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"After living with a disability for 22-plus years and trying in vain to write about it for almost as many, I've finally gotten my thoughts down on paper." So Joshua Prager introduces his new memoir Half-Life, which details the aftermath of a devastating bus accident that occurred on his visit to Israel at age 19. In the e-book Prager renders himself astonishingly vulnerable, in part by asking difficult questions: If I no longer feel like myself, am I still myself? And if I'm not, how do I interact with others? In finely crafted language ("a cement staircase lined with dirt and dead thistles depositing me at the edge") Prager shares piercing details, ruminations, and conclusions about his journey through grief into recovery. He offers, for example, his experience with Brown-Séquard Syndrome, "which roughly meant that one half of me could move better, the other half feel better." He fills the pages with selections of poetry and returns again and again to Herman Melville, whose words he uses to investigate not just what it has meant to cope with the immense loss of the life he knew, but what it means for anyone to understand and accept themselves.
Watch Prager's TED Talk here.- Jessica Young
Dr Emily Michelson is a transplant from the United States, and has previously lived in Italy, Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, Manhattan, and other parts of the US East Coast. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1995 in History and Literature of the Renaissance and Reformation. Despite vowing never to go to graduate school, and taking a few years off after university to pursue other interests, she returned to the field to earn a PhD from Yale in 2006 in History and Renaissance Studies. Emily is a cultural historian of the Reformation era, with a focus on Italy. She is especially interested in how religious change affects standards of behavior for individuals and for groups, and the tensions between external social norms and internal experience. Her recent book, The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy (Harvard University Press, 2013), examines the role of Italian preachers during religious crisis and schism. The book credits preachers with keeping Italy Catholic when the region’s religious future seemed uncertain, and with creating a new religious culture that would survive in an unprecedented atmosphere of competition and religious choice. She is also the co-editor of A Linking of Heaven and Earth: Studies in Religious and Cultural History in Honor of Carlos M.N. Eire (Ashgate, 2012); among other topics, the book tackles head-on the question of how to study miracles in an age of skepticism. Emily currently runs a project, funded by the British Academy, studying how people heard (or misheard) sermons in the Reformation era, and whether audience behavior links to growing religious differences. From 2010-2012 she was interim director of the Reformation Studies Institute.
Emily’s new research examines the social and theological significance of Roman Jews in the Catholic Reformation. This project has brought her speaking engagements in Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, Rome, and Dublin. She will be spending the 2013-2014 academic year in Florence as the Robert Lehman Fellow at Villa I Tatti (the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies), where she plans to complete the bulk of the research for this project.
"It is important to quiet the lamb, that is the first thing." So begins Naomi Alderman's The Liars' Gospel, a fictional account of Jesus' life set against the backdrop of the Jews' struggles against Roman rule. Alderman gives us four points of view, or gospels, on the life of Yehoshuah (Jesus), focusing mainly on the time between his departure from home and his death. We hear from his mother, Miryam (Mary), who laments her son's departure and has trouble accepting him in his new role as a “teacher.” We hear from his follower, confidant, and later his betrayer, Iehuda (Judas), one of the most compelling characters in this story. It is through Iehuda's eyes that we see Yehoshuah evolve from a man who has gathered a few supporters through his messages of forgiveness and healing, to a man who is leading a movement of thousands of followers. Through Iehuda we see how Yehoshuah loses his way gradually, in small missteps, veering incrementally farther away from the messages he started his teachings with and into a more self-serving role. We hear from the high priest, Caiaphas, whose life's work was to maintain the precarious balance between the desires of the Jews and the demands of the Romans. And finally we hear from a young Jewish rebel, Bar-Avo (Barabbas), in whose hands lies the fate of the Jewish people at the time.Continue reading the review and an interview with the author, Naomi Alderman.
The long-awaited second novel from Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient Michael Lavigne. Michael's new novel follows Roman Guttman, a Russian-born postmodern architect who is injured in a bus bombing, as he journeys into Palestinian territory. Roman's story alternates with the diary of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anyusha, and is enriched by flashbacks of Anyusha's mother's life, a famous Russian refusenik who died for her beliefs.
By Jessica Weisberg The winner of the Sami Rohr Literary Prize—which, at $100,000, is one of the most generous literary awards in the world—won’t be announced until April, but many of the finalists, along with some 150 writers, editors, and publishers, attended the National Jewish Book Awards, held last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Sitting for dinner at what people took to calling the “Rohr Kids Table,” writers, both nominated and not, gossiped nervously about the five finalists: Francesca Segal (The Innocents), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station), Stuart Nadler (The Book of Life), Shani Boianjiu (The People Forever Are Not Afraid), and Asaf Shurr (Motti). “If you don’t hear by 10 a.m., you didn’t get it,” said Allison Amend, a novelist and Rohr finalist in 2011, to Boianjiu, who was visiting New York from Israel. The Rohr Prize is intended for an emerging writer of Jewish literature—but the way the award defines “Jewish literature” is somewhat vague. “We look for books written with a Jewish pen and Jewish eyes, that have a kernel of Jewish content,” said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, which hosts the awards. “Strong feelings of Jewish identity now might change the writers’ focus in the future.” There are no submissions; finalists are nominated by a panel of judges. “Otherwise, I’d have to rent out the Empire State Building,” to house all the eager entries, Hessel said. All of the council’s other awards are submission-based and define Jewish literature in a more straightforward way, recognizing books about Jewish people and history; there are categories like “Education and Jewish Identity” and “Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.” In 1992, when Hessel became director of the National Jewish Book Council, awards for books written in Hebrew and Yiddish were given on the basis of more traditional categories, such as “Children’s Picture Book,” and “Israel.” Continue reading.
The Sydney Taylor Book Award will be celebrating and showcasing its 2013 gold and silver medalists and a few selected Notables with a Blog Tour, February 11-15, 2013! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a wide variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. For those of you who have not yet experienced a Blog Tour, it’s basically a virtual book tour. Instead of going to a library or bookstore to see an author or illustrator speak, you go to a website on or after the advertised date to read an author’s or illustrator’s interview. Below is the schedule for the 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments! THE 2013 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2013 Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older ReadersCategory At Shelf-Employed Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older ReadersCategory At Ann Koffsky’s Blog Continue reading.
Critics have been speculating for years about who will pen the next Great American Jewish Novel. All signs pointed to Michael Chabon when his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union conceived of an alternate history in which a Jewish homeland was established in Alaska instead of Israel. But Chabon’s latest release is sending critics and Jewish-literature soothsayers back to their laptops and crystal balls. Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is markedly not so Jewish. The novel tells the story of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store in 2004 Berkeley, CA. It explores the friendship of the shop’s two co-owners, as well as the lives and dynamics of their families. Instead of defining the basic idea of the novel as in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the Jewishness of Telegraph Avenue, Chabon says, is "not an overt theme of the book." We see it, rather, in the way the characters live their lives: in the tensions between the black and Jewish families at the center of the story and, as Chabon said in one interview, in "the thread of Jewish involvement both in the production and distribution of [black popular] music." But, the author insists: "The book is not about that… It’s about two guys who own a record store."
