Five Books to Be An Educated Jew | By Author

Five Books to Be An Educated Jew | By Author

July 29, 2019 in Arts & Culture, Summer 2019 Double Issue
0 Comments

Full symposium

Return to our main symposium page here.

Readers’ picks

Send us your book selections here.

To be a well-educated Jew one needs to know the literature of our people. That’s why it’s necessary to read Hebrew and Yiddish classics. So for my fourth book I would create a collection of masterpieces of Hebrew literature that would include the writings of Avraham Mapu, Haim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Yehuda Burla, S.Y. Agnon, Yehuda Amichai, Ephraim Kishon, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.—Evgeny Kissin

The fifth book would be my Yiddish literature compilation. In it there would be the following writers: Mendele Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, S. Ansky (his play The Dybbuk), Sholem Asch, Joseph Opatoshu, David Bergelson, Pinchus Kahanovich (known as Der Nister), H. Leivick, David Hofstein, Jacob Glatstein, Peretz Markish, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Grade and Abraham Sutzkever.—Evgeny Kissin

A Simple Story
S. Y. Agnon

This is a simple love story, a depiction of life in the Jewish shtetl. Every Jew should know what life was like in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, because most American Jewish families carry the legacy of the shtetl. It is in our uncles’ stories, our mothers’ singing, our rabbis’ inflections. To communicate among ourselves, we need to know their legends, the stories they told each other, their family and community relationships—and all this is in one story. Everybody should understand the experience that was filtered and solidified through centuries of suffering and persecution. The book revolves around a Jewish wedding.—Judea Pearl

The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
Edited by Robert Alter

Yehuda Amichai is the most humane and compassionate of modern Hebrew poets. He was part of a new generation who brought the vernacular into Hebrew poetry. He intermingled biblical and vernacular Hebrew in ways that are deep and resonant. He had a genius for metaphor. He wrote from the two poles of love and war. But what’s most meaningful about his poetry is the way that he put actual human beings at the center of his art. He’s that rare thing—a postmodern poet with a heart.—Edward Hirsch

The Human Condition
Hannah Arendt

The fundamental premise of this book is that we are deeply embedded in the materiality of the world and inextricably conditioned by our time and place. Arendt makes explicit a worldview that the rabbis leave implicit. She speaks the language of Greek and Roman philosophy, but what she’s saying is inescapably Jewish. I’m particularly drawn to her philosophy of work, which closely parallels the rabbinic concept of melachah. The rabbis identify 39 categories of work not to be performed on Shabbat. Arendt, you might say, imposes the form of Western philosophical discourse on a deeply rabbinic understanding of the human condition. I rather doubt that’s what Arendt thought she was doing. But I think it is.—Judith Shulevitz

Bailey is acknowledged as the foremost expert on the Bedouin and possesses the only transcribed collection of Bedouin oral tradition in the world. His latest book claims that the original Jewish people were Bedouin, nomadic people of the desert. This book demonstrates the vast expanse of Jewish scholarship and the deep interconnectedness of Jews to other peoples.—Peter A. Geffen

This is Berkovits’s powerful attempt to create a theology of faith based on the Shoah. It helped me become a believing Jew not despite the Shoah, but because of it. As a result of this book, I saw the Shoah as a cosmic battle in which the forces of evil weren’t only trying to destroy the Jews, but were trying to destroy God through the Jews. It was a war against God, which is very much how Hitler defined it. It made it clear to me that I belong to the side of the Jews who affirmed a world of meaning and purpose.—Yossi Klein Halevi

Women researchers are the authors of each chapter. The editor recognized that the early immigrants were pioneers of new social forms (e.g. the kibbutz). The book includes chapters on both the First Aliyah (1880-1904) and the glorified Second Aliyah (1904-1914), which included David Ben-Gurion. Members of the First Aliyah established the towns, which members of the Second Aliyah disparaged as bourgeois and dependent on philanthropy. Other chapters cover the arts as well as politics and social ideals.—Shulamit Reinharz

Rabbi Kook opened the door to Kabbalistic thinking for me. The biggest lesson I got is that God is not static, but dynamic, and we are an essential part of the evolution of the divine. He gave me a way of dealing with the question of how a perfect God could preside over this world. Here you see that the structure of God is precisely about evolving from conditions of imperfection toward perfection. For me, even though Rabbi Kook died before the Shoah, it was a door to a post-Shoah theology. This English reader is a good introduction to Kook’s theology.—Yossi Klein Halevi

Many of Borges’s short stories provide insight into the Jewish mind. They are deeply rooted in the most profound aspects of Judaism. Together they offer a compendium of Jewish education. The story entitled “The Aleph” gives one the experience of what the function of Hebrew letters are in Jewish culture.—Daniel Libeskind

Borowitz is to modernity what Jacobs is to our rabbinic and medieval heritage. Virtually single-handedly, he founded the field of modern Jewish theology for Jews who were primarily ethnic and didn’t know we had any theology. Martin Buber? Mordecai Kaplan? Abraham Heschel? Leo Baeck? The early Zionists? Holocaust theology? They are all here, and the second edition adds chapters on modern mysticism, postmodern thought and feminism as well.—Lawrence A. Hoffman

The Jewish Moral Virtues
Eugene B. Borowitz and Frances Schwartz

This is a work of modern musar, ethical teachings, and shows the reader the practical ways in which basic Jewish values can be applied to everyday life. Judaism is a tradition in which belief or disbelief doesn’t really excuse you from ethical practice and moral behavior, so this is an incredible guide to central Jewish values.—Michael Twitty

