Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Ten books you should be sneaking into synagogue on Yom Kippur

Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.

(RNS) — No, I’m not talking about reading these books during services.

Though, that would not be the worst thing in the world.

This rabbi knows that there are many ways to access God. Some Jews do it through the prayers of the liturgy.

But, others get in touch with the sacred, and themselves, through the written word – a literary ladder to God, if you will.

I recommend bringing these books with you to read during the break in synagogue, between services on Yom Kippur.

But, if you sneak them into the sanctuary, and read them behind the covers of your open machzor (High Holy Day prayer book), your secret will be safe with me.

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, by Elizabeth Rosner.  I have just started this, and I cannot put it down. It is about the fascinating field of epigenetics – about the open question of how much trauma gets inherited from generation to generation. It mostly focuses on the trauma of the Shoah, but it is relevant to any kind of pain that lingers in the system, both physically and spiritually. An excellent preparation for Yizkor.

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir, by Ilana Kurshan. I am loving this memoir by a young Jewish woman who discovers the magical world of Talmud study. I will get around to writing a longer review, but suffice it to say: she writes like nobody’s business, and she does a great job of teaching us more Talmud than we might have known before.

Rendezvous With God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals, by Rabbi Nathan Laufer. My old friend, Rabbi Laufer, walks us through the festival calendar, and leads us into a startling and refreshing conclusion: Rosh Hashanah is not what we thought it was. Neither is Yom Kippur. Neither, therefore, is Judaism itself.

The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, by Rabbi Edward Feinstein. I read this last year when it was first released, and it will most likely be on my annual Days of Awe reading list. Ed Feinstein is a friend and a teacher, and is one of the best rabbis in America. His understanding of Judaism flies in the face of what has all too often become a kind of American Jewish sleepwalking, in which we imagine that the purpose of Judaism is to make us nice, rather than to change the world. Hard-hitting, humorous, and well worth your time.

When God is Near: On the High Holidays, by Yehuda Amital. The late Rabbi Amital was a beloved teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and this volume will help you understand why. A beautiful collection of meaningful essays, each one lifting up a different aspect of the liturgy of the Days of Awe. Invaluable, no matter what stream of Judaism you find yourself occupying.

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by Rabbi Alan Lew. Put Rabbi Lew in that all too bulging file folder of “Jewish thinkers who died before their time.” The late Rabbi Lew, a former JuBu (a Jewish Buddhist) brings just enough of his prior spiritual flirtation into his encounter with the run up to the Days of Awe. This is another one of those books that I keep returning to. It makes your end of summer different from what it had ever been before.

All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, by Shulem Deen. There is a growing cottage industry of books, written by those Orthodox Jews who have gone OTD (off the derekh, escaping from Orthodoxy). But, none is as good as this painful, poignant autobiographical statement by Shulem Deen, the son of a revered ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who fled “the life” in Rockland County, New York, and paid a very high price for his exodus. The scene where he discovers an encyclopedia in the public library, and realizes that there is a whole world out there that he had not known, is worth the price of the book itself.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder. In which a noted historian, who has previously focused on the Shoah, turns his attention to what is going on in America today, and forcefully inserts that question into our minds: Can it happen here? He is determined that it won’t, and tells us how we can prevent it.

Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, by Erica Brown. Erica is one of the best adult Jewish educators in America, and she upholds her reputation with this collection of meditations on the meaning of morality, mortality, forgiveness, and renewal.

Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, by Erica Brown. Yes, another one from Erica. It just came out, and I raced through it. There is no better book to bring with you to synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when you need something to help you forget the growling in your stomach – like thinking of Jonah in the stomach of the large fish, and the story’s implications for our lives. Spoiler alert: The prophet Jonah is not only the only successful prophet in the Hebrew Bible; he is also the most successful religious leader in history.

So, friends, there you have it. Enough to keep your mind and soul busy on Yom Kippur.