So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomena of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking! In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years! Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah. Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.” The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.
It was the best of publishing years; it was the worst of publishing years. OK, mostly it was the worst. But it was a remarkably good year for books aimed at the 8- to 14-year-old crowd. I can’t remember another year with such a diverse, well-written, and fascinating crop of books with Jewish themes. Here’s a list of the best of the lot, just in time for Hanukkah, so you can find the perfect selection for the kids in your life. Because you know what the best gift is for a little Person of the Book? A book! PICTURE BOOKS As usual this year, I thought most of the picture books were pretty meh. Why are so many Jewish picture books so didactic? Why do they feature tooth-achingly cutesy or smeary-sappy pastel art? Why are the texts so leaden, the rhyme schemes so awkward? Don’t ask why. Just celebrate and buy the few good ones. How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. The holiday season can make wee Jews feel like the odd kid out. So, it’s nice to be able to give them a book from a series familiar to the majority culture but aimed specifically at Jewish audiences. Most will already know the gazillion-selling “How Do Dinosaurs” series by Yolen and Teague. In this installment, naughty dinosaurs model bad Hanukkah behavior (a Dracorex dances around maniacally, sticking out its tongue as the text tsk-tsks, “Does a dinosaur act up/on Chanukah nights/when Mama comes in/with the holiday lights?”). Good dinos, of course, sing along with the prayers, take turns with the dreidel, clear the table, and are gracious to Bubbe and Zayde. Charming, oversized, beautifully published. Teague’s illustrations are funny, and your kid will learn new scientific dino names (written in tiny letters alongside each creature) along with good manners. What more do you want? (Ages 2-7)
Jean Laffite: The Pirate Who Saved America, by by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Jeff Himmelman. How the hell did I not know the pirate was a Jew? Lafitte led a double life as a dashing privateer on the high seas and a handsome, respected Jewish citizen of Louisiana. He grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late 1700s, then saved New Orleans during the War of 1812 by foiling a British plot to invade the city. In an author’s note, Rubin explains that after the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews hated Spain and were happy to hire themselves out to plunder Spanish ships. (One pirate-rabbi even had a kosher chef aboard his vessel!) I loved learning about this swashbuckling Hebrew and appreciated Rubin’s thoughtful afterword about Jewish piracy and Lafitte’s ambivalence toward slavery. The book is utterly compelling even though the stately, slightly stilted illustrations (done with Photoshop and paint) are not my thing. (Ages 6-10) A Hen for Izzy Pippik, by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Marie LaFrance. A new book by the author of Bagels From Benny should make all Jewish parents sit up and take notice. This one is based on both Jewish and Islamic folktales. A little girl finds a gorgeous chicken, whose emerald green feathers have golden speckles. She knows it belongs to the absent Izzy Pippik and protects it and its ever-growing band of babies from the irked and greedy denizens of her village. The faux-naif, scratchboard-esque art is fun, with chicks running crazily all over the place. Spoiler alert: The little girl’s menschiness is rewarded, and the village lives happily ever after. (Ages 4-8)
I’ve adored illuminated manuscripts all my life — as a child and teenager, these were the postcards I’d take home from museum trips. I’ve done hundreds of ketubot and this is my third book project published in 7 years, and as absorbing as each of these projects has been, Arise! Arise! has the deepest claim on me. Arise! Arise! is a memorial to my late husband, David, who passed away in March 2009 after a long struggle with a unique spinal cord cancer. A couple of afternoons before he died, my father-in-law, Arnold Band, a renowned scholar of Hebrew literature, and I were sitting and talking quietly beside David’s bed in our family room, which had now morphed into a home hospice. “So, you know what your next project is going to be?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and said something like, “I know you’re going to tell me.” He knew perfectly well that I’d been working on Esther insofar as the illness allowed. “Yes,” he said, “your next project is going to be “Shirat Devorah and do you know why? Because you are the Devorah.” The real reason, however, the one that neither of us could yet bring ourselves to say, was that this would be a memorial to the son and husband we were about to lose. Why Shirat Devorah? This two-part tale from Judges —a prose narrative and the much older epic poem, one of the oldest chunks of the Tanakh— had been David’s bar mitzvah haftarah, and he really loved its blood and guts war story. Indeed, the previous night I’d asked our younger son, Gabi, to chant the haftarah for his Abba so that he could hear it one more time. So, Deborah intrigued me, but two aspects of the project presented a puzzle. Solving those puzzles, however, gave me something from “my own life” to focus on, a sense of future against the backdrop of the bitter absurdity and disaster of my husband’s loss. Continue reading.
Debra Band's most recent book, Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah, is now available. Her work in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts draws upon her love of both the manuscript arts, and Jewish tradition and learning.
What kind of author writes himself into his own novel? One with a great deal of hubris, it would seem. But if that writer is a 97-year-old Pulitzer Prize writer, with over 60 years of best-selling books behind him, we might judge him more sympathetically. His story, after all, amounts to literary history. And in the case of Herman Wouk, it is a highly unusual history.
Wouk’s life work presents some unusual literary statistics. How many writers have the opportunity to update one of their best-selling novels, 55 years after its original publication? How many have contributed to American literature on the scale of Herman Wouk? Approaching his centenary, Mr. Wouk has been writing for the majority of that time, showing considerable range in style and subject. A strong candidate for the “most widely-read American Jewish novelist,” Wouk won a Pulitzer for “The Caine Mutiny,” appeared on the cover of Time. His books, including “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” have been made into movies, Broadway plays and television miniseries. Highlights of Wouk’s past books are on display in his latest novel, “The Lawgiver.” The story follows the making of a movie about the biblical figure, Moses — a topic that the character of “Herman Wouk” just happens to be trying to tackle in a novel. Although it is a fine place for Wouk beginners to start, “The Lawgiver” offers a trip down memory lane for those familiar with his oeuvre. In particular, Wouk looks back to his 1955 “Marjorie Morningstar.” “Marjorie,” a novel with a long gestation period, caused Wouk much anxiety, coming as it did after the Pulitzer prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny.” In 1952, Wouk wrote in his journal (portions of which are now housed at Columbia University’s Manuscripts and Archives): “At the moment I’m all muscle bound — rusty, aware of the Mutiny, vague, unsure of where or how to get going. But all this will pass and the cork will come out of the bottle, and Marjorie will let live. She does live. She asks only ink and paper and some honest sitting at the desk.” Continue reading.
Looking for some great Jewish books for children this Hanukkah? Look no further than Jvillage's Pinterest page. A whole slew of Jewish books, Hanukkah and non-Hanukkah themed, for your child's reading pleasure.
The latest in Jewish literature, culled from all ages and all genres. Members of the Scribe is a collaboration between MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, a blog written by the authors of some of today's best new books. Each week, we'll have a different author helming the blog and writing about their book, their Judaism, their own favorite authors, and whatever inspired madness they choose to bring.
