Five Books to Be an Educated Jew: Part II

Another round of recommendations from some of the world's foremost Jewish thinkers
By | Sep 09, 2019

Including contributions from:

Read Part I

Read the first installment of this feature, from our summer 2019 issue.

More 5 Books

We’re continuing the project, with new recommendations added weekly.

Readers’ picks

Send us your selections: What five books would you recommend?

Interviews by Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, George E. Johnson, Leslie Maitland, Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler & Lawrence Wolff  |  September/October 2019  |  in Big Questions


Angela Buchdahl

Angela Buchdahl is the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City. She is the first woman to lead the 175-year-old Reform congregation.

The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude

This 920-page volume is the greatest anthology of classical rabbinic literature ever put together, and it’s beautifully translated. A lot of us grew up thinking many of the midrashim and stories it features were part of the Torah! They have entered the Jewish canon and are part of the way that we read the text. The midrash is part of our ongoing attempt to keep the text relevant and meaningful. Midrash puts you in conversation with centuries of teachers, and it’s amazing that many were asking the same questions we’re still asking today.

The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln
Glückel of Hameln

These are the memoirs of your prototypical, determined, strong, resilient, resourceful, ingenious Jewish mother—except she happens to be from the 17th century. She started having babies at age 14, and ultimately she had 14. After her husband dies, you see how she arranges for each of her children to be taken care of, how she provides for the community and how she runs her own factory. We don’t often get to hear women’s voices in our traditional texts or in our history. And yet you realize how much they completely shaped not only the Jewish family, but the Jewish story.

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

This slim volume contains the most poetic and powerful case for the most important Jewish contribution to civilization, which is the Sabbath. Understanding that we are not just to be masters over space, but to create palaces of time is a more important message now than ever before. When Judaism brought Shabbat to the world, it was a radical idea that people were not meant to work every day and that all human beings deserve a day just to be. It was radically democratic; it didn’t matter if you were a slave or a king, all could, in some way, imitate or be like God, and have a day of rest.


As a Driven Leaf
Milton Steinberg

Set in the rabbinic period, this deeply compelling novel grapples with what it means to have and lose faith. It centers on Elisha ben Abuyah, a Talmudic rabbi, who becomes our most famous heretic. Part of what sets Elisha on that path is when he observes a father telling his son to climb a tree and shoo away the mother bird in order to get the egg. This mitzvah, along with listening to one’s parents, is one of two commandments

with the reward to live long and prosper. So the boy climbs up into the tree and he falls and he dies. This sets Elisha off. He asks, “Where is God in all of this?” Who hasn’t asked that question in a moment of crisis?

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell

Somehow not only the story of Israel, but all Jewish history is embedded in Yehuda Amichai’s poems. Amichai had a yeshiva background. He knew so much text, and midrash, and Torah and Jewish history, and all of these things end up in his poetry. There’s a brilliance and simplicity to his poetry, yet you can read it on so many levels. You can unpack every word choice and its resonance with Hebrew, history and references. Literally, there are 10,000 things he’s saying with each word.


KEVIN GUTTINGIlan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, has a new one-man play, "The Oven", which he will perform at the Yiddish Book Center.

Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is a Professor of Humanities and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America.

Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number
Jacobo Timerman, translated by Toby Talbot

With a total Jewish population of roughly 450,000, the Jews of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and other countries in the region have produced an astonishing literature, in terms not only of narratives but also religious, political and social disquisitions. Jacobo Timerman was an Argentinean journalist and activist who was imprisoned in the late 1970s for his campaign in favor of democracy and freedoms of speech and belief. This lucid memoir recounts his ordeal during the Dirty War. The sections in which his torturers argue that the Holocaust was left unfinished and Argentina’s military junta is concluding it are haunting.

The Centaur in the Garden
Moacyr Scliar, translated by Margaret A. Neves

Moacyr Scliar was a prolific Brazilian fabulist of astonishing reach. This is his best-known novel. It tells the story of a Jewish half-animal as he navigates the anxieties of life. I met Scliar in my 20s when he invited me to visit him in his native Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul. We struck up a friendship that lasted decades, and I am the better for it. His books, filled with humor and compassion, are widely read in Brazil. As a sign of gratitude, these days “Moacyr Scliar” is the name of parks, schools and other public spaces. I think of him as Latin America’s Sholem Aleichem.

The Hour of the Star
Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser

It has been said that Clarice Lispector is the Virginia Woolf of Latin America; I think it is the other way around, such is the originality of this Brazilian master. Born in Ukraine, to some she was just the wife of a member of her country’s diplomatic service. In truth, her imagination and craftsmanship allowed her to go far beyond, changing the way we look at things. Lispector wrote stories and poems, but her novels are her ticket to immortality. I love this one in particular, about fate and faith, with a stunningly naïve protagonist—a fool, like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel?—and a rich array of biblical motifs.


