Ten books you should be sneaking into synagogue on Yom Kippur

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Maurycy Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.