As a Jewish blogger and editor, I always say that the period leading up to Jewish Book Month is one of my favorite times of the year. So many books come across my desk for review—I only wish I had the time to read them all. Each author, each new book, is not just a potential article for my magazine or blog post. To me, every author—whether they write fiction or non-fiction— is a storyteller, adding their own piece to our collective Jewish story.
This year the tables have turned, and I’m the one hoping and wishing that Jewish editors and writers will choose my book from among the great pile for review—the thought makes me feel proud, humble and frightened all at once.
In putting together my new anthology, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I hoped to be a storyteller as well. In the Jewish world, engaging 20- and 30-somethings is a hot button issue—questions like ‘How do we get young Jews to feel connected to Israel? To affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions? To care about Jewish continuity, ritual and tradition?’ float around waiting to be answered.
Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest books of all time. So it's no surprise that the epic is subject to plenty of parodies and spoofs, including a Jewish version, written by one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Shalom Yakov Abramowich, commonly known by the name of his most famous character, Mendele the Book Peddler.
In Abramowich’s novella The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third, we're told the story of two "fools" from a poor Jewish town who get the travel bug in a major way—yearning to find the Jewish kingdom that they have read about in the legends of the Ten Lost Tribes.
But like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Benjamin and his crony Sendrel don't make it very far. In fact, they barely make it past their own town limits before falling into hijinx after hijinx.
The title of the book itself refers to a well-known travelogue by the medieval Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, making Benjamin the Third a book steeped in the influence of other texts.
Judaism.com has a treasure trove of children't books for Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Here are a few for your child's enjoyment:
In this candid and comprehensive probe into the nature of moral transgression and spiritual healing, Dr. Louis E. Newman examines both the practical and philosophical dimensions of teshuvah, Judaism’s core religious-moral teaching on repentance, and its value for us—Jews and non-Jews alike—today. He exposes the inner logic of teshuvah as well as the beliefs about God and humankind that make it possible. He also charts the path of teshuvah, revealing to us how we can free ourselves from the burden of our own transgressions.
“Every Person’s Guide to the High Holy Days” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs“Who by Fire, Who By Water; Un’taneh Tokef,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. HoffmanA Faithful Heart: Preparing for the High Holidays by Benjamin Levy, Foreword by Rabbi Norman Cohen
In Grandpa's House
Maurice Sendak illustrated over a hundred books, both his own stories and those written by others. The illustrated book In Grandpa's House might be his most personal illustration project--the author of the text is Philip Sendak, Maurice's father.
Written in 1970, the year before Philip Sendak’s death--and just after the death of Philip's wife Sarah--the short book is a simple, lyrical story (with illustrations, it's a mere 40 pages). It starts out as an autobiography about Philip's boyhood in a Polish shtetl. Then, in the middle, it abruptly becomes a magical story about a boy named David whose grandfather dies and whose parents disappear. To find them, he must go on a search through a demented fairy-tale world filled with talking animals, miniature people, and giants.
If one were to name the source for Maurice Sendak's own preoccupation with death, kidnapping, and the macabre, this book might be it. (Remember some of the books authored by the younger Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, in which Max runs away from his parents to a land where monsters rampage all night, and Outside Over There, in which Ida's baby sister is stolen by goblins.) But unlike many of Maurice’s scary stories, Phillip's gives us a satisfying resolution and a happy ending.
By Jordana Horn
My husband Jon has frequently commented that my cooking might taste better if I did not regularly read novels while I cook. I tell him that this is a charming detail about me that will elicit loving laughter when he mentions it during his eulogy at my funeral. He finds this annoying, for whatever reason. He then says something like, “A smoke alarm should not be what makes you put down the book,” or that normal people do not have books in the drawers under the stove. Well, I never said I was normal, hon.
Here are some recommendations for those few-and-far-between moments you might snatch for yourself this summer. This list is both newer books and older ones, paperbacks and hardcovers, fiction and non, spanning various levels of intellectual rigor–though you will note that a certain bondage fantasy has conspicuously been left off the list!
Please feel free to add suggestions (along with a little topical blurb) in the comments. A friend of mine mentioned she was going on a no-television-summer…and now that Mad Men and Game of Thrones are over, I may join her. Kveller book club, anyone?Continue reading.
Looking for interesting reading this summer? Two biographies of Jewish women make for a fascinating read. Read the stories of Rachel Bella Kahn and Rebecca Cohen Mayer to see what tough stock from which these women were made.
In 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn travelled from Russia to the United States for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof, an immigrant homesteader in North Dakota. Rachel Calof's Story combines her memoir of a hard pioneering life on the prairie with scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background and show her narrative to be both unique and a representative western tale. Her narrative is riveting and candid, laced with humor and irony.
The memoir, written by Rachel Bella Calof in 1936, recounts aspects of her childhood and teenage years in a Jewish community, (shtetl) in Russia, but focuses largely on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as homesteaders. She recalls her horror at the hardships of pioneer life—especially the crowding of many family members into the 12 x 14' dirt-floored shanties that were their first dewllings. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader," says Calof, "the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear." Money, food, and fuel were scarce, and during bitter winters, three Calof households—Abraham and Rachel with their growing children, along with his parents and a brother's family—would pool resources and live together (with livestock) in one shanty.
Rebecca Cohen Mayer was born to German-Jewish immigrants in 1837 and raised in Mexico and Texas. When she was 15 years old, she married a man twice her age and set off on the Santa Fe Trail. In a company of over 50 explorers, she was the only woman.The new book With a Doll in One Pocket and a Pistol in the Other is a retelling of her life. Historian Kay Goldman came upon Mayer's diary, written in the style of a memoir, and Goldman used it to reconstruct Mayer’s story and family history.Curiously, Mayer's diary opens not with her own birth, but with her husband's, in Ober Ingelheim, Germany. Mayer can be forgiven for romanticizing, if only because her style is so colorful and energetic:"In the quiet little town where Henry Mayer was born, very few exciting things ever happened. However, when Henry was seventeen he visited an aunt who lived some distance away. While there he heard a great deal about America, the land of adventure, where all men were equal and even a poor man could amass a fortune. Best of all there were Indians there to conquer."Unlike Rachel Calof, a frontier mail-order bride who kept a diary, Mayer was born in America, and embarked on the wagon train of her own free will. As the story attests, she also has a much more daring spirit: Meeting Indians, exploring on her own (on foot and on horseback) when the wagons are camped, and managing the sometimes-less-than-competent menfolk.