By studying Muslim attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors through four generations, Boum takes the reader into an unexpected world. Here we find a mutually respectful and loving relationship that existed prior to the mass emigration of Morocco’s Jews, mostly to Israel, but also to other countries. The book led to a recognition within Morocco of the need to actively preserve Jewish culture and heritage, even though the community has dwindled from around 250,000 in 1948 to a few thousand today.—Peter A. Geffen

People of the Book: A Novel
Geraldine Brooks

This novel based on the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah can be read as a sweeping history of European Jewish life from medieval Spain through the Nazi period. The actual Sarajevo Haggadah is the subject of many studies and is on display in Sarajevo. Extensive new research using the latest scientific methods to analyze the paper and the wine and food spilled on the Haggadah has been published recently. The Sarajevo Haggadah is illuminated with beautiful drawings and is a window into the history of Jewish art, a long neglected topic. Since we read the Haggadah every year on Passover, knowing about the Sarajevo version can enhance one’s seder.—Shulamit Reinharz

I and Thou
Martin Buber (translated by Walter Kaufmann)

This book was first written in 1923 and translated 14 years later. It has always been relevant. What’s meaningful to me is the way that Martin Buber treats Judaism not as a set of fixed rules or even beliefs, but as a dialogue, an ongoing set of relationships. I first encountered I and Thou in my mid-20s, and I began to formulate an idea of poetry itself as a kind of relationship. Buber gave me a roadmap for my idea of poetry itself as an encounter between strangers, between two people who are not physically present to each other. It establishes a relationship between a poet, a poem and a reader.—Edward Hirsch

The War Against the Jews
Lucy S. Dawidowicz

I have gotten rid of hundreds of books each time I move, but this one has made it every time. To say “Hitler was a madman” is so often the beginning and end of our understanding of the Holocaust, but Dawidowicz, who was a very careful historian, shows how Hitler received the mandate to do what he did. Germany was not a “country going crazy” but rather systematically carrying out a philosophy that started hundreds of years before. The War Against the Jews shows that evil comes in stages, in a logical progression, and that every decision takes us down a certain path.—Wendy Shalit

This is a wild card. First of all, the Haggadah is the most reproduced Jewish book there is, so you’ve got to keep reading the Haggadah to be an educated Jew. But this book is designed around the pedagogy of the Haggadah. You’re not supposed to read the Haggadah every year from beginning to end. You’re supposed to bring new readings each year. You want to read new poetry and essays and write new ones. Zion and Dishon beautifully model for us how this can be done.—Yehuda Kurtzer

To Be a Jew
Hayim Halevy Donin

Rabbi Donin’s books provide a very meaningful foundation for people who are expressing interest in Judaism. He opens by telling us that Jews tend to look like people in other parts of the world—Jews from Ethiopia look like Ethiopians—so for those converting into the faith, they can understand that looking different does not mean that one cannot be Jewish.—Capers Funnye

To Pray as a Jew
Hayim Halevy Donin

Prayer matters. In this volume Donin expertly interprets the major prayers, offers a clear and helpful how-to on the rituals of traditional worship and stresses ethical awareness as a component of prayer. But Donin does not address the exciting innovations now developing in the contemporary synagogue. Readers will need to supplement this book by looking elsewhere for guidance on spiritual and community-building prayer experiences that are changing the face of Jewish prayer in the synagogues of North America.—Eric H. Yoffie

To Pray as a Jew gives us a framework, a guide to prayer during a synagogue service. By reading it, you learn how to become comfortable within a synagogue, what’s happening in particular parts of the service, what is the meaning behind wearing a tallit or a kippah. It explains, for instance, why some synagogues don’t have mixed seating.—Capers Funnye

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan
Translated by John Felstiner

Paul Celan is the greatest European poet reckoning with the Holocaust. He is a poet of trauma. He was an exceptional poet of the German language, an heir to Hölderlin and Goethe, who was at war with the German language, a language that made it possible for him to become a poet at all. He couldn’t get over what had happened to his family—and to others. I read Celan in my early 20s, and it had a tremendous impact on me. Unlike most American poets, he understood that he was living inside of history. I loved his gravity. Reading him, I began to formulate the kind of poetry I wanted to write going forward.—Edward Hirsch

One of many important books that show the impact of women and the special blend of scholarship and imagination that is Midrash. The voices of prominent women in Torah and Midrash come together to comment on their lives, womanhood and the nature of Judaism.—Michael Twitty

Originally published in 1900, The Interpretation of Dreams introduces Freud’s ideas on dream creation and interpretation. It details the theory that dreams are forms of “wish fulfillment” produced by the unconscious mind. By distinguishing between the narrative elements of a dream and its underlying meaning, Freud rekindled the ancient Hebrew tradition of dream interpretation, as revealed, for instance, in Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets a dream of the Egyptian Pharaoh and is rewarded by becoming his second-in-command.—Richard Zimler

The insular Eastern European Jewish world is long gone, but these jokes are so perfectly formed that they will be told as long as jokes are told. Even when this book was published in 1905, Jewish humor was viewed as an essential part of Jewish culture by Jews and non-Jews alike. Jewish humor is central to my work, and it shares something with other types of humor, but it also involves ambiguity, contradiction and intense crazy logic. Jewish humor has a poignant aspect. What’s the difference between a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist? The optimist says “Things couldn’t get worse,” and a pessimist says they could!—Bob Mankoff

Genesis: The Beginning of Desire
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Zornberg brings psy- choanalysis, psychol- ogy and what we know about the human brain and spirit to bear on these stories. She does as effective a job as any to make our classic books relevant for today. Sometimes you have books that you read and sometimes you have books that you study. Hers is a book that you study so you don’t really read it all at once. You make notations, you follow the footnotes, and then you go back to study it. I think that’s part of how Jews read.—Yehuda Kurtzer