Luis de Carvajal the Younger

The memoir of Luis de Carvajal the Younger is the first autobiography written by a Jew in the New World. The original volume was lost for decades but recently resurfaced. This is an extraordinarily vivid document about the life of Crypto-Jews persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas. Carvajal went by the name Joseph Lumbroso, aka El Iluminado. He was burned at the stake in an auto-da-fé in Mexico City’s Plaza del Quemadero. The book is an invaluable window into anti-Semitism in Latin America during the colonial period. Incredibly, there is no available English translation, an absence that should be remedied as soon as possible.

Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Anthony Kerrigan

The Argentine man of letters Jorge Luis Borges is my favorite writer from the region. His cosmopolitanism has been a compass to me. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t Jewish, although he dreamed he was. His stories, poems and essays feature myriad Jewish characters. Indeed, he might well be the most important Jewish writer from Latin America. I listed Ficciones, but Labyrinths would do the job as well. I especially recommend the stories “The Secret Miracle,” “Emma Zunz” and “Death and the Compass” and the poems “Spinoza,” “The Golem” and several others he wrote in the 1960s about Israel as a young nation.



Michael Berenbaum

Michael Berenbaum teaches Jewish studies at the American Jewish University and consults in museum Development. He previously directed the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude

Being a text man, I think that an educated Jew should read texts and marvel at the diversity, wisdom and insight of Jewish tradition while also understanding its conflicts and tensions. Since the Talmud is difficult even for the learned, this collection of rabbinic writings fits the bill. The texts were chosen by wise men, both of whom wanted to present gems of the tradition. Organized by topics, by individual rabbinic figures as well as by biblical stories, it offers even the marginally informed reader a path into rabbinic tradition.

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

An educated Jew should have insight into the themes and practices of Jewish holy days. I’ve been debating between three choices. S. Y. Agnon’s Days of Awe is a work that brings me through the lengthy service with my spirit enhanced and sometimes even exalted. Irving Greenberg’s The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays offers a traditional yet contemporary interpretation of each of the holy days, including Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. But Heschel’s poetic offering The Sabbath, written just when Jews were reconquering space (Israel), reminds us, as does the Sabbath itself, that we must dwell in time.

Chaim Potok

A Jew must know Jewish history, and there are so many good histories of the Jewish people. David Myers has just written Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction, whose virtue and vice are the same—brevity. It answers how Jews survived, but not why or what they achieved by their survival. Chaim Potok’s Wanderings is visual, comprehensive and comprehensible. There are other histories, some more technical, more precise, even more learned, but this is a place to begin. Potok is unfailingly readable and insightful. His storytelling is masterful, so history comes alive.

Elie Wiesel

An educated Jew must know the Holocaust and its epicenter, Auschwitz. The debate is how to best enter that planet, whether through Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or Elie Wiesel’s Night. Levi does a more systematic, more unvarnished job of taking us into Auschwitz, but Wiesel tells us what it was like to be a Jew in Auschwitz, a Jewish Jew. Night depicts the anti-Exodus, the journey from freedom to slavery and the revelation of the anti-God and the anti-man that came forth from Auschwitz—the antithesis of Sinai.


The Way of Man: According to Hasidic Teaching
Martin Buber

Finally, an educated Jew must grapple with matters of the soul. From time to time, I reread Martin Buber’s significant work The Way of Man. Some great scholars rightfully contend that Buber may not have accurately represented Hasidism, but he speaks to my soul, challenging it, cajoling it in a work of wisdom and elegance. Take a book that speaks to your soul. One must find one’s own particular way. One must begin with the self—begin but surely not end—and the life we construct should not be a patchwork but all of a whole.



Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Her books include On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and Black Bread: Poems, After the Holocaust.

The Pentateuch and Haftorahs
Edited by J.H. Hertz

The Torah is the foundation document of Judaism, source of all law, theology, identity, nationalism, ritual, and for believers like me, revelation. Though the Pentateuch can be read in one sitting, I recommend pairing one’s reading with the weekly Torah portion, an annual cycle set by the rabbis. In following this parashah model, one also gets a taste of the Prophets, fixed segments accompanying each Torah reading. My translation of choice is The Pentateuch and Haftorahs edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. It is lofty yet accessible; his choice of commentary is diverse and remarkably open-minded.

The Talmud

Rabbinic literature is vast and spans many centuries, including our own. Though we are blessed with many fine introductions and scholarly analysis, I recommend going straight to the primary source, the Talmud. One who has not looked into a traditional page of Talmud in his/or her lifetime has not viewed a wondrous creation of the human mind. (I acknowledge that some would object to my attribution of human authorship, arguing that the Talmud was also written by the hand of God.)