According to Jewish law, it's inadvisable to read holy materials, or even mention God's name, in a bathroom.On the other hand, there's a classic rabbinical admonition never to waste a second. According to one apocryphal story, the famed 18th-century Rabbi Elijah of Vilna reconciled these competing values by writing his book of mathematical philosophy, Ail Meshulash, while on the can.In the same vein, for the past twelve years, Time Out New York music writer Jay Ruttenberg has written and compiled a magazine, The Lowbrow Reader, that's billed as "bathroom reading for intellectuals." Highlights from quarterly magazine were recently collected in the just-released bookThe Lowbrow Reader Reader.The Lowbrow Reader Reader isn't all Jewish stories, but many are, including a piece on the comedic genius of Adam Sandler, the story of an uncomfortable date with Jackie Mason ("Dinner with Jackie is like falling into an Old World Jewish fortune cookie....Imagine unspooling a Dead Sea Scroll of Yiddish-inflected commentary from the inner helix of a rugelach"), and biblical-minded cartoons by David Berman, the singer for the band Silver Jews. It's not officially a Jewish publication, but, written mainly by Jews, featuring Jews, and with a distinctly Jewish sense of humor, it might as well be.
Jews are known as the "People of the Book" for good reason. The Torah, otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible, has inspired debate and sparked imaginations for thousands of years, and the Talmud is itself an imaginative compendium of Jewish legal debate. Throughout the centuries, reflections and commentaries on these texts have continually expanded and transformed the way Jews understand their religion, their history and the possibilities of their future.
Given how much has been written by Jews, for Jews on the subject of Judaism, we thought it would be good to get guidance on where those looking for quintessential Jewish knowledge and wisdom should start. We asked some of our Jewish bloggers to submit their top picks for books that every Jew should read. From the good Five Books and the wisdom of the Sages to mystical musings and a feminist Jewish treatise, this list spans the ages and tastes of Jewish thought. But it is by no means comprehensive. That's one debate we don't wish to ignite.
What's your favorite Jewish book? Send your suggestions to email@example.com.
Excerpted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).
In traditional settings, the Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot. The book is about a Moabite woman who, after her husband dies, follows her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, into the Jewish people with the famous words "whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." She asserts the right of the poor to glean the leftovers of the barley harvest, breaks the normal rules of behavior to confront her kinsman Boaz, is redeemed by him for marriage, and becomes the ancestor of King David.
The custom of doing this is already mentioned in the talmudic tractate of Soferim (14:16), and the fact that the first chapter of the Midrash of Ruth deals with the giving of the Torah is evidence that this custom was already well established by the time this Midrash was compiled. [Tractate Soferim is one of the latest books of the Talmud, probably dating no earlier than the eighth century.]
There are many explanations given for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot. The most quoted reason is that Ruth's coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of God's Torah.
Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….
My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl… heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmud is replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, makhloket l’shem shamayim-an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.
Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God, that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.
Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because…[they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed.
Has your family ever led a Seder before? Are there young children present? Is it all adult?
Do you enjoy discussions or would you rather just get on with the meal? There are many Haggadot to choose from.
Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, an athiest or a non-observer, find one that’s right for your needs:
Every few years there’s one Haggadah that comes out that captures the imagination and prevailing zeitgeist. This year Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”) and Nathan Englander (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) have come out with the New American Haggadah. Jonathan Safran Foer orchestrates a new way of experiencing this text. His unique book is beautifully designed and illustrated by the acclaimed artist and calligrapher Oded Ezer, with a new translation by Nathan Englander. It brings together: Howard Jacobson, Lemony Snicket, Alain de Botton, Simon Schama, Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Jeffrey Goldberg and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Read an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer in the latest edition of Hadassah Magazine.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary by Jonathan SacksFrom the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, this Haggadah is actually two books in one. At what would be the back of an English-language book is the Haggadah in large, beautiful Hebrew typography, with an English translation adapted and with a running commentary by Rabbi Sacks.
Go Forth and Learn: David Silber (Author), Rachel Furst (Collaborator) Hebrew and English text with new commentary and essays. Rabbi Silber has given us two books in one: the Haggadah itself, in English and Hebrew, with his Seder commentary and a collection of essays that provide close readings of the classic biblical and rabbinic texts that inform Seder-night ritual and narration. Both parts work beautifully together to illuminate the central themes of Passover: people hood, Covenant, our relationship to ritual, God’s presence in history, and other important issues that resonate with us all.
Elie Wiesel (Author), Mark Podwal (Illustrator)
With this Passover Haggadah, Elie Wiesel and his friend Mark Podwal invite you to join them for the Passover Seder. Wiesel and Podwal guide you through the Haggadah and share their understanding and faith in a special illustrated edition.Accompanying the traditional Haggadah text (which appears here in an accessible new translation) are Elie Wiesel's poetic interpretations, reminiscences, and instructive retellings of ancient legends. The Nobel laureate interweaves past and present as the symbolism of the Seder is explored.
Shmuel Blitz and his brilliant children’s books never cease to amaze. This is his seventh book -- and they just seem to get better and better. This time, he puts his talents to the task of creating a Children’s Haggadah, and the result is one that will be enjoyed by child and grown-up alike. Specifically written for children ages 4-8, the full Hebrew text of the Haggadah is accompanied by a child-oriented, yet accurate English translation. There are clear, precise instructions that will guide the child through every stage of the Seder. And, each page contains a box that provides additional information about the Pesach narrative for the interested youngster.
by Harriet Goldner. Adults and children alike will appreciate this traditional Seder presented in a non-traditional way. It is easy to understand, enjoyable, and interesting. One six-year-old asked if it was written by Dr. Seuss! What better way to engage children in this wonderful, ritual observance?
The "Must Have" Haggadah written for the contemporary Jewish family. Whether you purchase the book or download the print-your-own version of 30minute-Seder™... this refreshingly brief, rabbinically approved Passover Haggadah maintains the reverence of Passover while keeping the high points intact. The contemporary gender-neutral text, beautiful full-color illustrations, and Seder songs make for a memorable Passover Seder that engages and entertains the entire family.
Written by Alan S. Yoffie Illustrations by Mark Podwal
The inclusive text, commentary, and magnificent original artwork in this new Haggadah will make all family members and friends feel welcome at your seder. Young and old, beginners and experienced seder participants, will experience the joy of celebrating Passover together with clear step-by-step explanations, inspiring readings on the themes of justice and freedom for all, and opportunities for discussion. Songs to sing along with will be available for download also.
Feminist Haggadot emphasize the role of women in the Passover story. “The Journey Continues: The Ma’yan Passover Haggadah,” from 2006 as part of the Jewish Women’s Project, tells the story of the Exodus in the voices of both men and women and reflects a vision of a world in which freedom belongs to all people.
This website offers 8 downloadable Haggadot crossing all lines, from novices to experts, even non-observant Jews, including the vocalized Haggadah, enabling you to hear the Seder service.
The Wandering is Over - from JewishBoston.comThis free, downloadable half-hour Seder might be just the thing for you and your guests. It’s pretty bare bones but has all the essentials.