This is a contemporary, up-to-date and forward-looking survey of Jewish history, identity, geography and cultural issues. It is a very comprehensive view that covers all the bases.—Michael Twitty

This book puts emphasis on the sacred role of time in Jewish life and how each day in the Jewish calendar has a particular spiritual and philosophical importance. Each day reveals the colorful folklore and spiritual potential surrounding the seasons and ritual cycle.—Michael Twitty

A Living Covenant
David Hartman

Hartman’s book is so resonant because he is holding up to our faces the truly enormous challenges of modernity. He has a really devout commitment to heritage, tradition and faith and asks, how do I keep hold of the tradition even as the Enlightenment, Emancipation and modernity make me think differently about what it means to be a human being? He covers prayer, spirituality, faith and ethics. I love the way he uses traditional texts so that you’re reading Talmud but actually con- fronting the dilemmas of modernity.—Yehuda Kurtzer

Ben Hecht is, to my mind, one of the most significant Jewish figures of the 20th century. He embodied assimilation, professional success, and then a return to Jewish identity and a powerful if ambivalent relationship with Israel. A Child of the Century is his autobiography, and it tells of his transformation from an assimilated, highly successful Hollywood screenwriter to a Zionist activist in the 1940s. He was among a very small group of American Jews who tried to save the Jews of Europe and came up against a timid American Jewish establishment.—Yossi Klein Halevi

This is a wonderful two volume commentary on the weekly Torah reading. Each week, there are two essays explicating the parsha, and it combines literary analysis with classical sources and studies the psychological dynamics of the reading. Rabbi Held doesn’t shy away from confronting disturbing or problematic texts, looking to understand them within these historical and psychological contexts, and then making them relevant to our modern life.—Jerome Groopman

The diary shows how the idea of Israel was an invention—a revelation— of an artist, not a politician. Herzl, who admired aristocratic Prussians and who was far from the Jewish tradition as an assimilated Jew, discovered the need for a Jewish nation as a writer. His diary is a literary work surpassing the diaries of Dostoyevsky or the science fiction of Jules Verne. At the time, Herzl’s idea was considered ludicrous by the Rothschilds and other eminent bankers, but he somehow was able to singlehandedly appeal to the Kaiser, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the Czar and the British parliament, and with his dream created “the Jewish People.”.—Daniel Libeskind

Although it is centered on one part of the diaspora, this book is pure poetry and gets to the lived spirit of Judaism through a particular lens. It is a work of prose extolling the beauty of the mindset of Eastern European Jews before the Shoah, demonstrating how they imbued lives of degradation with dignity and spiritual splendor.—Michael Twitty

Heschel was a man of contradictions. His writings focused on the special spiritual essence of the Jewish people. An ardent Zionist, he rejected the idea that land itself is holy and that nationalism could solve the religious problems of modern Jewry. Obsessed with the encounter between God and human beings, he nonetheless could not imagine a Judaism devoid of a drive for social justice. In this collection of lectures and essays, Heschel offers theological insight, a searing critique of Jewish survivalism, a harsh look at the workings of Jewish communal structures and a prophetic insistence that Jewish spirituality must always be wed to moral action.—Eric H. Yoffie

I read Heschel in my 30s. I was definitely seeking something different from Judaism beyond Leviticus, beyond the rules. I wanted to see how deeply rooted the idea of justice is in Jewish thinking. Heschel provided me with his own Guide for the Perplexed. What I love about Heschel’s essays is his recognition that morality has a grandeur and spirituality has a kind of audacity, and that we are the only ones who can save Judaism from oblivion. It is our responsibility to pass Judaism on from one generation to the next.—Edward Hirsch

The Prophets
Abraham Joshua Heschel

In this extraordinary work, Heschel explores the Bible’s vast prophetic literature from a thematic point of view. Heschel well understands the power of the word, and he guides us into the lives and thoughts of these transformative human beings in his unique and intellectually stimulating way.—Peter A. Geffen

Mein Kampf
Adolf Hitler

For the jokes. I could’ve made this serious. Mein Kampf— never forget. But jokes aside, I really think it’s good to be aware of these things because the anti-Semitism that was at the root of this evil still exists.—Bob Mankoff

I wish this book was called A World of Our Fathers and Mothers—that would be a more accurate title. Irving Howe gives us a full portrait of our ancestors, the Eastern European Jews who came to America. We can’t forget American Jewish life started as immigrant life. Howe reminds us of Jewish working class experiences in cities. He shows us the reasons for democratic socialism. I love his loving evocation of Yiddish culture. He reminds us of the Yiddish poets, playwrights and fiction writers who created art out of Jewish life.—Edward Hirsch

Chovos HaLevavos
Bahya Ibn Paquda

Translated as Duties of the Heart, this is the primary work of the 11th-century rabbi and philosopher Bahya ibn Paquda. As I delved into Judaism, I was often told that “it’s the deed that counts” and that this is what distinguishes Judaism (unlike Christianity, where believing in Jesus supposedly makes everything OK). It turns out that this is a bit of a parody, for although it is true that “the deed shapes the heart”—and if you don’t want to visit your sick grandma, you still should—the most important is ultimately the heart. The author analyzes why we have a tendency to focus on the external, which he says is necessary, but definitely not sufficient.—Wendy Shalit

