Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning

Reclaiming Judaism  2011

 

Popularly translated as ‘good deed,’ mitzvot (the plural form, mitzvah, is singular) are human actions that are both an honor and an obligation to perform, the acts we are commanded to do because they are right and kind. Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, is an exceptional, vibrant anthology offering memoirs, folktales, midrosh, teaching tales and legends to illuminate forty five mitzvah-centered life practices, to ‘birth mitzvot from learning into living’. As Editor Goldie Milgram says, “…Each mitzvah constitutes a category of Jewish spiritual practice that provides us ways of texturing our lives with meaningful actions.” Contributor Arthur Strimling adds, “telling Jewish stories is a form of prayer.” This anthology illustrates mitzvot through story. Beginning with a historical section on Jewish storytelling, Mitzvah Stories is arranged into five broad categories: Coming to Wholeness: Mitzvot of Love and Healing; Expanding the Heart: Mitzvot of Joy and Generosity; Celebrating Sacred Time: Mitzvot of Shabbat and Holidays; Seasoning our Lives: Mitzvot of Life Cycle and Learning; and Finding Holiness & Happiness: Mitzvot of Serving & Experiencing God.

Each writer’s contribution ends with a section called Provenance, an autobiographical statement and a short blurb about how the piece was written. Eclectic and diverse, stories occur in the Middle East, Europe, throughout the US, and on Native American reservations. Some are translated from Hebrew. Entries span centuries and include biblical tales, non-fiction, and medieval Kabbalistic conversations. Stories plumb a deep reservoir of Jewish observance, from highly traditional practice to lifestyles innovative and fringe. What is extraordinary about this anthology is unpredictability and the quality of compassion that threads through each contributor’s voice.

The stories stay with you. “Mr. Kharrubi and Me,” by Helen Engelhardt, features an improbable friendship deepening despite political difference and great loss. In “Men on Menses,” James Stone Goodman writes beautifully about attending to his daughter’s first period. “The Demon of Dubrovna,” by Gail Rosen, spins a tale of kindness and courage shown to a neighborhood demon in a small shtetl in Eastern Europe. In “The Dress: A Purim Fairy Tale,” Amicahi Lau-Lavie writes about Purim masks, costumes, cross-dressing, and the loss of his mother. In “The Wooden Axle,” Rabbi Jill Hammer weaves fairy tale, goddess myth, Jewish tradition about the Prophet Elijah, and stories of the Shechinah into a rich and moving folktale of a Shabbos miracle for a poor, weary carpenter on a dark and snowy night. Many writers in this anthology read like a Who’s Who of progressive, creative Jews, and there are plenty of lesser known authors with gems included in each section. Mitzvot seed and inspire meaningful Jewish life, and these stories seem to come from every field and flavor of Jewish practice.

Accompanying the anthology are two free companion pieces. One is a downloadable pdf by Shoshana Silberman called “Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning Discussion Guide,” designed for book clubs, classes, and Rosh Chodesh groups. It provides questions directly related to each story and the mitzvah it demonstrates. 

The second companion piece is a series of free on-line podcasts discussing various selected mitzvot, and can be found here.

In addition, available for separate purchase is a deck of “Mitzvah Cards: One Mitzvah Leads to Another,” a set of fifty two cards including the Hebrew name of selected mitzvot, the modern meaning of the mitzvah, and its biblical reference. All told this series provides an enriching exploration of the Jewish legacy of kindness known as mitzvot revitalized into an accessible modern form.



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