GLBT Passover Haggadah
The GLBT Haggadah integrates GLBT Passover traditions within the spirit of the traditional Passover experience. It includes a GLBT-specific Seder plate, the Four GLBT Children, the Prophetess Miriam's Cup, a Timeline of GLBT Events that parallels the Magid and much, MUCH more. This Haggadah is interactive and allows participants to color-in graphics for a unique & colorful personal touch. Download and read more.
At the start of Shalom Auslander’s staggeringly nervy new novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” a doleful Jewish non-farmer named Solomon Kugel climbs fearfully into the attic of his recently acquired farmhouse. He hopes the tapping sounds in the attic are being made by nothing worse than mice.
No such luck. The tapping is from a typewriter. And the typist, a stooped, foul-mouthed old lady who does not suffer fools gladly, is the single person about whom Jewish writers most avidly fantasize: Anne Frank.
Other fiction writers have gotten this fresh with Anne Frank. But they don’t get much funnier. Mr. Auslander (not to be confused with Nathan Englander, whose “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is imminent) is neither a voyeur nor a romantic when it comes to conjuring Anne. He is an absurdist with a deep sense of gravitas. He brings to mind Woody Allen, Joseph Heller and — oxymoron here — a libido-free version of Philip Roth.
As a man who becomes involved with a famously and totally unattainable woman, Mr. Auslander’s Kugel aligns nicely with Mr. Allen’s Kugelmass, the guy who was dropped into the midst of “Madame Bovary” only to find out how overrated Emma Bovary’s charms could be. Certainly that’s how “Hope: A Tragedy” unfolds at first. When Kugel first encounters the old bat claiming to be Anne, he is too dumbfounded to be diplomatic. Indignantly, he calls her an insult to the memory of the young girl who died in Auschwitz. “It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass,” Anne Frank replies. (She was imprisoned in both.)
“While there’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic, this was a particularly bad time,” Mr. Auslander writes. The Kugels are recent transplants from New York City to the countryside; they have a dangerously nosy tenant who demands storage space in the attic where Anne is living; and Kugel’s mother lives with the family, pretending to be dying. She is also obsessed with the Holocaust; she travels with baggage that she will never unpack, “just in case.” The only item she makes an exception for is a large framed picture of Alan Dershowitz that she hangs on the wall.
The Arts: Comic ReliefLeah F. Finkelshteyn
What is “Yiddishkeit”? The term encompasses Jewish culture, secular or religious. Its language, Yiddish, was born from a fusion of Hebrew, German and Slavic tongues. Its attitude can be cultured and warm or folksy and abrasive.
A new, superbly illustrated anthology, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land (Abrams, 240 pp. $29.95), edited by the late comics writer Harvey Pekar and historian Paul Buhle, seeks to describe what Neal Gabler in the book’s introduction admits is a “large, expansive and woolly” concept. With a loving eye—and emphasizing early socialist leanings—Pekar and Buhle extract moments and personalities from Yiddish history. They trace the culture from Eastern Europe, through its flourishing in American theater, periodicals and novels and to current nostalgia, influences and revival, with rich vignettes illustrated by over a dozen artists, largely using the storytelling argot of comics.
As Gabler notes, the book is “sprawling, kaleidoscopic, eclectic,” because Yiddishkeit cannot be defined neatly in word or pictures. “You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.” Click here to enjoy a selection of the wonderful, eclectic and evocative illustrations from the book.
Journalist Calvin Trillin is a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker who has written over two dozen books. But he is perhaps best known as a humorist, a career that began in 1978 when then-editor of The Nation, “the parsimonious Victor Navasky,” took him to lunch.
As Trillin recalls, Navasky wanted to “discuss his grand vision for transforming The Nation from a shabby Pinko sheet to a shabby Pinko sheet with a humor column.” That column, which ran from 1986 to 1995, was eventually syndicated in newspapers and then ran in Time magazine from 1995 to 2001.
It was in 1990, with a brief rhyme titled “If You Knew What Sununu,” that Trillin added poetry to his repertoire. He became what he called a “deadline poet” for The Nation, writing one new poem about current events each week, except in warmer months. “The Nation is published only every other week of the summer, even though the downtrodden are oppressed every day of the year,” Trillin explained.
Over the years, many of his columns and poems were collected in book form, including the just-published “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff.” It includes a number of his Jewish-themed pieces in a section called “Bagels, Yiddish and Other Jewish Contributions to Western Civilization.” Trillin spoke to The Arty Semite about finding inspiration and his Jewish sense of humor.
Curt Schleier: When did you realize you could make people laugh?
Lisa Alcalay Klug’s new book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, is a history and how-to manual of…well, being a cool Jew. Among other things, she has a yarmulke decoder, a “Marley or Matisyahu?” lyric contest, and the funniest example of Jewish Geography-in-action I’ve ever seen. But our favorite part of the book is this brief history of the book Curious George…and how it narrowly escaped from the Nazis. And just to give you an extra bonus, Klug has done a DVD-extras version of the page. Just click away to see.
The following is an excerpt from Cool Jew. Printed with permission, Andrews McMeel Publishing and Lisa Alcalay Klug, © Lisa Alcalay Klug 2008
Did you know Curious George is a Heebster? It’s true. The “parents” of Curious George, Hans Augusto Rey and his wife Margret Rey, first met in their native Hamburg, Germany. They remet and married in Rio De Janeiro.
Later, the happy couple moved to Paris and there, they conceived their story about a lovable, inquisitive monkey. As the Nazis began their advance on Paris, Hans realized they were in danger. Much like their beloved George might, Hans cobbled together spare parts into two bicycles. And in the early hours of June 14, 1940, he and Margret started pedaling.
Within hours, the Nazis occupied Paris but the Reys had already escaped to safety. Four days later they reached the Spanish border, bringing their precious manuscript with them. From there, they traveled on, to Lisbon, Brazil, New York City, and finally, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they lived out the rest of their days.Continue reading.
With 2011 coming to a close and the holiday season upon us, you may be looking for some books as gifts to friends, or yourself, of great Jewish reading. Michael Lerner compiled a list of 100 significant books from the last 25 years that have a profound message or are written in ways that are overwhelmingly beautiful and compelling or have had a profound impact on public Jewish discourse or have influenced the most creative people in their take on reality or are likely to have that impact.
