The Five Books Project

The Five Books Project

November 12, 2019 in Latest, Lighter fare
1 Comment

Five Books Project

Five books to be an educated Jew.
New book recommendations added weekly.

Including contributions from:

Part I

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

Part II

Read the second installment of this feature, from our Sept/Oct 2019 issue.

Readers’ picks

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

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Warren Hoffman

Warren Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture and The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, which is being released in an updated second edition this February.

While I don’t believe that reading or not reading any five books is what makes one an “educated Jew,” my five selections here reflect my own idiosyncratic sense of understanding Jewishness post World War II. Other contributors have already rightly suggested the Torah, the Talmud, or Pirkei Avot as core texts, which indeed are central to understanding Jewish thought, but I provide these five texts as works that offer perspectives and viewpoints that might be lacking in more traditional texts.

A Weave of Women
E.M. Broner

First published in 1978, this wonderful novel (now sadly out of print) published at the height of second-wave feminism continues to delight me in its expansive vision of a utopic women-centered Jewish society. Filled with inventive feminist Jewish rituals that challenge the patriarchy, Broner’s novel both inspires and surprises readers.

Mona in the Promised Land
Gish Jen

Mona Chang, a Chinese American teenager, is the protagonist of Jen’s hilarious and moving coming-of-age story set in 1968 Scarshill, New York in which Mona decides to convert to Judaism and becomes the “Changowitz.” Clearly showing that all Jews aren’t necessarily white, Jen’s novel reveals the multicultural issues around identity that cut across racial, ethnic, and religious lines.

Portnoy’s Complaint
Phillip Roth

While Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome American Pastoral remains my favorite Roth novel (and it’s hard to choose among his many works), Portnoy’s Complaint, while now slightly dated, was momentous when published in 1969. The novel is known not only for its side-splittingly funny and sexually-explicit, if misogynist, passages, but more importantly for the ways in which it revealed profound insights (and neuroses) about gender, sexuality, and Jewish identity in the 1960s and 70s. Portnoy’s Complaint, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, remains a laugh-out-loud treat.

Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock

As a lover of musicals, I had to put at least one musical on the list and Fiddler was the easy winner. A Broadway blockbuster when it premiered in 1964, the show has continued to play around the world in multiple languages in productions both amateur and professional. While Fiddler might be unabashedly nostalgic at its core for celebrating shtetl life, the show still serves as a window into Jewish culture that audiences of all backgrounds can appreciate, while also grappling with the never-ending struggle of how to reconcile the challenges of modernity in light of “Tradition.”

Survival in Auschwitz
Primo Levi

2019 was the centenary of Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. While there are many notable survivor memoirs out there, Levi’s thoughtful prose and musings about morality provide readers with a raw and unfiltered perspective of the Holocaust that still resonate deeply today.

 

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Erika Dreifus photo by Jody Christopherson-2

Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus trained as an historian and as a fiction writer and is the author, most recently, of Birthright: Poems. She writes and teaches in New York and spends too much time on Twitter, where she tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish” at @ErikaDreifus.

Assuming that the staples of a Tanakh (Bible), a prayer book, and a Passover Haggadah are already on hand, here are five more books that I’d recommend for any Jewish library.

The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature
Adam Kirsch

An informative and enlightening overview of key Jewish texts from ancient times to the beginning of the twentieth century. Like me, you may still feel under-read without undertaking Flavius Josephus, Glückel of Hameln, or Nachman of Bratslav (for just a few examples) on your own. But Kirsch’s illuminating essays on their major works provide an essential mini-course in Jewish textual literacy.

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Amos Oz (trans. Nicholas de Lange)

If Kirsch’s book covered another hundred years, it might include Oz’s bestselling memoir of his youth, which spanned the close of the British Mandate in Palestine and the early years of the state of Israel. Adapted into a film by Natalie Portman, and cited as a masterpiece in virtually every tribute that followed Oz’s December 2018 death, this book melds family history and world history with the grace, empathy, and artistry of the gifted fiction writer that Oz also was.

