RECOMMENDATIONS FROM SIONA BENJAMIN | CAPERS FUNNYE PETER A. GEFFEN | JEROME GROOPMAN YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | EDWARD HIRSCH LAWRENCE A. HOFFMAN | DARA HORN EVGENY KISSIN | YEHUDA KURTZER DANIEL LIBESKIND | BOB MANKOFF ALLAN NADLER | JUDEA PEARL SHULAMIT REINHARZ| DANYA RUTTENBERG WENDY SHALIT | JUDITH SHULEVITZ MICHAEL TWITTY | RUTH R. WISSE ERIC H. YOFFIE | RICHARD ZIMLER
When I came to Moment 15 years ago, I wanted to expand my Jewish knowledge and began asking people which books I should read to be an "educated Jew." I soon found that the list of recommended books varied greatly. At first I was a little surprised. Weren't there even five books--beyond the Five Books of Moses that make up the annual Torah cycle--that were considered the essential canon? But I came to understand that there could be no one answer, for embedded in my question were many other questions: What is an educated Jew? What do we mean by educated? Even, what is a Jew? Who is a Jew? What is Judaism?
I certainly don't have the answers. In fact, I believe that there is more than one path to becoming an educated Jew. That's why I delight in the rich variety of book recommendations you will find on the following pages. We've asked rabbis, scholars, educators, writers and artists, not all of whom you would normally hear from on this topic. As I see it, each book is a portal into knowledge; some will beckon to you while others won't. And while you are unlikely to be able to read all (or most) of them, knowing they are out there is fulfilling in itself. Even if you read just one or two, you will be farther along your path.
Rest assured, this is only the first installment of an ongoing project. We will be introducing you to more recommendations in future issues. And, if you don't see a book that's on your top five list, tell us about it via firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter at #5 Jewish Books.--Nadine Epstein
JUDITH SHULEVITZ IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SABBATH WORLD: GLIMPSES OF A DIFFERENT ORDER OF TIME.
Call It Sleep
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.
Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory
Yosef Hayim Yerusnalmi
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.
The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week
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.
The Human Condition
The fundamental premise of this book is that we are deeply embedded in the materiality of the world and in 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.
The Gospel of Mark
Matthew is generally considered the most Jewish gospel, but I think Mark is 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.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI
HALEVI'S MOST RECENT BOOK IS LETTERS TO MY PALESTINIAN NEIGHBOR. HE IS CO-DIRECTOR OF THE MUSLIM LEADERSHIP INITIATIVE AT THE SHALOM HARTMAN INSTITUTE.
A Child of the Century
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.
With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps
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.
Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems
Edited by Ben Zion Bokser
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.
The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi
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.
Operation Shylock: A Confession
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 anti-Zionist 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.
ERIC H. YOFFIE
RABBI ERIC H, YOFFIE IS PRESIDENT EMERITUS OF THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM,
Maimonides. Abridged edition in English and Hebrew, 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 abridgement is my recommended vehicle for starting the journey.
My Promised Land
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...