There is nothing more crucial to understanding what it is to be a Jew than to understand our obligations in the world in which we live. This book is a thorough, brilliant primer on a number of issues related to setting up a society in accordance with the mandates of Torah and Jewish law. Jacobs takes readers on a journey through the Torah, rabbinic literature and later legal writings to show how our tradition has long demanded just systems and treatment of individuals on issues like poverty, housing, health care, criminal justice, workers’ rights and environmental issues.—Danya Ruttenberg

Jacobs wrote some 50 books and would have been named England’s chief rabbi had the Jewish fundamentalists of the time not blocked him. His very best book is this one, a sparkling discussion of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, as they have been reflected in Jewish thought over the years. The full gamut of traditional Jewish belief is all here, explained cogently for non-experts to follow clearly.—Lawrence A. Hoffman

History of the Jews
Paul Johnson

Obviously, to be a well-educated Jew one needs to know Jewish history, and Paul Johnson’s book on it is wonderful and particularly important, as it was written by a non-Jew, but very objectively and with lots of sympathy for the Jews. It surveys 4,000 years and traces the impact of Jewish genius and imagination on the world.—Evgeny Kissin

This collection of quaint stories about Indian Jews—the Bene Israel in particular—is funny, light and very entertaining. They also reveal a glimpse into a culture that is unknown to many even in the Jewish world. The book covers more than 100 years of history from colonial India through independence, the creation of Israel and the emigration of the majority of the population to Israel. Sophie Judah is a living treasure in our Bene Israel community, and her stories are whimsical, truthful and playful all at the same time.—Siona Benjamin

The parable “Before the Law” expresses the Jewish idea of the individual. It raises the fundamental question of “What is the law?” and what it means to be before it. Of course there are a number of other writings by Kafka essential to the Jewish identity. I would recommend In the Penal Colony and The Metamorphosis. Even though these books were written before the Shoah, they provide the clearest accounts of its meaning.—Daniel Libeskind

The Sefer Chofetz Chaim
Yisrael Meir Kagan

Sefer Chofetz Chaim was published in 1873. It covers the Torah’s laws of gossip and slander. When does listening to negative information have a constructive purpose, and when is it destructive? Sensitizing ourselves to be careful with the power of speech seems to be more urgent than ever, especially with Facebook and Twitter, where reputations can be so easily destroyed by a mere keystroke. The most easy-to-digest version is Artscroll’s The Chofetz Chaim: A Daily Companion, which is an abridged form of two of the Chofetz Chaim’s masterpieces. My favorite rule is that you’re not allowed to tell a writer that certain people don’t appreciate her work!—Wendy Shalit

What Is a Jew?
Morris N. Kertzer

Rabbi Kertzer breaks down what it means to be a Jew. My congregation has a lot of people who are former Christians and former Muslims. We try to give them books that will provide them with a broad range of information on Judaism.—Capers Funnye

Klein is a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He has collected a powerful untold story of the rather elegant and certainly surprising coexistence between Arabs and Jews in pre-state Palestine. The book is filled with stories of Arab-Jewish coexistence that don’t merely challenge the stereotypes we hold, they upend them. Klein fuels our optimism and hopefulness with a different reality than the one we normally see.—Peter A. Geffen

Like Dreamers
Yossi Klein Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi’s book is a long read, but it’s a beautiful, incredible story. One of the things that’s so compelling is that he loves his protagonists, his characters, so much that it’s hard not to identify with them regardless of their politics. You’re not going to learn everything you need to know about Israel, but you can’t help coming away more curious.—Yehuda Kurtzer

This book deals with the Mizrachi Jews of North Africa, as well as the Syrian Jews who moved there. Lagnado’s book reveals the painful gender relations among Jews in 20th century Egypt, issues of socioeconomic class, and the impact of class on the destinations Jews chose when Nasser expelled them: The poor went to Israel and the wealthy to France. Lagnado’s book uncovers aspects of aliyah, the Jewish diaspora, anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment after 1948 and the extinction of a unique Jewish culture.—Shulamit Reinharz

James Landing does a thorough job of cover- ing different segments within the African American community and their introduction to Judaism, and chronicling the history of several of these distinctive communities around the country, such as the Hebrew Israelites in Harlem and the community started by Prophet William Saunders Crowdy. There are not that many books about Judaism in the African American community, and Black Judaism goes into depth talking about these different congregations that formed over a century ago, many of which continue to flourish to this day.—Capers Funnye

As a well-known Jewish author in Portugal, a country almost devoid of Jews, I’m frequently asked by those trying to understand the Holocaust which author to read first. I always reply Primo Levi. In this, his first major work, he tells of the suffering and horror he experienced in Auschwitz and—with moving detail—describes how he and his fellow prisoners desperately tried to retain their compassion and hope. A footnote (and lesson): Levi’s manuscript was rejected by a number of major Italian publishers before being released by a small press. Its sales over the first few years were meager.—Richard Zimler

Rabbi Lew (z”l) was my rabbi and had an indelible impact on my own Torah and understanding of the world. This book, his masterpiece, takes readers deep inside the inner, spiritual meaning of the time between Tisha B’Av and Simchat Torah, and how it can be a time of profound personal connection and growth. It both forever changes readers’ experience of that season and offers up new possibilities for engaging with the tradition in a broader way.—Danya Ruttenberg

Mishneh Torah
Maimonides (edited by Philip Birnbaum)

Judaism’s foundation is a vast legal system drawn from the Talmud, which consists of 63 tractates. Maimonides recognized in the 12th century C.E. that the Talmud and its commentaries were far too complex for the average Jew to grasp. He therefore produced a 14-volume work, known as the Mishneh Torah, organizing and summarizing the law in a terse style comprehensible to all. For nearly 1,000 years, the Mishneh Torah has been an excellent place to begin the study of Jewish law, and this one-volume abridgment is my recommended vehicle for starting the journey.—Eric H. Yoffie