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor
Yossi Klein Halevi

“This book is an attempt to explain the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity to Palestinians who are my next-door neighbors,” Halevi explains at the outset. To that end, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor was simultaneously made available for free downloading in Arabic translation, and Halevi promised to respond to letters from Palestinians and others in the Arab and Muslim worlds. These days, it seems equally important for many Diaspora Jews to take the time to understand Halevi’s subject—and to learn from his model for empathic engagement. (Be sure to seek out the 2019 paperback edition, which contains a 50-page epilogue featuring Palestinian and other responses to the original hardcover.)

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between
Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

Brought to us by the same team that co-hosts Tablet magazine’s immensely popular “Unorthodox” podcast. Fact-filled and (appropriately) funny down to the subtitle—where “Zabar’s” replaces the book’s actual last entry (“Zyklon B”)—this brand-new book has instantly become a favorite.

The Holocaust Encyclopedia
Walter Laqueur and Judith Tydor Baumel

A one-volume reference book that I purchased as soon as it became available in 2001 and still return to—for research, and for remembering.

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Jack Porter

Jack Nusan Porter

Porter is a Research Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Internationally recognized as a founder of the field of Modern Genocide Studies, he is a child of Holocaust survivors who were also Soviet partisans. Porter was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Anti-Semitism’s alarming and violent rise in the United States has served as a wake-up call for many Americans and proves that, even in America, nobody is immune to this radical hatred. In How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss exposes its alarming rise, which many believed could never resurge in the United States. Weiss masterfully explains how this bigotry has found a home in America across political and cultural movements. More than just warning about the threat anti-Semitism poses to Jews and America, How to Fight Anti-Semitism calls on all Americans to take personal action.

A Guide to Jewish Religious Practices
Isaac Klein

Rabbi Klein was rabbi emeritus at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Buffalo, NY and former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. I have found this book to be the best non-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish laws and regulations. Nearly everything is covered: the laws of kashrut and keeping a kosher home; the significance of the holidays and how to observe them; and laws governing the rites of life—birth, marriage, conversion, death, divorce, adoption, burial, and mourning.

The Zionist Ideas
Gil Troy

We live in a post-modern world where the meaning of Israel is confusing to Jews and non-Jews alike. Scholars say we are in a “post-Zionist” era. What does Zionism mean today? What is the difference between criticizing Israel and being “against” Israel? (A great deal, by the way.) As a young boy growing up in Milwaukee and going to Habonim Camp (where Leonard/Label Fein was my madrich), I read Arthur Hertzberg’s classic 1959 book The Zionist Idea. Troy has expanded Hertzberg’s six kinds of Zionism (political, labor, revisionist, religious, cultural and diaspora), and three kinds of leaders (pioneers, builders and torchbearers). His book will help us sort it out.

The Book of Shabbos
Rabbi Yechiel Michael Stern

When I was in rabbinical school, I found it difficult to understand the laws of Shabbat. Then I learned from my teacher Rabbi Isaac Mann that the laws of Shabbat are built around 39 categories of Shabbos work known as Melachos. Rabbi Stern defines and illustrates each Melachah, cites its source and explains its prohibitions. These Melachos go back to biblical times and include, for example “dishnah” (extracting liquid): Are you allowed to squeeze a lemon on Shabbat (no) or cut a grapefruit (yes) or put ice cubes into a cup (yes) or wash dishes (no). A fascinating book.

Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky
Robert S. Wistrich

One of the great mysteries of Jewish life—why are there so many Jewish radicals and liberals? In short, why do Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like proletarians? The late historian Robert Wistrich has written a brilliant book that helps answer this question. Marxism became a messianic religion, a substitute for Judaism for many; it also transformed the critique of religion into a political issue by reducing spiritual phenomena to a function of impersonal economic laws. The universalism of the prophets and concern for the poor, the widowed, the disabled and the marginalized run deep in Judaism. These factors have moved Jews to become radical.