And so, in alphabetical order:
1. Rachel Adler,
2. S.Y. Agnon,
3. Rebecca Albert,
Like Bread on the Seder Table
4. Robert Alter,
Canon and Creativity
5. Yehuda Amichai,
Open Closed Open
6. Judith S. Antonelli,
In the Image of God
7. Aharon Appelfeld,
8. Yehuda Bauer,
Rethinking the Holocaust
9. Saul Bellow,
10. Meron Benvenisti,
Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948
11. Ellen Bernstein,
Ecology and the Jewish Spirit
12. David Biale,
Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History
13. Harold Bloom,
The Book of J
14. Daniel Boyarin,
15. Melvin Jules Bukiet,
Stories of an Imagined Childhood
16. Jules Chametzky and others (eds.),
The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature
17. Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen,
The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America
18. David Cooper,
God is a Verb
19. Anita Diament,
The Red Tent
20. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman (eds.),
Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality
21. Evan Eisenberg,
The Ecology of Eden
22. Yaffa Eliach,
There Once Was a World
23. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi,
24. Marcia Falk,
The Book of Blessings
25. Michael Fishbane,
The Exegetical Imagination
26. Eva Fogelman,
Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust
27. Ellen Frankel,
The Five Books of Miriam
28. Saul Friedlander,
Nazi Germany and the Jews
29. Tikva Frymer-Kensky,
In the Wake of the Goddesses
30. Neil Gilman,
Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew
31. Sander L. Gilman,
32. Allan Ginsberg,
Selected Poems, 1947-1995
33. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen,
Hitler's Willing Executioners
34. Elyse Goldstein (ed.),
The Women's Torah commentary
35. Rebecca Goldstein,
Mazel: A Novel
36. Allegra Goodman,
37. Roger S. Gottlieb,
A Spirituality of Resistance
38. Arthur Green,
Seek My Face, Speak My Name
39. Irving Greenberg,
The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays
40. David Grossman,
See Under Love
41. Moshe Halbertal,
The People of the Book
42. David Hartman,
Israelis and the Jewish Tradition
43. Geoffrey Hartman,
The Longest Shadow
44. Judith Hauptman,
Rereading the Rabbis
45. Susannah Heschel (ed.),
Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel
46. Lawrence Hoffman,
My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries
47. Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore,
Women in America
48. Rodger Kamenetz,
Jew in the Lotus
49. Aryeh Kaplan,
50. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.),
51. Alfred Kazin,
God and the American Writers
52. Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz (eds.),
The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology
53. David Kraemer,
Reading the Rabbis
54. Chana Kronfeld,
On the Margins of Modernism
55. Lawrence Kushner,
God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know
56. Tony Kushner,
Angels in America
57. Lawrence Langer,
Art from the Ashes
58. Emmanuel Levinas,
Nine Talmudic Readings
59. Deborah E. Lipstadt,
Denying the Holocaust
60. Bernard Malamud,
The Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud
61. Daniel Matt,
The Essential Kabbalah
62. Diane Matza (ed.),
Sephardic American Voices
63. Benny Morris,
64. Jacob Neusner,
65. Peter Novick,
The Holocaust in American Life
66. Carol Ochs,
Our Lives as Torah
67. Debra Orenstein,
Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones
68. Amos Oz,
In the Land of Israel
69. Grace Paley,
70. Marge Piercy,
The Art of Blessing the Day
71. Peter Pitzele,
Our Fathers' Well
72. Judith Plaskow,
Standing Again at Sinai
73. Letty Cottin Pogrebin,
Deborah, Golda, and Me
74. Marcia Prager,
The Path of Blessing
75. Riv-Ellen Prell,
Fighting to Become Americans
76. Adrienne Rich,
Selected Poems, 1950-1995
77. Thane Rosenbaum,
78. Philip Roth,
79. Steven J. Rubin (ed.),
A Century of American Jewish Poetry
80. Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi,
81. Nosson Scherman (ed.),
The Stone Edition of the Chumash
82. Howard Schwartz (ed.),
Gabriel's Palace: Stories from the Jewish Mystical Tradition
83. Tom Segev,
The Seventh Million
84. Rami M. Shapiro,
85. Laurence J. Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn (eds.),
The Other in Jewish Thought and History
86. Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Shadows on the Hudson
87. Art Spiegelman,
MAUS: A Survivor's Tale
88. Ilan Stavans (ed.),
The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories
89. Adin Steinsaltz (ed.),
The Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud
90. Aryeh Lev Stollman,
The Far Euphrates
91. Joseph Telushkin,
The Book of Jewish Values
92. Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton,
Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality
93. Michael Walzer and others (eds.),
The Jewish Political Tradition
94. Arthur Waskow,
95. Susan Weidman Schneider,
Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our lives Today
96. Elie Wiesel,
97. Leon Wieseltier,
98. A.B. Yehoshua,
99. Richard Zimler,
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
100. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,
Genesis: The Beginning of Desire
Summer ends, and things begin to get a little more hectic. That's why we're recommending a bit of "light" that we think you'll kvell over. Take a break from preparing your holiday meals and pick one up today!
Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewishby Abigail PogrebinAbc.com Journalist Abigail Pogrebin first began to grapple with her Jewish identity at 25, when her Jewish mother disapproved of her Irish Catholic boyfriend. Fifteen years later, married (to a Jewish man) and raising two children, she was still trying to understand her own relationship with Judiasm. She decided that speaking with other Jewish people would help her find her own answer.
In her new book, "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," Pogrebin interviewed 60 people about their cultural and religious experience. She spoke with Hollywood stars, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Dustin Hoffman, and luminaries such as Gloria Steinhem. Barney Frank and Tony Kushner talked about what's like to be gay and Jewish.
[Linked] is the prologue of the book and the "Sarah Jessica Parker" chapter.
One Foot in AmericaBy Yuri Suhl Tablet MagazineHenry Roth’s Call it Sleep—a masterpiece of Jewish immigrant life—was published to considerable acclaim in 1932 but soon vanished from literary consciousness. It languished until 1960, when Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler named it “the most neglected book of the past twenty-five years.”Make it the second-most-neglected book: One Foot in America, Yuri Suhl’s recently reissued immigrant novel, covers much of the same territory as Roth’s masterpiece, but whereasCall It Sleep is dark and brooding, Suhl’s book is a fast-paced, entertaining picaresque.
Continue ReadingSarah's KeyBy Tatiana de RosnayGood Reads
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.
It's finally time to brush off those beach blankets, pull out those umbrellas and head to the beach or pool! What better than to relax under the sun with a good book? Why not try a book from one of Amazon.com's Jewish reading lists? These lists compile the best fiction, non-fiction and memoirs from Jewish authors, on Judaism or Jewish history. With thousands of titles to choose from, you're bound to find something that inspires you pool-side or maybe just makes you smile.
Spring means that summer is right around the corner! Every summer, we sit at the beach or pool and dive into a great book, but why wait? This year, spend your spring reading some of the best books in Jewish-American literature. In his American Jewish Fiction, Josh Lambert lists what he thinks are the top 125 books in this category. Or you can start by checking out some of the best young, Jewish authors like Jonathan Safran Foer.
by Judy Bolton-Fasman
reprinted from MyJewishlearning.com
Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel showcases two distinct narratives that illuminate the truths embedded in historical events and acts of memory. It's an ambitious agenda that Safran Foer advances with sharp observation. But Everything is Illuminated is also a very funny book, a laugh-out-loud funny book that earns the reader's admiration through linguistic acrobatics and feats of good, old-fashioned storytelling.