Honestly, I’d recommend large swaths of the Mishneh Torah if I could, but in the interests of realistically engaging readers, I’ll start with these two chapters. The former text helps to make sense of the anthropomorphism in Torah and offers a powerful, mature theological understanding; the latter offers a step-by-step guide to taking responsibility for our interpersonal missteps and misdeeds—to owning the harm we’ve caused and working to make it right. The entire Mishneh Torah is available in Hebrew and English online at sefaria.org.—Danya Ruttenberg

Set in Memphis, Mirvis’s novel explores the American version of such eternal Jewish problems as internal community conflict, intermarriage and conversion, and the opposing forces of tradition and change. An (overly) enthusiastic newcomer moves to town and tries to innovate. Gradually, conflict arises between the synagogue’s Ladies Auxiliary and the women’s teenage daughters. “Love one’s neighbor as oneself” is not guiding their behavior. Tova Mirvis is part of a growing group of women writers (including Dara Horn and Rachel Kadish) who are bringing us new ways to think about Jews in America.—Shulamit Reinharz

1948
Benny Morris

Israel today is the icon that unites the Jewish people. We Jews spend so much of our energy remembering the Holocaust, and only a fraction of that energy is invested into remembering our redemption—the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Our children do not know about the years that led to the State and the miracle of survival. I talk to students about that particular period and what it meant to the continuity of the Jewish people and how close it was to a second Holocaust. I think 1948 by Benny Morris does a great job of historical documentation of the period, including the feeling of the pulse of the time.—Judea Pearl

The last words of Daniel Pearl were, “I am Jewish, my father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish. Back in the town of Bnei Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chaim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.” So we asked 300 people what it means to them to be Jewish, and 150 of them responded and gave honest answers. Some of them confessed that it wasn’t easy. The answers have a common denominator, which can be read in the essays of Shimon Peres, Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua: Being Jewish today means being happy to feel part of the past, present and future of a collective of individuals who happen to call themselves Jews. That is all peoplehood is.—Judea Pearl

Pianko introduces us to three alternative Zionist thinkers prior to Israel’s founding. While ultimately other perspectives prevailed, it is important to become aware of the nuances of earlier Zionist thought. The issues raised by these three men remain with us today, often with corrosive effects upon Israel and the entire Jewish people.—Peter A. Geffen

Though already almost 30 years old, this brilliant, comprehensive work of feminist theology is still the gold standard for surfacing the patriarchal underpinnings of much of Judaism and offering an alternate vision. Taking readers through the rabbinic process of reconstructing Jewish memory through a feminist lens, she shows how our thinking about crucial concepts of God, Torah and Israel have been deeply shaped by gendered understandings, and unpacks what they could yet be. It will have an indelible impact on how you see the tradition.—Danya Ruttenberg

Jews and the Indian National Art Project
Kenneth X. Robbins and Marvin Tokayer

 

This book explores how Jews in India have shaped and developed the country’s art. It talks about how art is shaped by many factors and influences. Communities like my Indian Jewish one are little known in the broad expanses of world Jewish culture. This book discusses how Jews in India were influenced by their Indian-ness and how they influenced their surroundings in turn.Siona Benjamin

This is a very multicultural book that doesn’t focus on Jewish art but showcases Jewish artists and their viewpoints. It shows how much religion influences art and vice versa. This should be read alongside Can Art Aid in Resolving Conflicts? by Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, which examines how art can assist in creating dialogue and bridges across cultures.—Siona Benjamin

Fragile Branches
James R. Ross

I want people to realize that Jewish communities exist in different parts of the world. Fragile Branches looks at Jewish communities from around the world, starting with the Abayudaya community in Uganda and examining the growth of Jewish communities in Africa in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, as well as in Latin American and Central American countries, and how they had their Judaism stripped from them during the Inquisition and then found their way home.—Capers Funnye

Call It Sleep 
Henry Roth

This story about a Jewish greenhorn childhood on the Lower East Side is the first great Jewish immigrant novel. It’s utterly skinless—Roth’s writing, his voice, his protagonist, are all triumphantly bruised. Roth does not for a moment idealize or romanticize the Jewish immigrant experience. It is also one of the great works of fiction about the mother-son relationship, and in that context, it’s a love letter to Yiddish. Even though we only read his mother’s words when Roth is “translating” her Yiddish, it’s magnificent, a completely different language from the cruder English spoken by the “English-speaking” characters. But ultimately, I love the novel because it’s so raw. —Judith Shulevitz

During the latter part of his 50-year career, Philip Roth began to explore the fall from grace of characters who ran afoul of American mores and politics. In I Married a Communist, he brilliantly explores the chilling effect of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade on America’s insecure Jewish community. For those who wish to understand the history of Jewish assimilation in America and the continuing threat posed to Jews (and other minorities) by anti-Semites, xenophobes, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and racists, this novel is essential reading.—Richard Zimler

Operation Shylock
Philip Roth

I think this is the best novel about Israeli-American Jewish relations ever written. It’s hilarious and profound, and Philip Roth at his absolute best. I think it’s very relevant for this moment, even more now than when Roth first wrote it in the 1980s. Roth actually moved from being antiZionist as a young man to developing a much more complicated relationship with Israel. Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld challenged Roth’s anti-Zionism, and it’s all in the book. It’s a fascinating account of an American Jew’s struggle with Israel.—Yossi Klein Halevi