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Ido Aharoni

Ido Aharoni

Global Distinguished Professor, New York University, Consul General of Israel in New York (2010-2016), Ambassador.

As an Israeli, it would be safe to state that I underwent my main Jewish education in America. Generally, Israelis do not fully appreciate the level of intent, commitment, effort and devotion required to maintain a complete Jewish life in America. All five books on my list have educated me about being Jewish, Judaism and Christianity, Zionism and Israel’s complex ties with its Jewish foundations.

Herzl
Amos Elon

Theodor Herzl is one of the most important Jews of our time. Many books have been published about this visionary of the only Jewish state in the world, but none is as deep and concise as Elon’s account. Central to reading this important book is the omnipresent question: if Herzl had lived today, what would he think of his creation? With his universalist view of the world, he would probably be condemned by most members of the Knesset for not being “Zionist” enough. Elon’s text is more relevant than ever, especially now that Israel is retreating into an ethnocentric form of Zionism and many of its supporters and well-wishers take its existence for granted.

Ben-Gurion: A Biography
Michael Bar Zohar

I chose Bar Zohar’s comprehensive three-part biography because of its wide historical perspective and heavy reliance on Ben Gurion’s own detailed record of his long political practice. Israel’s former president and one of the closest people to Ben Gurion, Itzhak Navon, once said that while many had greatly contributed to Israel’s independence, it could be safely stated that without Ben Gurion’s dedication, meticulous planning, focus and zeal, there would not be an independent Israel today.

Judaism and the Origins of Christianity

David Flusser

Flusser, who died in 2000, authored one of the most important and comprehensive books about the early roots of Christianity, widely regarded as the “Judeo-Christian Heritage.” He was a professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at the Hebrew University and published his monumental work in 1988. As a devout Jew himself who mastered no less than 26 languages (!), Flusser’s thorough exploration of Christianity and Jesus led him to firmly hold the view that Jesus “comfortably lived as a Jew who was largely misunderstood by his contemporaries.” Understanding Flusser’s work is critical to every Jew who would like to envision and design a better Judeo-Christian future.

 

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933
Amos Elon

One cannot avoid the temptation of comparing the Jews in Germany at the eve of World War II, with current Jewish life in some of the most prominent countries in the world, such as the United States, England, Canada, France, Australia and Brazil. Elon, who died in 2009, saw his job as a gifted storyteller, skillfully weaving history through personal stories of some of the heroes and icons of the German-Jewish narrative. A must-read book.

Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism
Aviezer Ravitzky

As an Israeli diplomat who spent his entire career in the United States, I can say that Ravitzky’s popular book greatly contributed to my understanding of Jewish life as well as its theological evolution. Ravitzky is professor emeritus of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and this book, first published in 1993, still is essential to understanding the complexity of Jewish life in Israel. The book provides an invaluable overview of the role messianic views play in shaping Jewish history and modern Israel, from its domestic political processes to the evolution of orthodox theology.

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Rabbi Jason Miller

Miller, an ordained Conservative rabbi, is a tech entrepreneur, owns an IT company, founded a successful kosher certification agency, and officiates at dozens of destination b’nai mitzvah ceremonies each year (www.mitzvahrabbi.com).

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, published The Sabbath as both about theology and spirituality as well about modern Jewish life and Jewish law. I first read this short yet eloquent book when participating in a discussion with other Jewish high school students.  At summer camp I recall that the study session brought much meaning and spirituality into my Shabbat experience. Heschel brilliantly explains how our faith is about balancing space and time, creation and rest. Originally published in 1951, Heschel’s words are just as powerful and meaningful today as they were almost seventy years ago.