A Boy From Bustina
Andrew Burian

Dozens of first-person Holocaust testimonies have been written in recent years—some self-published—as survivors understand they must bear witness. In A Boy From Bustina, Andrew Burian writes first of his beautiful, pre-Holocaust, Orthodox childhood, and then of the thousand Burian families swiftly swept up in 1944 into the vortex of Holocaust evil. Separated from beloved parents, grandparents and big brother on Day 1, this skinny 14-year-old mama’s boy must survive on his own, every day a miracle, every day a new hell. Burian’s memory for detail is remarkable and, thanks to his spare writing, there is never too much in these pages.

Israel: A History
Anita Shapira

Israel, the state, must also be part of diaspora Jews’ DNA. But 71 years after Israel’s creation, the majority of Jews take for granted her existence; or worse, question her entitlement. On the other side, few acknowledge the mistakes Israel made. Israel, A History by Anita Shapira gets the balance right. Shapira covers every aspect of Israel’s existence and takes us into the internal dynamics of an oxymoron—building a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, particularistic Jewish yet avowedly democratic state located in a hostile neighborhood. Just to read one chapter on the Palestinian flight in 1947-1948 is to open your mind to what was and what might have been. 

The Jewish Way
Irving Greenberg

Because this selection is an act of nepotism, I must restrain myself from superlatives such as “profound” and “unique.” The Jewish Way is more than a how-to book. Greenberg leads us into the underlying meaning of every action in Judaism. Ritual is enjoyable, even fun, yet is also the serious business of holiness. Ritual builds family and community but also expresses the sweep of Jewish history as well as the modern sensations of a covenant with God. The overall message is that observance of Shabbat, holidays and all other ritual is not mechanical routine but rather the conscious experiences of living life through a Jewish and religious lens—and being uplifted by it.



Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a Professor of Sustainable Development and Health Policy At Columbia University. His most recent book is A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism.

Nicomachean Ethics

An educated Jew should read important books, not only important Jewish books. Judaism can be a vibrant culture only when it is connected fervently with the good of all people, not only the Jewish people. Aristotle is arguably the greatest thinker in history, and this book is in my view not only the first but also the greatest secular text on ethics ever written. It bids us to find happiness through the cultivation of virtues, including practical wisdom, temperance and justice.

Laudato Si
Pope Francis

Pope Francis draws on modern science (through the work of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) and the Church’s great social teachings to issue a call for global dialogue and global action for sustainable and integral human development. This is a vital message in an era of greed, indifference and environmental catastrophe.

The House of Wisdom
Jim Al-Khalili

This book reminds us of the vital role of early Arabic and Islamic thinkers in the great chain of culture, knowledge, philosophy and science that forms a continuous arc from the ancient world to the modern world. It describes the great efforts of Islamic scientists and patrons of science, and the milieu that they created in which Maimonides and other great Jewish medieval scholars flourished.

The Chosen Few
Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein

This book offers a brilliant analysis of the role of literacy and education in Jewish history. Economists Botticini and Eckstein trace with great insight and evidence the remarkable influence on Judaism of the rabbinic injunction that fathers should educate their sons. Jews attained incomparable rates of literacy in the ancient world, with a decisive effect on their societies and on Jewish history. From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to the Spanish expulsion in 1492, the two authors show how Jews went from being an agrarian society to one excelling in professional trades such as banking and commerce.

Cursed Victory
Ahron Bregman 

Perhaps the main reason why there is no peace with the Palestinians is that many Israelis (and many Palestinians) have wanted a complete victory rather than a compromise. Beginning with the aftermath of the Six-Day War and continuing on to the present day, Israeli-British historian Ahron Bregman offers a deeply informed and insider analysis of the repeated actions by Israeli leaders to resist the compromises that are needed for peace.



Mike Moskowitz

Mike Moskowitz is the scholar in residence at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a New York City synagogue serving the LGBT community. He previously served as a rabbi at Columbia university.

The Way of God: Derech Hashem
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

Written in the 1730s by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as the Ramchal, this book remains a classic of Jewish philosophy. Answering why and how God created and maintains this world, the Ramchal frames God as the ultimate giver, who is motivated by a desire to give us pleasure. From the role of angels to the working mechanisms of prayer, this book, as its title claims, is a clear and complete framework for the way of God. It was my “go to” in yeshiva and has influenced my worldview more than any other sefer (book).

The Book of Our Heritage: The Jewish Year and Its Days of Significance
Eliyahu Kitov

Translated by my rebbe, Rabbi Nachman Bulman, nearly 40 years ago, this small set goes through the Hebrew calendar and festivals. Time has a texture and is a spiraled cycle that we revisit every year. This comprehensive work weaves the historical timeline from the Exodus out of Egypt, with the spiritual potential that each holiday contains. Seeing each day as part of the year can help create more continuity and momentum in spiritual growth.