For those of you who can do so, may it be a meaningful fast.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

17 Comments

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  • Two reasons not to sneak any books into a synagogue:

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

  • Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, by Elizabeth Rosner. I have just started this, and I cannot put it down. It is about the fascinating field of epigenetics – about the open question of how much trauma gets inherited from generation to generation. It mostly focuses on the trauma of the Shoah, but it is relevant to any kind of pain that lingers in the system, both physically and spiritually. An excellent preparation for Yizkor.”

    Originally believed in epigenetics from Torah not science. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+30.25-43&version=NIV

    https://twitter.com/lcvalin/status/793915782094692352

    Believe Scott Michael Greene and Joseph Hodges White Jr. could have suffered military service related inherited PTSD from their fathers at times of their alleged crimes.

  • “The prophet Jonah is not only the only successful prophet in the Hebrew Bible; he is also the most successful religious leader in history.”

    I assume you mean because Gentiles repented at his preaching in 763 BC.

    Also preached to Jeroboam/Israel & given “40 days” to repent as in Ezekiel 4, “40 years later deported by Shalmanesser V of Assyria.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+14.23-29&version=NIV http://biblechronologybooks.com/hebrewkings.html p 250

    390 years before built a temple on Mount Gerizim in 333 BC (Antiquities XI.viii.2) ibid p 253 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel+4.5&version=NIV

  • Each of the ancient prophets from the tribes of Israel were successful insofar as they honestly and faithfully proclaimed the Word of God to the people of the nation, including their foretelling of the advent of the Messiah, that is enough success for anyone.

  • No, says 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis.

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.
    New York Times
    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    See the rest of the review that includes comments about Exodus and Genesis.

  • There is no external evidence and the book of Genesis is historically, scientifically and morally flawed. His point is just as valid. However their actual existence is not really important since faith is needed.

  • You have not quoted any rabbi. You are quoting the NYT book review of the Etz Chaim chumash [weekly Pentateuch and prophetic readings, with extensive commentary and essays]. Those reviewers do not speak for all Conservative Jews much less all Jews. A more accurate rendition of the historical-critical approach that Conservative Judaism often follows is that Abraham and Moses existed, maybe they didn’t. In any event, none of those rabbis would ever, ever say that the foundations or pillars of Judaism have no strength of purpose.
    BTW, the really funny thing about your comment not to sneak any book in is that chumashim are usually hard to find in synagogues on the High Holidays. The prayerbook used on these days, called a machzor, has all the Pentateuch and Prophetic readings so you don’t need the chumash. They and the normal prayerbooks are removed from the seating area and the machzorim placed there instead. So to read these essays you talk about in just about every comment you make here, you would by definition have to sneak that book into synagogue.

  • Without resorting to invective, allow me to say with every fiber of my being, and my own rational capacities, you both remain in error.

  • I googled Rabbi David Wolpe. He wrote a book called Why Faith Matters and a book called Why be Jewish. I’ve seen him argue that God exists with famous atheists. He would not agree with your conclusions. Myths don’t have to be true to be meaningful. Atheists are often as literalist as fundamentalists.

  • Archeologists now think that there was no Exodus, but that Jews were Canaanites. Egypt conquered Canaan and Jews could have become slaves then or maybe they were just relegated to the lower classes. So the part about being former slaves may still be true, but why develop a myth about being slaves if it wasn’t true? There may have been a charismatic religious figure and leader who existed at that time who became the model for Moses. I saw a program about this on PBS. I don’t know if it’s still there.

  • The PBS documentary is from Nova, a section called Archeology from the Hebrew Bible.

    Here is a small excerpt:

    “Yet many people want to know whether the events of the Bible are real, historic events.

    We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

    The Bible is didactic literature; it wants to teach, not just to describe. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that’s doing an injustice to the biblical writers. They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.”

  • Very interesting list. I noticed you did not mention Rabbi Laura Gellar as co-author with Rabbi Edward Feinstein of The Chutzpah Imperative. Be sure to give credit where it’s due.

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