The Five Books Project
Five Books Project
Five books to be an educated Jew.
New book recommendations added weekly.
Including contributions from:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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