Pirkei Avot

Ethics of Our Fathers is a tractate of the Mishnah that deals with morality and interpersonal dynamics. I was 17, and in West Virginia, when I first encountered this text and it absolutely changed the way I saw the world. It recognizes that the world is broken and that we have a role in fixing it. Every time I read it, it’s like catching up with an old friend.

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence
Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book on confronting religious violence is a very compelling and healing read. Judaism is a religion of peace and recognizes that where there is power, there can be corruption, abuse and even violence—all in the name of God. Rabbi Sacks frames an approach to many challenging texts in the context of other major religions in an accessible way.

Strive for Truth!
Eliyahu E. Dessler

Although much has changed in the 65 years since Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler passed away, his teachings of mussar (ethical self-development) are as timely as ever. Exploring free will and forcing us to question how we know what we know, this rich and thoughtful collection of his lectures artfully delivers a present-day application of classic Jewish philosophy.



Judith Viorst

Judith Viorst has written more than 40 books, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and most recently Nearing 90: and Other Comedies of Late Life.

The Assistant
Bernard Malamud

I love many of Malamud’s writings, but this book really got under my skin. Centering on Morris Bober, a struggling grocer in Brooklyn, The Assistant captured what it meant to be an immigrant trying to make a place in America in the early 1950s. Living comfortably, as most of us do now, it’s a challenge to think back to a distant ancestor who’s trying to make his way in a new country, in a scary and hostile world. It’s important to be able to do that.

Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl
Anne Frank

I know this is a very corny choice, but I’m not going to apologize for including it. All my other picks are novels or give general information, but this is a real human being—a real girl who lived, dreamed, wrote and died. Reading that diary says to us that this is what we lost, this is what the world lost—this precious, specific young girl speaking in this book. And we should know about her.

Portnoy’s Complaint
Philip Roth

I read this 50 years ago, but I still remember some of the great lines in it and the way they capture the experience of those Jewish families who are always struggling to make distinctions between what’s Jewish and what’s not Jewish. In one scene Alexander Portnoy looks out the window and says something along the lines of, “Ma, is snow Jewish?” And this is also the erotic, hilarious, transgressive and sexually overwrought piece of the Jewish story, which emerges from the conflict in many households between our own natural longings and our desire to be a nice little Jewish boy or girl. And it’s a great example of the use of humor, one of the Jews’ great survival mechanisms.

The Last of the Just
André Schwartz-Bart

The book begins in the 19th century and talks about the descendants of a family in which one member in each generation has been designated a lamed-vavnik, a righteous figure who takes on the suffering of the Jews so as to make it possible for them to endure this world. What I remember most vividly is one character in a concentration camp with a group of children, who are taken into the gas chambers, and he comforts them and tells them stories. It’s a powerful vision of decency and compassion in a tough world.

Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal
Milton Viorst

Admittedly I’m biased because he is my husband, but this 2016 book is important because one of the shared dreams of Jews all over the world is a Jewish homeland, and we should understand what Zionism is, what it has become and all the different thinkers who have added to its mosaic of ideas. Some of the thinkers in this book add the religious element, some add the military element, some the expansion element, and it adds up to a whole picture. We need to see a complete picture of this shared idea and of the many different ideas about what Zionism means.



Noah Feldman

Noah Feldman is a Professor at Harvard Law School and the author of six books, most recently The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.

Guide for the Perplexed

This is the first and best attempt to reconcile biblical and rabbinic teachings with rationalist philosophy in the vein of Aristotle. Maimonides radically reinterprets the concept of God and the narratives of the Bible in terms of timeless philosophical truths. He reconstructs biblical religion like an archaeologist, using the best available evidence of his time. To top it off, he offers a theory of the aims of the Torah: To structure moral conduct and inculcate the true nature of being. That’s hardly a small undertaking, and the book needs to be read slowly—but you can in fact read it one chapter at a time, straight through from the beginning to the end.

The Novellae of R. Hayyim on the Mishneh Torah
Hayyim of Brisk

This slim volume radically transformed the nature of Talmud study over the last two centuries. In it, the 19th-century Lithuanian author begins each section with the assumption that every element of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah can be made consistent with every other section—if only you are creative enough to see the subtle distinctions embedded in the master’s words. What emerged is known as the Brisker Method: an all-encompassing approach to Talmud study. At first, this method faced resistance from traditional Talmudists. Today it predominates in the majority of yeshivas on earth.

