Registration is open for Intro to the Jewish Experience: Traditions of Judaism

Image: Two hands fit puzzle pieces together, with the heading “Introduction to the Jewish Experience”

Registration is open for the Spring Term of Introduction to the Jewish Experience. The spring topic is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will look at the things that unite Jews worldwide, and at the vast diversity of Jewish practice and experience.

This is an eight week course, beginning March 6 and concluding on May 1, meeting on Sunday afternoons from 3:30 until 5 Pacific Time. (The Eventbrite page has an incorrect date for the last week.) We meet via Zoom, and welcome students from all over North America and (occasionally) the world.

Students may take this class as a stand-alone experience, or may take it as one part of the three-part Introduction to the Jewish Experience, a course in the basics of Judaism. Tuition is $200 per term, but we have a “pay what you can” option — no one is ever turned away for lack of funds, nor do we question need.

The last day for sign-up is March 6, the first day of class.


Topics, week by week:

3/6 Welcome & Shabbat – Shabbat is the great unifier of Jews worldwide, whether individual Jews observe it or not.

3/13 Jewish Community & Institutions – The synagogue and other Jewish institutions have evolved over time, but they are the primary ways Jews organize ourselves.

3/20 Jewish Public Prayer – Jewish prayer services follow the same basic outline all over the world, whether they are orthodox or liberal. The goal this week is to help students get a feel for the outline and purpose of the service, so that wherever you go, you won’t feel lost, even if you speak no Hebrew.

3/27 Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture – What is Sephardic Judaism? We will explore this rich and beautiful Jewish tradition both in the past and today.

4/3 Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture – Ashkenazi Judaism is the Jewish culture most familiar to Americans — we will look at its origin and history and current expressions.

4/10 Mizrahi & Other Jewish Communities – We will learn about the historic Jewish communities of the Middle East, of Africa, of India, of China, and of Central Asia. Some of them still flourish in those places, and some have worked to maintain their distinctive cultures in new places. Some have nearly disappeared.

4/17 – No class, since this is both the second day of Passover and Easter Sunday.

4/24 North American Judaism & the Movements – North America has become home to all of the communities above, and in the process acquired its own history and culture, too. We will look at the intersection of Jews and politics, the history of Jews in North America, and at the movements of Judaism.

5/1 Jews & Food – Food practices are one way we Jews express both unity and diversity. We will talk about kashrut (keeping kosher) and other Jewish food traditions.


After this class, I am going to break for summer. We’ll resume in the fall with the rest of the series:

Introduction to the Jewish Experience

  • Fall: Jewish Holidays & Life Cycle
    • Begins after High Holy Days
  • Winter: Jewish History through Texts
    • Begins after January 1
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism
    • Begins in March

If you would like to be notified of the upcoming class, email CoffeeShopRabbi (at) gmail.com with your name, email, city, and the name of your rabbi, if you have one.

I look forward to learning with you!

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.

Registration for Winter “Intro” Now Open!

Image: Two hands fit two puzzle pieces together, with the words “Introduction” above and “To the Jewish Experience” written below. Artwork from pixabay, modified by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

On January 2, 2022, Introduction to the Jewish Experience will begin its winter session. There will be two separate classes offered every Sunday afternoon, Pacific Time:

Jewish History Through Texts

What is the Torah? Where did it come from? What are Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud? What is “Jewish Law”? Where did antisemitism come from? How did the modern State of Israel come into being? How are these questions all connected?

This class is a look at Jewish history from the earliest times through about the year 1000 CE, with a quick look forward to the 20th century.  Sessions will alternate between stories about history and the texts of the Jews in that time. In the text weeks, we’ll experience the ways that Jews study text. 

No Hebrew is required, and no previous knowledge is assumed. This is one of three terms of Introduction to the Jewish Experience, but anyone is welcome to take this class.

Tuition is $200 for 8 sessions, or pay what you can. 

Class dates & times: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Sundays, 3:30-5:00pm Pacific Time, via Zoom.

Please note that registrations will close–no exceptions!–before class on January 2. Please register before the end of 2021! Jewish History Through Texts will be offered again in January, 2023.

REGISTER HERE for Jewish History Through Texts.

Traditions of Judaism (Jewish Diversity)

Some things hold the Jewish world together, things we all share. Other things express the cultural, historical, and geographic diversities of Judaism. This class looks at both. Topics include those things we share, such as Shabbat, the synagogue, and the prayer service. Then we’ll look at the diversity of Jewish traditions: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and other groups, as well as North American Judaism. We’ll look at the movements of Judaism: Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal. We finish up by looking at Jewish food customs, which are both shared and diverse.

No Hebrew is required, and no previous knowledge is assumed. This is one of three terms of Introduction to the Jewish Experience, but anyone is welcome to take this class.

Tuition is $200 for 8 sessions, or pay what you can. 

Class dates: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Class dates & times: January 2, 9,16, 23, 30 and February 6, 13, 20. Sundays, 1:30-3:00pm Pacific Time, via Zoom.

@Please note that registrations will close–no exceptions!–before class on January 2. Please register before the end of 2021! Traditions of Judaism will be offered again from March – May, 2022.

REGISTER HERE for Traditions of Judaism.

