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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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.

 

Traditions of Judaism Starts Sunday!

Image: Israeli President Ezer Weizman greeting Ethiopian Jews celebrating the Sigd Festival at Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade. Photo: SAAR YAACOV, GPO. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

A new online Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time. As always, I’m excited.

The Spring segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We look at all the different communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how we came to have those various communities. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism and why it is unique, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs. Given that this is an election year, we may talk a little about American Jews and politics, too.

The class is also available by via recordings if you have a schedule that makes that time impossible. To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline, Wednesday night class, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.)

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If the subject above interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Online Conversion? Online Classes?

This morning I had a comment from a reader that he deleted before I could reply to it. The gist, as I recall: Why shouldn’t a person take online classes as part of preparation for conversion? Reading it on my smartphone, I realized that I’d communicated something poorly. I flagged the question to answer when I got to my laptop – but then it was gone. I am grateful that this person’s question has prompted me to clear up some confusion.

I’ve come out pretty strongly against online conversion to Judaism in two separate blog posts: Can I Convert to Judaism Online? and Online Conversion, Revisited. The very short version of my reasoning is that conversion to Judaism isn’t a private matter; a candidate needs to have a local community of Jews with whom to live Jewishly. Ideally, that community will have a rabbi with whom a candidate can work towards conversion.

The process of conversion normally includes at least a  year of living Jewishly, an Introduction to Judaism class, pastoral counseling and study with a rabbi, and significant Jewish involvement before one moves to the mohel, the mikveh, and the beit din to fulfill the requirements for conversion. The reason it takes so long is that once a person becomes Jewish, they and the Jews are stuck with one another. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: All Israel is responsible, one for another. This is a very big deal, not to be entered upon lightly.

Anyone is welcome to take an Introduction to Judaism class online or offline. Taking the class is not conversion; it’s a step towards conversion, no more. I strongly recommend that anyone who wants the class to “count” towards conversion find the rabbi first and get their approval on it, lest you wind up having to take yet another Intro class, spending more time and tuition.

I will confess to having a stake in this, since I teach an Introduction to Judaism class that is available online. The next starting point for that class will be in the spring, on April 3, 2016. It is a 24 session course, offered in three parts, and costs $270 for the complete series.

I have had students who work with Reform, Conservative, and Renewal rabbis take my classes. If your rabbi would like to talk with me to consider whether the class is suitable for their process, I am happy to do that.

However, I don’t sponsor candidates for conversion, on- or off-line. I’m not a congregational rabbi, and I firmly believe that it is best to convert into a Jewish community, not just “to Judaism.” If you are seeking a rabbi with whom to convert, be sure and check out their credentials. The acceptability of your conversion in various Jewish communities will depend on your rabbi’s credentials. There is no “ultimate” conversion: even if you go through an Orthodox conversion there will be some communities that do not recognize it. However, what you want is a rabbi whose credentials will qualify you for the Jewish community with whom you want to live. An ethical rabbi will explain to you the realities of conversion with that rabbi.

So that’s the story. I teach Intro (I love teaching Intro!) and I do teach it online. I don’t sponsor people for conversion. My class is suitable for people studying for conversion provided their rabbi approves it, and it is also suitable for anyone looking for a basic Jewish education. If there is a synagogue in your area, check with them about Basic Judaism or Intro classes – they may offer live classes, and you’ll get to know the rabbi into the bargain.

I hope this clears things up. And I do hope that the mystery commenter returns to read it, because it was a very good question!

A Very Important Class

It’s that time again – I’m teaching the class on antisemitism tonight.

I looked over my old lesson plan, and almost changed it. We’re in a different world all of a sudden. We’ve had antisemitic “incidents” in Europe ranging from murder to riots, and an ugly inquisition at a student government meeting in California.

I decided to stick with my old lesson plan, because it is the basis for what my students need to know. Hatred of Jews goes way back in history. It has taken various forms over the centuries. Roman and Greek thinkers believed Jews lazy and disrespectful by nature. Christian antisemitism began as a set of religious beliefs about Jews. Religous antisemitism gradually took political forms, as Christianity became the established religion of Europe. By the 16th century in Spain, there was talk about “Jewish blood” and a sense of Jews as a race began to creep into the European vocabulary. Judaism was no longer an error of belief: it was a physical characteristic. Meanwhile, justifications for doing worse and worse things to Jews piled up.

And then, yes, the 20th century came and with it the horrors of the Holocaust. What I want my students to understand is that the Holocaust wasn’t just “a German thing” and it wasn’t just an episode. All of European history led up to it, and unfortunately, many of the same beliefs and attitudes that gave rise to it are with us today.

Some things have changed for the better: Vatican II brought a radical change of doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church, repudiating its old antisemitism. In the United States and in some parts of Europe, there is a strong feeling of “never again.” Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center track hate speech and hate crimes.

But we have also slid backwards in other ways. Nazi propaganda made its way into the Arab world during WWII, and so the blood libel and other horrors are still circulating, believed as fact. The Protocols of the Elders of Zionan ugly antisemitic hoax, is still circulating, too. And there are hate groups in the West as well: anyone who searches for “Jew” on Google will be greeted by an avalanche of filth.

The modern state of Israel has become a magnet for antisemitic rhetoric. Criticism of Israel is certainly a valid activity – I am not madly in love with many policies of the State of Israel and its government – but a frightening amount of the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears tumbles over the line into antisemitism.

So that’s what’s on my mind tonight. I need to make sure that those studying towards conversion understand that they are signing up for this, and that it isn’t going away. I want to communicate ways of responding, and ways to stay centered while reading the news. It’s a big job, and I feel one of the most important things I do as an “Intro to Judaism” teacher. I’ll finish with questions I’m going to ask the students:

What do you do when you hear someone say something antisemitic? How do you decide what you are going to do? What about hatred aimed at other groups such as people of color or Muslims? When did it last happen, and what did you do?