Sabbatai Sevi
Gershom Scholem

Scholem did more than anyone to remind us that the history of Judaism is as much mystical enthusiasm as it is law and observance. In this masterpiece, he tells the story of Sabbatai Sevi, who embodied a mystical commitment to fulfilling the commandments by breaking them. Not only does Scholem brilliantly depict the drama of the false messiah’s rise and fall; he also demonstrates that the outpouring of enthusiasm throughout the Jewish world shook the foundations of national history. The book can even be read as a kind of allegory of Scholem’s ideas about how Jewish messianism could generate national regeneration in the form of a distinctive cultural Zionism.


Judaism as a Civilization
Mordecai Kaplan

If the central challenge of modernity was and remains the death of God, no Jewish book has done more to reconstruct Judaism without the traditional notion of the divine than this one. Kaplan, who was ordained and served as an Orthodox rabbi early in his career, offers a vision of how rituals, prayers and community identification could credibly be maintained even by those lacking old-fashioned faith. Today, no progressive movement, whether Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative or Open Orthodox, is free of this book’s influence.

The Yeshiva
Chaim Grade

The greatest Jewish novel of all time, it stands on a par with the novels of Dostoevsky and, at moments, even those of Tolstoy. A graduate of Lithuanian yeshiva, Grade self-consciously set out to tell the story of the mussar movement, a radical, experimental combination of ethical introspection, self-criticism and public self-abnegation. Along the way, he provides a rich and detailed fictionalized portrait of Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, who would eventually become the giant of post-World War II Israeli haredi Judaism. To read it is to enter the lost world of pre-Holocaust European Jewry, where conflict, mobility and confusion were far deeper than we usually imagine.




Fania Oz-Salzberger

Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor of history at the University of Haifa. Her notable books include Translating the Enlightenment and Jews and Words, with Amos Oz.


Surprisingly, despite being a seasoned feminist I turned out a very patriarchal list—quite possibly because the vast advantage of men over women in textualizing the Jewish train of thought over the last three millennia has biased not just my list but reality itself. Genesis is the one book in the whole Bible which is utterly and totally irreplaceable (except that they all are) because it spans the very beginning of it all: the universe, humankind and Jews. It shows how we, a tiny unit of humankind, itself a miniscule bit of the universe, belong to it all. We Jews are a part of everything and everyone, prior to being the singular followers of God’s true law. This sometimes needs reminding.

Pirkei Avot

Fathers again. Plenty of ageless wisdom is packed into Pirkei Avot. One of my favorite quotes offers a key distinction between good and bad controversy: Hillel and Shammai’s dispute is said to be “for the sake of Heaven,” whereas another, lower-grade controversy is “not for the sake of Heaven.” I wish today’s Israeli politicians and public had more arguments for the sake of Heaven: genuine, honest, wise and mutually respectful. Instead, many of them seem to favor social network skirmishes that would have sent both Hillel and Shammai running for their lives.

A Guest for the Night
S.Y. Agnon

Agnon is the great father figure of modern Hebrew literature. Like many good parents, he was a creative antenna transmitting the past into the futurein his superb literary voice. A Guest for the Night aptly bundles together the world we have lost—Jewish Eastern Europe before the Nazi annihilation—alongside a profound tale of old meeting new, a great fable of the Jewish condition and of the human condition in general.
It is, arguably, a Zionist book, but imbued with the painful cutting of one’s own umbilical cord that tied us to that world we have lost.

“Odysseus’s Scar,” Mimesis
Erich Auerbach

Auerbach was a great scholar of literature who wrote Mimesis in exile in Istanbul during the Nazi years. The chapter “Odysseus’s Scar” compares the language, style, pace, inner music and deep philosophy of ancient Greek literature with the Hebrew Bible. It deftly maps the chasm between Homer and his long-winding epic journey and the ancient Hebrews’ succinct, concise, sometimes terse style. This essay is a reminder that no culture has ever been created without the input of its neighbors, be they rivals, conquerors or friends.

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Amos Oz

Perhaps I have picked all these fathers because a few months ago I lost my own.His autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness, must be on this list. It tells the story of Israel’s incipience under the shadow of a genocide of almost all of its fathers and mothers; revisits the great feats of Israel’s political and cultural forebears; and tells the sad story of my father’s parents, their tiny peninsula at the edge of the Jewish continent of suffering. It is, however, a magnanimous and blissful fatherly gift to Israelis, to Jews, to other readers everywhere. And, heartbreakingly, to me.



Calvin Goldscheider

Calvin Goldscheider is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Judaic Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is Israeli Society in the twenty-first Century: Immigration, Inequality, and Religious Conflict.

The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary
Robert Alter

Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary would be a good starting point, particularly his beautiful rendition of Psalms among other books of the Tanakh. For Alter, these are books of great literature; his contribution is to capture their literary beauty. I never understood the Psalms until I read his translation. In Alter’s translation, Job is thrilling poetry.