As a Driven Leaf
Milton Steinberg

To understand the Talmud, one first must understand Jewish life in 2nd century CE. Certainly, this could be accomplished with history books, but it’s much more enjoyable to get this knowledge from Steinberg’s beautiful novel. The protagonist is Elisha ben Abuyah, a Talmudic rabbi who was excommunicated for heresy. Steinberg takes this little-known character and allows us to enter his confused head and heart. We become immersed in the community of scholars who gave voice to Rabbinic Judaism and we see the clash between religious faith and the modern, secular society of Rome. Steinberg’s novel is not only captivating, but also a wonderful theological and philosophical work.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Harold Kushner

One cannot understand Jewish theology without reading Kushner’s well-known work. Published in 1981, less than five years after Kushner’s son died from an incurable genetic disease, the book addresses the problems of theodicy. If we believe that God creates and controls the world and is good, how are we to explain evil? Why is there pain and suffering if God loves us? Kushner offers his own theology.

Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts
Edited by Barry Holtz

Back to the Sources is more than a primer. The authors explain the text and then dissect examples to teach the reader how to learn that core text. Holtz, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, believes that each text requires a different learning approach. In editing Back to the Sources, he found foremost scholars to explain the importance of the text and how it informs Judaism. I first used this book in college, referred to it again many times in rabbinical school and have recommended it to countless others.

Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews
Joseph Telushkin

I was tempted to simply list five of Telushkin’s works here because one can learn just about everything there is to know about Judaism from his books: Jewish Literacy, Biblical Literacy, Jewish Ethics, Jewish Wisdom and Jewish Values. I chose Telushkin’s book about Jewish humor because these jokes teach us more about the Jews and Judaism than most history books. Telushkin chose the best Jewish jokes and then analyzed them to explain their source, why they are funny and why they’re accurate. The book is funny, but is also an informative read on important topics like anti-Semitism and other faith’s view of the Jewish people.

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Adam Milstein

Adam Milstein

Adam Milstein is an active philanthropist, thought leader, and real-estate investor. As president of the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, his philanthropic work is focused on strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance and combatting bigotry across America.

The Zionist Ideas
Gil Troy

Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people. It paved the way for the reestablishment and preservation of Israel—the ultimate lifeline of the Jewish people. Every Jewish person should be proud of its legacy. Gil Troy’s collection brings together the Zionist visions of the past, present and future and highlights how Zionism’s roots of self-determination and freedom have strengthened the Jewish nation and the Jewish people. Through his book, Troy makes old and new Zionist ideas easy to digest.

The Israel Test
George Gilder

The Torah says that those who bless the Jews will be blessed, while those who curse the Jews will be cursed. In The Israel Test, Gilder reveals how hatred directed towards Israel is often rooted in age-old anti-Semitism, which includes the envy of Jewish success. This hatred, Gilder demonstrates, falls in line with the Torah’s ancient philosophy about those who curse the Jewish people. Furthermore, he emphasizes how hatred of the Jews will not end with Jews, and how anti-Semitism is not only a Jewish problem but an American one, too.

The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky
edited by Mordechai Sarig

20th century Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky warned that anti-Semitism would never stop following the Jewish people and that Jewish strength and taking the offensive are the ultimate ways to safeguard the Jewish people. For years before the Holocaust, Jabotinsky called on Jews to leave Europe and settle in the Jewish homeland. He was a founder of the Betar youth movement and later led Haganah—the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. Jabotinsky’s ideas are of critical importance today as we find ourselves facing unprecedented amounts of anti-Semitism around the world.

 

Antisemitism:  Here and Now
Deborah Lipstadt

Anti-Semitism is moving from the fringes to the mainstream in the United States and Europe. This hatred is spread by three radical movements: the radical left, the radical right, and religious extremists. To fight anti-Semitism, we must understand its origins and networks. In Antisemitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt examines how contemporary anti-Semitism has manifested itself on the left and right. Through her book, Lipstadt emphasizes why we must call out anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it rears it ugly head.