Using a double narrator—Roth and his doppelganger—and the struggle between them, the novel examines the dilemma that Israel presents to the Jewish mind. It also addresses the distinction between the fiction of life and the reality of art.—Daniel Libeskind

What modern Jews need above all is a great once-over on specifically modern Jewish history. Sachar’s The Course of Modern Jewish History is not the latest account—it was written in 1958—so it lacks more recent scholarly insight, but it remains an authoritative classic and is practically a page turner.—Lawrence A. Hoffman

A Letter In the Scroll
Jonathan Sacks

“Why be Jewish?” Sacks asks and answers the question in this volume with a scholarly but accessible journey through Judaism’s central beliefs and practices. This short book, written as a wedding gift for his children, provides an excellent survey of Judaism’s spiritual history and moral teachings. Addressed to the modern Jew in search of meaning and composed in a style that is sometimes simple and sometimes soaring, it makes a compelling case that Jewish ritual and commitment provide an anchor of stability, satisfaction and consolation in our often chaotic world.—Eric H. Yoffie

This book tells the history of Bombay—now Mumbai—through its Indian Jewish community. Sapir, a professor of historical geography at Hebrew University, presents different Jewish heritage sites and explains how they have changed over time. It describes the Baghdadis who arrived in the 19th century to work in textiles or trade and the impact they had on the city. Books like this make people reflect on the importance of remembering multicultural Jews all over the world.—Siona Benjamin

Great on the history of everything Jewish except humor. Note to Schama: Please remedy in Volume Three. In the meantime, that failure can be remedied by my third and fourth picks. You might as well know the history of the Jews. There are references to jokes in there, but he sort of left out the humor part, and I think it’s an important part of being Jewish, how we see the world and how we identify.—Bob Mankoff

In this groundbreaking work (published in 1941), Scholem explores the long-neglected and oft-despised tradition of Kabbalah and makes its goals and techniques—and system of beliefs—accessible to scholars and laypeople alike. Topics range from the use of gematria to create revelatory interpretations of the Torah to the influence of Islam on Jewish mystics. With this single book, Scholem took Kabbalah out of the hands of crackpots and charlatans and turned it into a practice worthy of careful and ongoing study.—Richard Zimler

This remains the single most important work on the history of the mystical tradition in Judaism. Despite the mounds of more recent scholarly revisions of Scholem’s pioneering research, this classic collection of landmark essays still provides the best road map to a very recondite tradition, with its essential, enduring portraits of the most important schools of Jewish mysticism, from the early Kabbalah through its “last phase,” namely, Hasidism.—Allan Nadler

This text presents an archetypal view of the Jewish imagination and its consequences. It captures the Jewish ability to go from the very small to the very large and vice versa. It gives the reader a quick insight into the enormous body of work connected to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah.—Daniel Libeskind

My Promised Land
Ari Shavit

A brief history of Israel, filled with anecdotes and personal reflections, this volume is a minor masterpiece. The author recounts Israel’s history with love and admiration for the country and its people, but with blistering honesty about its shortcomings. Shavit recounts Palestinian suffering and wants justice for the Palestinian people, but neither disguises nor excuses the moral and political failures of Palestinian leaders. A depressing and hopeful book, My Promised Land manages to be a paean to Zionism, a demand that Israel survive, an acknowledgment of Israel’s dark side and a call for compromise between two longtime rivals, neither with completely clean hands.—Eric H. Yoffie

The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit
Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld

First published in 1973, this is a fantastic, accessible primer to a number of Jewish topics that, most critically, empowers readers to take the business of creating a Jewish life into their own hands, from the particulars of holiday and kashrut observance to tying tzitzit and making community. A lot of the resources are outdated, but the images are, now, delightfully vintage, and much of the wisdom resonates strongly.—Danya Ruttenberg

This one-of-a kind book is a comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish art from all over the world. Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University, uses the question of what makes art Jewish to guide his examination of thousands of years’ worth of art and architecture. Art has always played an important part in influencing culture and history, and that is why this book is timely and informative.—Siona Benjamin

South African rabbi (and doctor) Akiva Tatz is best known for his book Living Inspired, but I have always favored his book for the younger reader, The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life, especially for inclusion in bar or bat mitzvah gifts. It takes you through nearly every subject matter of significance: happiness, ordeals, defining one’s role in life, and the relationship between the sexes—all with an eye toward a deeper and inspiring reality.—Wendy Shalit

I believe that every American Jew is proud of being a member of a community that helped re-establish Jewish statehood. This book was a great endeavor by Gil Troy, who took Arthur Hertzberg’s book The Zionist Idea and modernized it, including in it sections that pertain to our time, and enriched it with some modern insight. We were instrumental in creating the greatest miracle in world history, and the contribution of American Jewry to that endeavor will fill every reader with pride—and we need some pride today.—Judea Pearl

A Maimonides Reader
Edited by Isadore Twersky

The Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ Code, is the greatest work of Jewish Law ever produced, but it is a daunting 14-volume work. By far, the best anthology is A Maimonides Reader. Isadore Twersky’s classic is also a good place to start the study of halacha (Jewish law) and pre-modern Jewish philosophy.—Allan Nadler

The late Rabbi Herbert Weiner tells of his journey through Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the State of Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was the first book I read that widened the lens of looking at Israel not only as a Jewish state, but as a center of world religions, realizing that Zionism had created a new unprecedented dynamic where we were the majority, and we were in charge of Christian and Muslim minorities. That was a shock to me. I came to realize that Zionism gave us an opportunity that Jews as a persecuted minority under those two religions never had, which was to explore Christianity and Islam as spiritual paths, not as threats.—Yossi Klein Halevi