The Mishnah: An Introduction
Jacob Neusner

Also important is some awareness of the Mishnah, the foundational documents of rabbinic Judaism—and the Judaism of today—perhaps beginning with tractates focused on holidays and special occasions, or Nashim, focused on the family. Many readers know the Mishnah as a source of ethics, through Pirkei Avot. But the greatest contribution of the rabbis of the Mishnah was to imagine and to provide a guide (not a constraint) on how to live in a society organized around Jewish values. Jacob Neusner’s book puts the Mishnah into the idioms of modern religious thought.

Hasidism: A New History
David Biale et al.

This is a comprehensive, in-depth authoritative overview of the history of Hasidism that shows the evolution of Judaism as a dynamic, rather than a static, religious culture. It covers the origins of Hasidism in the 18th century and its connection to early ideas of the mystical literature of the Kabbalah, through its growth in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, to its spread through migration and networks, to its devastating decline in the Holocaust and to renewal and neo-Hasidism of the late 20th and 21st centuries. It reviews the biographies of individual Hasidic rebbes in the context of external influences and internal struggles, placing the history of Hasidism in both general and Jewish contexts.


Israel: A History
Anita Shapira

Anita Shapira’s work describes the competition of images of Israel as Jews have gained political control over their lives. In a description of more than a century of social and cultural developments, there is a careful balance among the ideological origins of Zionism in the late 19th century, the evolution of the State of Israel, nation-building and dramatic social and economic changes, the role of war and peace, and the continuing challenges of Israeli identity. The book integrates historical contexts and cultural expressions to confront both the diversity and the cohesiveness of Israeli society.


American Judaism: A History
Jonathan Sarna

This book provides a foundation for study of America’s Jews and Judaism. From colonial beginnings, there is a review of a series of revolutions in the structure and expressions of Judaism, Jewish institutions and diverse rabbinic leadership, internal communal challenges and responses to assimilation, and the evolution of Jewish American culture. Sarna provides insight into the emergence of the largest contemporary Jewish community in the world and the dynamic transformations in religious and communal life among American Jewish communities.


Joan Nathan

(Photo by Linda Spillers)

Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is the author of 11 cookbooks. Her latest book is King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
Gil Marks

Gil Marks was a walking encyclopedia of Jewish food. In a way, Marks—an ordained rabbi—should have been a biblical scholar, but he chose food. This book, published in 2010, is part of my life. I look at it for reference all the time. Let’s say you look up the entry for challah; you can learn almost everything about it. Of course, if you want to really be an educated Jew, you’ve got to study the Torah and the Talmud, but when it comes to food customs—through which many people connect to Judaism—Marks is your man. He died much too young, but he had made his great accomplishment, which will certainly live on.

The Jewish Manual: Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette
Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore

Written in 1846 by the wife of Moses Monte-fiore, one of the most important Jews of the 19th century and a pioneer philanthropist in Palestine, this is one of the first Jewish cookbooks ever written in English. It was kosher, with about 100 recipes from all over. Reading between the lines of the recipes, I learned a lot about what people were eating in Palestine, what they were eating in England, what were Sephardic Jewish recipes and what weren’t.

The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews
Edda Servi Machlin

Edda Servi Machlin was from a little town in Italy called Pitigliano, which to this day is called “little Jerusalem.” She made Pitigliano famous through her 1981 cookbook—and that was before cooking became such a big deal. Hers was the first particularly regional Jewish cookbook. Written in the first person, the cookbook tells the story of her life, the Holocaust and how she came to the United States.

The Israeli Cookbook
Molly Lyons Bar-David

This cookbook has all of the recipes of the diaspora that made their way to Israel. Bar-David interviewed immigrants who came to Israel from all different cultures. She went to different places where the refugees were and observed their customs, watching and listening. It’s a book I would love to have written. If you’re more of a folklorist, which I consider myself, it’s a way of learning different customs for different holidays, different traditions—and learning that Judaism is not monolithic in any way.


The Book of Jewish Food
Claudia Roden

I was familiar with Roden from A Book of Middle Eastern Food, which looked at historical evidence of different foods and customs. And then her landmark Book of Jewish Food came out. It’s the kind of book that somebody at the beginning of her career never could have written. She broke it up like a cookbook, and then she added little blocks amidst the recipes of the stories of different kinds of Jews. It covers Jews all over the world, except for the United States. It is especially good on Sephardic Jews.




Erica Brown

Erica Brown runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her most recent book is Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet.

Why Faith Matters
David J. Wolpe

It’s important to begin any spiritual investigation of Judaism with the case for faith generally. Wolpe’s book both defends the merits of religion and showcases commitments of faith through love, warmth and community within the context of a data-driven, science-based society. Refreshingly, Wolpe does not shy away from the place of God within religious traditions and describes inspiring role models of those who are able to straddle the world from the inside out with nuance and sophistication.

