the Shema several times a day. It is a set of verses from Torah which we repeat many, many times over the course of a lifetime. The Shema is central to Judaism; it proclaims not only our monotheism but also our reverence for words, the words in our most beloved books:

And these words that I give you today will be upon your hearts.   Teach them to your children. Speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them as symbols on your hands and tie them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-9

A New New Year’s Resolution

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!