Souls on Fire
Elie Wiesel

Wiesel’s portraits of the early Hasidic masters give a very different viewpoint from how people think of Hasidism today. These were people who were rebelling against what they saw as the suffocating aspects of highly ritualized Judaism. So they were seeking joy in Jewish life, and the fact that wisdom and meaning can be found in everyday life. It didn’t have to be this elite, highly intellectualized rationalism. This book also doesn’t shy away from depression and despair. Some of the great Hasidic masters went through periods of questioning their faith. When you’re approaching Judaism, and you realize there are tensions around faith, belief, ritual and practice, that knowledge is very liberating.—Jerome Groopman

This is the single best overview of the classics of modern Jewish literature, culture and thought and an ideal place to begin understanding the Jews and Judaism of the modern era. A single, uniquely insightful and discriminating text serves as the ideal springboard for future reading toward that goal of being a Jewishly educated Jew.—Allan Nadler

Here is the history of Jewish humor that Schama left out. Let’s see if he cribs any of it for Volume Three.—Bob Mankoff

Zakhor is a short book on the relationship between Jewish history and Jewish memory. This book taught me how to read Torah by teaching me what Torah isn’t. It isn’t history, grounded in evidence. It’s not literature insofar as we tend to separate that from history. And it’s not myth, because its characters are very human, very flawed beings—and I include God in that cast of characters. Torah lies at the intersection of those three things, history, literature and myth. Reading Torah is an act of remembering, and our job as readers is to try to understand what is being remembered.—Judith Shulevitz

This is a wonderful introduction into why Jews are fixated on our history, why we have told our stories continually, and what has changed in modernity about how we relate to our past. Yerushalmi was chronicling the way that Jews told their story for generations. Now all the historians who are writing the Jewish story are influenced by the way he thought about these issues.—Yehuda Kurtzer

The book is by a sociologist who invented a field called the sociology of time. Judaism is said to be a religion of time, a transposition of Temple worship to temporal worship, but Zerubavel forces you to reckon with the deeper meaning. He shows you that different orders of time have different architectural styles, which influence us as powerfully as do different styles of architecture in space. People also don’t realize that the Jews invented the week. The week is a byproduct of Shabbat, and as such, is a fundamentally Jewish unit of time.—Judith Shulevitz

All our thinking is tied to the metaphors in the stories of the Bible. This is our DNA, we are a people of a story. It is a special kind of story, full of intrigue and adventures, the fallibility of humans and greatness of humans, and that’s what makes it the book of books. All other religions tell us that we are the people of the book, the people of the Bible, and we have abandoned that! It’s a shame, and I think we should go back. Even biblical ethics, of which we are so proud, are enshrined there in the form of stories about human beings like us.Judea Pearl

I don’t think there is any meaning to Judaism without the Torah. That’s not even a religious statement. Whether you understand it in a religious way, in a historical way, as how we have defined ourselves as a people, as the story we are passing down between generations, as a gift that our people have given the world—all of those things are true, and none of them means anything unless you actually read the book. That is a challenge that modern readers need to meet. Luckily there are many people—and in fact thousands of years’ worth of people— who are here to help you along the way.

As you read the Torah over and over again, you see that the book doesn’t change, but you do. Because of that, it’s different every time you read it. Reading the story of the binding of Isaac as a child is different from reading it as a parent. Everything about the way you understand the text is different.

Many people are surprised when they encounter the texts as an adult— this is a radical revolutionary document. This is about overthrowing a social order and creating a new one, a vision of how a society can be. I think that any person with an open mind is going to be challenged by it. It’s a book for thinking people. Reading and reinterpreting the book is the religion. By being a reader, you are participating in that tradition Because of that, this is an eternally open book. What makes the Torah the Torah is not just the text itself but the thousands of years of conversations about what it might mean. This fact that those conversations are still continuing means that every reader gets to participate in them.

There are a million ways to engage with the Torah. This is not a book you’re supposed to read sitting by yourself. In fact, the whole idea of reading by yourself is very recent in Judaism. Almost all the modern He- brew and Yiddish writers have some story of how they come out of the yeshiva world, and then they go to a secular library in a modern European city, and they are stunned because everyone’s sitting quietly, reading books. They’ve never seen someone read silently. The whole idea of read- ing to yourself is not part of Judaism. You’re always reading in dialogue in a community or in dialogue with other people.

What’s the most amazing to me is, it’s very unusual in ancient literature to have characters who change. If you look at somebody like Odysseus, he goes off, fights the Trojan War, he comes back 20 years later, and he’s the same guy as when he left. The same wife is still waiting for him. But that’s not true for these biblical figures who start in one place and end up somewhere totally different. They emphasize this idea of restoration, this idea of change. If you look at some- body like Jacob who starts out as this person who’s cheating his brother and tricking his blind father, you see how he changes as he gets older, and how he reconciles with his brother. It’s this amazing and realistic story of the way people change over time. These people are so familiar. They only become more familiar as you become older.—Dara Horn

The Bible, but only with commentary, because reading the Bible “straight” is a certain route to misunderstanding, apathy, alienation or worse. The Talmud (my first choice) is riddled with the taste of traditional commentary, but modern Jews also ought to know a scientific view of Torah. Even now, after factoring in the realms of more recent scholarly discovery, I find the Jewish Publication Society Commentary Bible filled to the brim with matter for the mind.—Lawrence A. Hoffman

For at least 1,500 years, the Torah has remained one of the most influential works in Western culture. Its stories have been debated and interpreted by dozens of generations of philosophers, mystics, theologians, artists and writers. A working knowledge of Genesis and the Torah’s other books is sure to deepen one’s understanding of the evolution of Western civilization, as well as enhance one’s appreciation for such diverse authors as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, William Faulkner and Isaac Bashevis Singer.—Richard Zimler