Judaism for Dummies
Ted Falcon and David Blatner

Everyone has to start somewhere. Falcon’s book is a breezy, informative and comprehensive place to begin the journey—I would only change the title to Judaism for Smarties (when I use the book in class, I actually tape that over the title!). Falcon discusses the spiritual, historical, national, ethnic and cultural aspects of Judaism in a clear way and takes a stab at defining what it means to be Jewish. Along the way, he provides insight into rituals, denominations, great thinkers and historical milestones. It’s a helpful first step.

A Letter in the Scroll
Jonathan Sacks

It’s not enough to know facts about Judaism. You have to develop a relationship to Judaism so that the facts are important and that you see yourself as part of the story. This book, which Sacks wrote as a wedding present for his son, helps situate readers very personally within Jewish tradition. Sacks wants Jews to stop seeing themselves as history’s victims and, instead, focus on how Judaism has persisted and flourished and how Jews have made their mark on Western civilization. It helps that Sacks, an international voice for faith, writes with an angel’s pen.

The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism
Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin

This is a classic gateway book, particularly for the skeptic. Although I don’t agree with all of their points, Telushkin and Prager address some of the most profound struggles people have with Judaism, such as: Can you doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew? Why is organized religion necessary? What are the dietary laws all about? And they even offer a pathway to practice, moving from the abstract and conceptual to the brass tacks of observance.

Great World Religions: Judaism
Isaiah Gafni

Judaism reveres teachers. Exposure to a fantastic teacher helps those new to Judaism gain more confidence and understanding about Judaism’s place in the world. To that end, it’s good to vary reading with listening. Under “Great World Religions” for The Great Courses Series, there is a course on Judaism taught by master teacher Isaiah Gafni. The course covers a wide range of topics: from the stages of history to the Jewish library, from rabbinic Judaism to life cycle events, from mysticism to Jewish law.



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Richard Michelson

Richard Michelson is a poet and children’s book author. His most recent book, The Language of Angels, won the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and the Sydney Taylor Gold Medal.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak

This 338-word classic about Max and The Wild Things (named Tzippy, Moishe, Emil, Aaron and Bernard—after Sendak’s aunts and uncles—in the opera he based on the book), insists that imagination can conquer a threatening world. Sendak’s tale of angst, courage and survival ends with Max conquering his foes (he is a benevolent ruler), but he longs to return to his real home, where his loving mother has prepared a still hot meal—a perfect Jewish holiday ending.

The Devil’s Arithmetic
Jane Yolen

I didn’t want to mention this book because Yolen is a friend of mine, and I am equally enamored of Jewish children’s books by others in our close-knit local schmooze circle—Leslea Newman, Mordicai Gerstein, Barbara Diamond Goldin— so read their works too. Children—all of us—need to know everything in our history, and this classic Holocaust novel, about a Jewish teenager who hates the idea of having to remember Jewish history, is the perfect way in.


All-of-A-Kind Family
Sydney Taylor

This was the first Jewish children’s book to become popular with non-Jewish readers as well. Taylor’s books both showed and helped shape American Jewish identity in the 20th century. While Taylor didn’t adhere to her parents’ Orthodoxy, she infused every story with values of family love, compassion and social justice to help break down barriers so that all immigrant ethnic groups could eventually have a voice in American children’s literature.

Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories
Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

A master storyteller for adults and no less so for children, Singer explained in his Nobel Prize speech why he wrote for children: “They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.” And “they don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.”

Lovesong: Becoming a Jew
Julius Lester

Okay, not a children’s book, but Lester has authored more than 30 books for kids—so let me slip this in. The story of the African-American Lester’s journey from the son of a Methodist minister, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, photographer, folk singer and radio host (whose show “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was charged with anti-Semitic content and canceled) to Jewish convert is the best book on identity I have ever read, regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), and more relevant today than ever.


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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is the author of five novels, including the New York Times best seller  The Red Tent. She has also published six guides to contemporary Jewish life.

Paula Vogel

A gorgeous, imaginative, transgressive and, at moments, holy play, this Tony Award winner covers the power of theater, the history of Yiddish and the Yiddish theater, anti-Semitism in the 20th century, love, despair and hope. I recommend this as an experience of live theater rather than a “book,” but let’s remember that the opening act of Genesis went on without the benefit of a written script.

The Book of Blessings
Marcia Falk

With a deep knowledge of Hebrew and the clarifying lens that is feminism, Falk—liturgist and poet—opened new doors and windows into Jewish prayer with inclusive and beautiful language for the rhythms of Jewish life, week to week, month to month, year to year. Some of her blessings have entered the life of the Jews: I’m thinking especially of her revision of the bracha parents say to children on Friday night.