Reprinted with permission from My Jewish Learning
The Foundation for Jewish Culture has awarded the 2010 Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers to Joanna Smith Rakoff. Her debut novel, A Fortunate Age was also a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers'
Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an
IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a
journalist and critic, she's written for The New York Times, the Los
Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time
Out New York, O:The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and
magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western
Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. She has degrees
from Columbia University, University College, London, and Oberlin
A new Nextbook Press biography of Hillel makes clear that the rabbi's words and thoughts—though millennia old—resonate today
By Joseph Telushkin
According to rabbinic tradition, Hillel the Elder, one of the
great sages in Jewish history, died 2,000 years ago, in the year 10. But
even after two millennia, there is a contemporary urgency to his life
and thought, particularly at this moment of debate not simply over the
mechanics of conversion but over the very essence of Judaism itself.
Hillel was, as the Talmud describes him, a poor man so desperate for an
education that he nearly froze to death as he lay in a snowstorm on the
roof of a study house, listening in on the study of Torah below. That
sense of being the outsider never left him and lights up many of the
stories told about him in the Talmud. He emerges, in Joseph Telushkin’s
new book, Hillel: If Not Now, When?—the
prologue of which appears below—as a sort of once and future rabbi, a
teacher whose fearless openness to Gentiles seeking conversion, and
whose insistence on morality as the core of Judaism, make him as
relevant today as he was 2,000 years ago.
Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein
I was sitting with a rabbinic friend swapping stories about our lives
and our work. He started talking about an encounter he had recently
had: “A Jewish man, probably in his early thirties, and his non-Jewish
girlfriend came to speak with me. They want to marry, but his parents
are dead-set against their only son marrying a Gentile. I asked the
woman what she thought about the parents’ attitude, and she was honest.
She said it seemed primitive and ridiculous. But she also said that, if
necessary, she’d be willing to convert. After all, she wants to be a
good person, and Judaism, she assumes, wants people to be good and might
well have something to teach her about goodness. That’s how she put it,
‘might well have something to teach her about goodness.’ ”
“And what did you tell her?” I asked.
My friend, a rather traditional rabbi, answered: “I told her
that we’re in no rush to bring people in, that conversion to Judaism is a
not a quick business: ‘Presto, you’re a Jew.’ There’s a lot to study, a
lot of rituals to learn, and I certainly can’t convert you before you
do all that studying, and commit yourself to practicing all that you
“And what did she say to that?”
“It was the boyfriend who spoke up. He seemed really annoyed. ‘I told
you this was pointless,’ he said to the girl, and then he turned to me.
‘We’re getting married in six weeks, rabbi. With or without your
My friend shrugged. “I told them that even if the two of them had
come in with a more open attitude, six weeks was way too quick to do a
conversion. Six months would be a stretch. They walked out with a book I
gave them, but they’re not coming back, I can tell.” My friend shook
his head back and forth a few times, his expression a mixture of sadness
and annoyance. “What I was really thinking was that they’d be better
off going to City Hall, and just getting their license. We don’t need
converts like that. One day, if she’s interested in becoming a real Jew,
she can come see me.” He shrugged his shoulders, and regarded my
skeptical face. “I know, I know, that day’s never going to come.”
I was quiet a minute, thinking about, of all things, a 2,000-year-old
talmudic sage named Hillel, and about an American-Jewish community
that’s been getting smaller and smaller and whose members have now been
intermarrying at rates of 40 percent for over 30 years.
“What about that comment she made to you?” I finally asked him.
He looked puzzled. “Which comment?”
“That Judaism might well have something to teach her about being a good person.”
“Nice words,” he conceded. “But I would have been a little more
encouraged if she had actually said something about religion. Like maybe
she had read about Shabbat and wanted to observe it. Or was willing to
keep kosher. At least then I would have felt that I had something to
work with. But this couple gave me nothing to work with.”
Nothing to work with. His words reverberated in my head.
Read the rest.
This article was reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine.
On rootlessness and family trees
By Josh Lambert
A midsummer day’s nightmare: shlepping all your worldly possessions to a
new apartment. Everybody wants to settle in before the High Holidays
and the school year starts, making June, July, and August the busiest
season for moving companies. This also explains why the sections of
Brooke Berman’s No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments (Harmony, June) typically run from one summer to another. A prize-winning playwright
who had already auditioned under a stage name (“Brooke Alison—it sounds
less Jewish”) by the time she began her peripatetic New York City
sojourn at the age of 18, Berman manages somehow to make relocating
almost 40 times in half as many years sound more like an ongoing
adventure than like a godforsaken, perpetual exile. Check out Rabbi Harvey's cartoon interview of Gary Shteyngart on his new book, Super Sad True Love Story, from JBooks.com.
Berman’s bohemian-ish wanderings may seem inevitably less stultifying
than life in the suburbs, but as readers of John Cheever and Richard
Yates know, subdivisions harbor roiling inner lives all their own. Soon
to be available in paperback, David Kushner’s account of harsh
real-estate politics, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb
(Walker & Company, August) describes the attempt integrate one of
the famed model communities planned by Abraham Levitt and his sons.
While the Levitts were self-conscious of themselves as Jews and claimed
to have “no room … for racial prejudice,” they sold homes only to
whites. In late summer 1957, a Communist-leaning Jewish family in the
Pennsylvania Levittown subverted the developers’ policy by arranging a
private sale to an African-American couple. Riots and harassment
followed, with visits from the Ku Klux Klan, all of which provides a
reminder of the complex and often distasteful history of American
But then again, the city has its fair share of problems. Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan
(Spiegel & Grau, July) romps its way through a borough so
thoroughly saturated with literary pretension that it would be
insufferable to visit, let alone reside there. (Sort of like the real
one is, some might say.) Telling a tall tale of publishing aspiration
and fraud, Langer packs the novel with inside jokes and goes so far as
to invent a slang based on the names of contemporary and classic
authors, in which, for example, a “chabon” is “a wavy mane” and a
“ginsberg” “a somewhat unruly beard.” The author knows whereof he
satirizes, having toiled as a literary journalist before publishing his own fiction:
“I’ve been blown off by E.L. Doctorow,” he reports, “condescended to by
Harold Bloom … treated to lousy herring by Gary Shteyngart, [and]
regaled with unprintable, really yucky stories by Jonathan Safran Foer.”
Read more about this book and others.
Reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine.
Two years ago, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which is devoted to the study and preservation of Ashkenazic culture, published the trailblazing Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
A remarkable resource, it offers some 1,800 entries on everything from
general topics like art to key figures like Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator
of Esperanto. Earlier this month, YIVO launched an online version,
which not only offers free access to scholars and students the world
over, but also provides supplemental material like audio and video
recordings that the print edition couldn’t.
Hear the conversation at Tablet Magazine.
By Adam Kirsch
An anthology of liberal Jewish thought evinces a deep unease with traditional conceptions of God
Earlier this month, in Jerusalem, more than 100,000 haredi
Jews took to the streets to protest the Israeli government’s attempt to
desegregate an Orthodox girls’ school. The school had been physically
separating Ashkenazi and Sephardi students, ostensibly because the
latter did not live up to the standards of piety and modesty demanded by
parents of the former. When Israel’s High Court ordered the barriers
removed, a group of parents belonging to the Slonim Hasidim withdrew
their daughters from the school, and when the court ordered them to
return, the parents preferred to go to jail. These arrests triggered the
massive protest, in which signs were displayed that read “God will rule
for all eternity.”