Registration will close with the beginning of each class – no late registrations. After January 2, write to me at CoffeeShopRabbi -at- gmail.com to get on my mailing list for the next classes, which will begin in March, 2022.

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.

News! Intro to the Jewish Experience starts 7/19/2020

Image: Quilt by Barbara Kadden RJE, z”l, Genesis 12:1: YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.Photo by Ruth Adar.

Do you identify as Jewish, but feel like an outsider to Jewish community? Have you been assigned to take an “Intro” class? Would you like to explore Judaism as an adult, with adult topics and choices? 

This summer I am teaching Part A of “Introduction to the Jewish Experience,” a class designed to equip students for full participation in Jewish community. No Hebrew is required, although students will acquire some basic Hebrew or Yiddish vocabulary they are likely to encounter in Jewish settings.

The full course consists of three terms of eight sessions each. The terms may be taken in any order. This summer we will be offering Jewish Holidays and Life CycleThis term consists of a basic introduction to Jewish theology, the cycle of the Jewish year, and to the Jewish life cycle from cradle to grave.

I shall offer “Part B: Israel and Texts”  in Fall 2020 and “Part C: Jewish Diversity: A Big Jewish World,” in Winter 2020.

The course includes:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. God, Covenant, Mitzvah
  3. Fall Holiday Cycle: High Holy Days, Sukkot, Simchat Torah
  4. Spring Holiday Cycle: Purim, Passover, Shavuot
  5. National Holidays: Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, The Yoms, Tisha B’Av
  6. Death and Mourning in Jewish Communities
  7. Birth and Conversion – Welcoming New Jews
  8. Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Jewish Weddings

Classes will meet via Zoom on Sunday afternoons, Sunday, July 19, 2020 thru Sunday, September 6, 2020, 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM Pacific Time. For information about tuition (which is on a sliding scale) and registration, please visit the course page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog.

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.

Israel and Texts: An Online Class!

Image: Lehrhaus Judaica Logo

Have you ever wished you had a stronger Jewish education? Wondered what people are talking about when they cite “the Talmud” or “Jewish Law”? Have you ever wished you knew more about your heritage and could discuss it with others?

I teach a class called “Israel and Texts” which traces the development of Jewish texts, from the Biblical sources of ancient times, through the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and on through the development of the Talmud and the great law codes of the 16th century.  We will learn about how “Jewish Law” works, and how it is a living process, still unfolding in the 21st century.

We will discover the ways that Jews engage with texts and do text study ourselves. We will look at the many ways in which Jewish texts are rooted in the land of Israel.

Class will begin on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at 3:30pm Pacific Time and meet for 90 minutes.  Our text will be Settings of Silver: An Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M. Wylen, with supplementary texts provided. Tuition for the class is $90; you can register using the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. No Hebrew is required. All you need is Internet access and a computer or tablet. We will use the Zoom platform for teaching, with supplementary material distributed via Dropbox and Facebook. A private Facebook group provides a forum for discussion and questions.

The class is 8 sessions, and is offered both as a stand-alone class and as a term of our Introduction to the Jewish Experience classes.

I hope you’ll join me to learn about Israel and Texts!

Dates for Intro to the Jewish Experience, 5778/2017-8

Image: Intro class at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA.

The dates for my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class have been set for the upcoming year!  Here are the dates for online classes:

Fall Term: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays – Sundays, October 22 – December 10, 2017

A very basic introduction to Jewish lifecycle events and the yearly cycle of holidays.

Winter Term: Israel & Texts – Sundays, January 21 – March 11, 2018

An introduction to Jewish sacred texts and to the land of Israel through those texts. We will briefly study Torah, Bible, Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), and the process of Responsa.

Spring Term: Traditions of Judaism – Sundays, April 8 – June 3, 2018

This class examines the vast diversity of the Jewish world: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, American Judaism, as well as Jewish food customs and culture.

The terms may be taken in any order. Tuition is $225 for the full series, or $90 per term.  Classes meet from 3:30pm – 5pm Pacific Time online.

Terms are structured as follows:

Register through the Lehrhaus Judaica website.

This class parallels a class offered on Wednesday evenings at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. For more info about that traditional class and to register for it, check the Lehrhaus online catalog.

Learn about Judaism Online!

I teach about Judaism online. Some of it, like this blog, is free to anyone who accesses it. But if you’d like something a bit more organized, especially if you need a formal “Introduction to Judaism” course for conversion or a wedding, I also offer a class through Lehrhaus Judaica of Berkeley, CA.

This year’s “Online Intro” class will begin on October 23, at 3pm Pacific Time.  We use Adobe Connect, a program that will allow most people to access the class if they have an Internet connection and a computer.

If Sunday afternoons (or evenings) don’t work for you, don’t worry. I will email a link to class recordings to everyone who is registered for the class. I am happy to meet with you via Skype or phone to answer questions, and you can participate in class discussions via the class Facebook page.

The class comes in three parts. You can take one of them, or all three, in any order:

Fall: Lifecycle and Holidays – exactly what it sounds like (begins October 23)

Winter: Israel and Texts – a look at Ancient and Modern Israel via traditional texts (begins January 15, 2017)

Spring: Traditions of Judaism – a look at the vast diversity of the Jewish world: Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, American, and other possibilities. (begins March 26, 2017)

For more information, check out the class website.

To register, and for class fees, go to our Lehrhaus online catalog page.