We are The People of The Book, so read Part One. God’s early work is uneven but compelling. You can skip the sequel. There’s always a little skeptical realism that comes with being Jewish. Judaism is the only religion where you might believe in God, but you can still keep asking questions and don’t have to believe he’s always right. There’s a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not like the New Testament that tries to explain everything. It absolutely informs the way I think about things.—Bob Mankoff

The Tanakh, made up of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings—which includes the Psalms, the Five Megillot and other important writings—is the basis of the belief system and history of the Jewish people. Without at least some familiarity with this literature, it is difficult to understand anything else. There are countless commentaries on the Tanakh, so the study of the ancient texts can be embellished.—Shulamit Reinharz

It is the foundation, the stone from which all of Jewish religious, national, historical and belletristic literature has been hewed for more than the past two millennia. Still, assigning all 25 books of Hebrew Scriptures would be daunting and, arguably, unrealistic and even unnecessary. These are what I consider the six most essential biblical books: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms and Esther.—Allan Nadler

To be an educated Jew, it’s not enough to read just the text of the Tanakh (The Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) without any commentaries, because many places in it look absurd to the modern reader, and when one reads them, one becomes at a loss as to how generations of Jews up to our times could believe in them. It’s necessary to read Rashi’s commentaries in order to understand how Jews have been understanding the Torah during the last millennium.—Evgeny Kissin

Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, is an extremely problematic book. It deals with impermanence, ego and self-aggrandizement. It has a chilling effect in a culture that is highly materialistic like ours. And here is a book supposedly written in the voice of King Solomon who has almost immeasurable riches and access to whatever he wants. Ecclesiastes is one of the most psychological books, and you can tell why the rabbis argued over whether to put it in the canon. But I think it’s a mark of maturity that it exists within the Jewish tradition and is wrestled with on that level. The JPS translation and commentary are in more current language than other editions.—Jerome Groopman

The Book of Esther has one of the most brilliant insights into the power and the irrationality of bigotry. In one part of the story Haman is being elevated by King Ahasuerus but then he walks out of the royal palace and sees Mordecai the Jew and all his feeling of importance and pleasure evaporates. This kind of illness, whereby somehow “the other” is seen as such an undermining force that you can’t just be happy with your own portion, is powerfully expressed in the Book of Esther. The book speaks to the current malady which is leading to the resurgence of authoritarianism—a need to find and blame another in some way, or to use others as foils for your own advancement, aggrandizement and inner deficiencies.—Jerome Groopman

Matthew is generally considered the most Jewish gospel, but I think Markis the better storyteller, and that’s partly because he knows his Torah. Stylistically, this book of the Gospels is very biblical—it’s terse and moves quickly and creates characters of unplumbable depth. Mark’s Jesus is an abrupt, difficult, uncanny man-god, terrifyingly full of life. There’s a saying that the New Testament is a midrash on the Old. Mark’s Jesus is a midrash on God, who is equally abrupt, unfathomable, and frightening. The Gospel of Mark helped me to grasp the way in which Christianity is a Jewish sect, because Mark portrays so well the first-century Jewish state of mind that fostered the Jesus cult.—Judith Shulevitz

The Illuminated Pirkei Avos
The Wolinetz Edition

Pirkei Avos, or Ethics of the Fathers, is a section of the Mishnah that can be appreciated on many levels. Even young children enjoy discussing with their parents, “Who is wise?” and “Who is strong?” because the answers are never what they would expect. The Illuminated Pirkei Avos contains not only commentary but also stunning artwork and calligraphy. From my perspective, the most important teaching in Pirkei Avos is “Aseh Lecha Rav,” make for yourself a rav or teacher. We are being taught here that Judaism ultimately is not a religion you can understand from books, but a relationship—with God—and we can only really grasp it via another relationship, with a teacher.—Wendy Shalit

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers sort of falls into what is called wisdom literature— observations about behavior, morality and what we value. It also incorporates some level of Talmudic disagreement—so that someone who’s looking for insight realizes that there are a multiplicity of viewpoints and opinions which can conflict. The source material in Pirkei Avot is traditional, but it also speaks to universal dilemmas and questions. Rabbi Greenberg’s commentary is very rich. He frames each chapter, giving background and historical context. Even though he is a great scholar, this is written for a general audience.—Jerome Groopman

If I were alone on a desert island and had just one single work of the Jewish mind and soul to take with me, it would be the Babylonian Talmud. Judaism as we know it is utterly unthinkable without the Talmud. The older I get, the more I appreciate it, admire it—and actually love it. For those unable to follow it in its original (almost everyone), we now have the Artscroll version with its translation and commentary. I increasingly define Judaism as a running conversation about the human condition. The very form of Talmudic argumentation within the text, and then across generations via marginal commentary, epitomizes the Jewish conversation at its best.—Lawrence A. Hoffman

The Siddur has been the most widely read and recited book by the greatest number of Jews since the early post-biblical era. Its liturgical content encapsulates the most common beliefs, fears and aspirations of the Jews, as individuals and as the people of Israel. There are many versions with English translations, but I would insist that any Jew who cannot read and understand the Hebrew original—more generally, who does not know basic classical Hebrew—can in no way be considered Jewishly educated.—Allan Nadler

The Kabbalah was an integral part of the Jewish worldview for many centuries, so to be a well-educated Jew one needs to know the book of Zohar. The Zohar is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony and mystical psychology.—Evgeny Kissin

Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.

No Comments

Post A Comment