To turn from headlines like these to Jewish Theology in Our Time
(Jewish Lights), a new book of essays by professors and rabbis
associated mainly with the Reform and Conservative movements, is to see
the dilemma of liberal Judaism in a starkly ironic light. In Bnei
Berak—and, for that matter, in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of
Williamsburg and Crown Heights—are thousands upon thousands of Jews who
not only know with utter certainty just what Judaism is and what God
wants from them, but are willing to defy the powers of the earth to do
it. Meanwhile, the contributors to this book—edited by the rabbi of
Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Elliot Cosgrove—can barely even use
words like God and Judaism without a blizzard of explanations and qualifications.
“God,” writes Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson,
dean of rabbinic studies at American Jewish University, “is the dynamic
that makes for novelty, innovation, complexity, and growth.” Similarly,
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum
writes that “divinity is the radical force that moves the entire
cosmos.” Such a God, quite obviously, cannot be the God who walked in
the cool of evening in the Garden of Eden, or spoke to Moses out of a
burning bush. Eitan Fishbane,
Men of Mystery Alan Furst’s bestselling spy novels depict the secret allegiances and
betrayals that animated interwar and wartime Europe, but what
distinguishes his work from others who’ve toiled in the genre is the
attention he pays to the flavor of everyday life. Amid the forged
documents and concealed identities, he still manages to conjure things
like the meal a well-to-do couple traveling through the Belgian
countryside might have eaten in 1941: radishes, salted beef tongue, “some
kind of white, waxy cheese,” dried winter apples, and a loaf of bread.Hear the podcast with Alan Furst at Tablet Magazine.
assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, confesses that
“I could not believe in the God of heavenly transcendence, the highly
anthropomorphic deity of classical Judaism.” And if, as Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky
agrees, “The character in the Bible is not God,” then everything the
Bible tells us about the covenant between God and the Jewish people is
equally incredible: “[W]e cannot imagine that only Israel … possesses
the covenant with God.” Rabbi Or N. Rose is still more explicit: “I do not believe that the Jewish People are God’s chosen people.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine. Read the rest.
in April, JBooks teamed up with Peet's Coffee & Tea to present a
very interesting live event in which Elinor Lipman kibbitzed with Anita
Diamant about Diamant's latest novel, Day After Night, and
batch of other Interesting Things (Jewish, Literary, Feminist, and
Otherwise). Well, this illuminating conversation has been videotaped
and edited and can now be seen in three easy-to-watch parts:Part I, in which Elinor Lipman admits to pitching Diamant's
latest novel, Day
After Night, as a
movie and Diamant tells the fascinating story of the Atlit detention
camp.In Part II we learn how Bill Moyers and Tony Kushner helped Diamant
write The Red
Tent. There's also
a little joke about hummus...
showcases Diamant's idea that we're living in "the century of the
Jewish woman." She also says that she and novelist Stephen McCauley
have "study hall," in which the two authors force themselves to get
together and write at the same time. "It's a way to keep... the ass in
the chair," says Diamant.
By Elinor Lipman
came up with the opening line standing at my stove, then went up to my computer
and pretty much wrote it," says Elinor Lipman about this story. "I
liked the sound of the 'Jews-on-the-beach' theme, with its suggestion of
something slightly comic and (sorry) fish-out-of-water-ish. If the assignment
had been 500 words on just anything, I don't think I would have been
inspired." To see what else the assignment inspired, read Dara Horn's
the Sea," Neal Pollack's "Mr. Pacific Beach,"
and Danit Brown's "Jews at the Beach."
It is absolutely not the making of amends, nothing 12-stepish or
externally imposed, merely Alice,
on her 50th birthday, promising herself she'd apologize to those whom she
thinks she's offended. Her list is short. There is a sweet boy from tenth grade
whose sexual overtures she had rebuffed for a prudishness she now regrets.
There are playground and roommate insensitivities and a Thanksgiving meltdown
over a dropped chafing dish that didn't even break. But first: her 30-year-old
discourtesy, a week's worth, from her whitewashed lookout, Red Cross lifesaving
badges sewn proudly to her orange tank suit, whistle between her straight front
They were a whole family: mother, father, two boys, unmistakably Jews on the
Edgartown beach, needle-pointed yarmulkes bobby-pinned to dark hair. Their
lunch was the same every day: hard-boiled eggs, carrot sticks, grapes, cheese,
crackers. She knew the boys' names because their mother called to them
unabashedly, "Dovey! Shmuely! Not yet! You just ate! Another ten minutes!"
Had Alice heard
accents? Were they from New York?
Were they even Americans?
She had studied this family, and had noted a failure of fashion in their
bathing suits and motel towels. Her fellow lifeguards knew them, too. Dovey and
Shmuely were ecstatic and squealing little fish, requiring attention. Between
car and sand, they'd drop whatever bundles had been assigned them, and run into
the water, regardless of temperature, of sand castles, of tides.
Their chosen spot hardly changed, in the shadow of the lifeguard's chair,
umbrella never planted with any athletic grace. Despite the smiles and waves
offered to the handsome college students on duty—we're here; please protect
pretended that her job was ignoring those on sand, while staring conscientiously
out to sea. Who had recommended Martha's Vineyard
to these Bernsteins, their name shouted in Magic Marker on their red-and-white
cooler, their rations kosher, their skin pale?
And finally to be reckoned with: An impulse within Alice that had allowed Mr. Bernstein to
flounder for—how long had it been?—ten seconds longer than the fastest leap she
was capable of from chair to ocean? "You have no business out here in
rough water if you can't swim," she had scolded.
"I can swim," he had answered. His wife, throwing a towel and
a protective arm around her husband's shoulders, had given Alice a condemning stare. I know the
person you are, it said.
They hadn't come back to the beach. "Embarrassed," said the blond
Duke senior who shared Alice's
shift and who lived on his own, unchaperoned, that summer. "It's
Saturday," she might have said.
In order to apologize, she would have to find them. The Bernsteins of where?
Dov, David, Shmuel, Sam?
remembered the overhead buzz of planes towing banners, aerial
declarations—"I love you, Brenda, marry me, Vinny." What would hers
say that was adequate, and over what crowded beach? "Dear Bernsteins,
wherever you are. Forgive me. I didn't hate you. I knew you. Your lifeguard,
Alice Eisenberg, coward."
Elinor Lipman is
the author of nine novels, including "The Inn at Lake Devine,"
"Then She Found Me," and most recently, "The Family Man."
This article was reprinted with permission from JBooks.com,
the online Jewish book community. To hear Elinor Lipman read “Alice Apologizes,” click here.
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