How to Fight Anti-Semitism
Bari Weiss

Anti-Semitism’s alarming and violent rise in the United States has served as a wake-up call for many Americans and proves that, even in America, nobody is immune to this radical hatred. In How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss exposes its alarming rise, which many believed could never resurge in the United States. Weiss masterfully explains how this bigotry has found a home in America across political and cultural movements. More than just warning about the threat anti-Semitism poses to Jews and America, How to Fight Anti-Semitism calls on all Americans to take personal action.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz, an L.A.-based writer, editor and consultant, has written for the Jewish Journal, J., The Jewish Weekly of Northern California, Haaretz, JTA, The Jewish Week, The Forward, eJewishPhilanthropy and other publications.

Fourteen years of formal Modern Orthodox Jewish education, Camp Ramah and NCSY provided a literacy and social baseline for an active and engaged “Conservadoxish” Jewish life, and my traditional family–complete with my Hebrew teacher grandmother and Conservative rabbi grandfather whose own grandfather was a founder of Petach Tikvah–provided an anchor to observance and a connection to Israel.

Sedra Scenes: Skits for Every Torah Portion
Stan Beiner

While my day school education is the cornerstone of my Jewish literacy, books like Sedra Scenes encouraged critical interpretation and made Jewish learning fun. These short comedic skits based on the weekly Torah portion were meant for educators, but my family read them at home. For instance, the skit for the portion Mishpatim was structured like a game show–“Let’s…Play…Mishpatim!”–in which contestants answered Jewish law-based questions, like what to do when a Hebrew slave refuses to be freed. “I don’t know…staple him to the door?” one character guesses. (Technically correct: You pierce his ear against the door with an awl.)

Turbulent Souls/Choosing My Religion
Stephen J. Dubner

What pulls a soul to Judaism? How does one connect to a faith dismissed, discarded or actively denied by one’s parents? Stephen J. Dubner, formerly of the New York Times and best known as the co-author of Freakonomics, wrote this beautiful, entertaining and thought-provoking spiritual memoir about his journey from Catholicism to Judaism. More than any other, this is the book I recommend and re-read most; I find that reading Dubner’s story of finding his faith–and exploring the abandoned and found faiths of his parents–can often renew my own.

 

The Year of Living Biblically
A.J. Jacobs

What if an adult with little previous Jewish background or interest spent a year observing Jewish laws as laid out in the Bible? What rules would be incompatible with his contemporary life? Would it help him become a better person? And would this comedic, performative format help him find meaning or create more of a connection to his Jewish identity? Unfettered by the strictures of a traditional Jewish education, Jacobs asked critical questions I had never dared utter aloud, and the results were entertaining, edging on heretical without crossing over, and fascinating.

 

Here All Along
Sarah Hurwitz

 In our interview for the Jewish Journal, Hurwitz–former speechwriter for the Obamas–said that all Judaism is hyperlinked. Prayers borrow phrases from the Torah; the Mishnah and Gemara go deeper into those Torah phrases and extrapolate from them the way we are supposed to live our lives. But unless you have a Jewish background, those links lead to nowhere. Her book charts her systematic discovery of Jewish text, tradition and identity with a clear and intelligent voice perfect for the contemporary adult searcher.

The Haggadah

At our Passover seders we used different Haggadot (pl.), so we could share different interpretations of the Exodus story. I love so many Haggadot, but the Polychrome Haggadah, with color-coding texts to sources of origin, revealed the Haggadah as a living, changing document, hyperlinking before hyperlinking existed. Today, Haggadot.com—where users start with traditional text and add their own or other people’s uploaded content–enables the creation of personalized, uniquely relevant Haggadot. My late mother wrote a children’s Haggadah, and my close friend created Haggadot.com, so I’m a bit biased. The Haggadah urges us to see ourselves in ancient narratives—an extremely powerful message to those seeking meaning and connection.

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1Comment
  • Prof. Jack Nusan Porter 21:47h, 09 September Reply

    IA fine list–it pushes me to purchase several of them.

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