Engendering Judaism
Rachel Adler

Published in 1998, this was an early, pioneering work of theology that addresses a fundamental question that still challenges every aspect of Jewish life and Judaism itself. How would/will/does women’s full participation in Jewish life transform halacha (Jewish law), prayer, sexuality, marriage and power? Her questions still resonate, her insights remain provocative.


Bread Givers
Anzia Yezierksa

Sara Smolinsky is the protagonist of this novel, set in the 1920s on New York’s Lower East Side. The youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, she rebels against Old World ideas about women’s roles and rights. It’s a painful struggle, uniquely female and honestly rendered, without a rags-to-riches happy ending.

Lovesong: Becoming a Jew
Julius Lester

Among Jewish American conversion narratives, Julius Lester’s story stands out both for the quality of his writing and because of the challenges he faced as a black man making what seemed an incomprehensible choice to many African Americans and Jews. The son of a Methodist minister, Lester said that his journey to Judaism began when he was seven years old and learned that his maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany, who married a freed slave. Lester was a civil rights activist, a college professor, the author of over 40 books and a committed Jew. Only in America.




Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch is a poet, critic and author. His latest book is The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century.

Bread Givers
Anzia Yezierska

An autobiographical novel about the life of a young Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side, Bread Givers offers a bitterly acute portrait of a time and place often sentimentalized by American Jews. Yezierska’s alter ego is Sara Smolinsky, a smart and ambitious girl who rebels against the patriarchal tyranny of her father, whose authority is undermined by his failure to find success in the New World. Yet the life Sara aims to build for herself as an educated, independent woman turns out to be rooted in the Jewish values—learning, dignity and service—that her father also pursues in his old-fashioned way.

Judaism as a Civilization
Mordecai Kaplan

Trained as an Orthodox rabbi, Kaplan developed decidedly non-traditional views about how Judaism needed to change in order to survive in modern America. In this book, he sets out a vision of Judaism not as a body of doctrines or a set of practices, but as a creative expression of the Jewish people, which would naturally evolve along with the way Jews lived, thought and felt. Kaplan’s solutions to the problems of American Jewry won’t convince everyone, but almost a century after it was published, Judaism as a Civilization still serves as a penetrating analysis of the dilemmas Jews face over observance, belief, assimilation and Zionism.


I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years
Victor Klemperer

Klemperer, the son of a Reform rabbi, was a middle-aged professor in Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. In the diary he kept for the next 12 years, at serious risk to his own life and the lives of those who helped him, he created a unique record of what it felt like to live as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Klemperer survived the war because he was married to an “Aryan” woman, who refused to divorce him despite intense pressure. Yet the question of whether a Jew could ever consider himself a real German haunted Klemperer, making the diary a poignant and ambiguous document of German-Jewish life at the moment of its extinction.


The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk About the Six-Day War
Edited by Avraham Shapira

In this oral history, young Israeli soldiers who had grown up in the kibbutz movement describe what happened when their carefully nurtured idealism came up against the realities of war. From the elation of conquering the Temple Mount to the horror of seeing comrades (and enemies) killed, these young people offer remarkably sober and thoughtful responses to a war that changed the course of Israeli history.


Dolly City
Orly Castel-Bloom

This avant-garde novel is nothing like the earnest, humane books we ordinarily think of as defining Israeli literature. Castel-Bloom casts off realism, moralism and even recognizable plot and character to create this surreal novel of modern Tel Aviv. The Jewish metropolis is reimagined as “Dolly City”—a nightmare zone of giant skyscrapers, killer cars and random violence, much of it perpetrated by Dolly, the narrator. She is a lunatic, a doctor who torments her son with unnecessary surgeries, yet her madness reflects, as in a funhouse mirror, the enormous psychological pressures of living in modern Israel.



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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. Her most recent book is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

For me, the invaluable Jewish education I received came from the home in which I was raised—in particular my exposure to my father, a humble refugee from Europe who was a paragon of a kind of Jewish ethics that was centuries in the making. If I could think of books that would have the power to reproduce the kind of person that my father was—as deeply Jewish as any haredi but for whom, in terms of love and compassion, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew simply didn’t register—then those would be the books that I would recommend. But I don’t know of any such books.


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One thought on “Five Books to Be an Educated Jew: Part II

  1. Ada Frumerman says:

    It is puzzling that Judith Viorst characterizes her choice of The Diary of Anne Frank as corny. This book is a fascinating, astonishing and often terrifying account of her life in hiding. And the fact that it was written by a teenager makes it even more amazing . I am glad that she included it, but I wish that she did not feel the need to be apologetic about her choice.

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