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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5777

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Image: Edel Rodriguez, from Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on our recommendations from previous years, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5777.

Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Even diehard Trekkies might not know the full extent of the Vulcan Salute’s Jewish origins, but Richard Michelson’s new children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy takes young readers straight to the source. Edel Rodriguez’s glowing illustrations of Cohanim with their hands raised during Rosh Hashanah services at the Boston shul eight-year-old “Lenny” attended with his father depict the images Nimoy would conjure from his childhood memories when he came up with Mr. Spock’s iconic gesture and greeting, “Live long and prosper.”


Among the Living: A Novel

The protagonist of Jonathan Rabb’s novel, a young man named Yitzhak Goldah, survives the Holocaust and lands in Savannah, Georgia, where cousins and their Conservative Jewish community welcome him with open arms. But Yitzhak’s discomfort among them becomes mutual when he courts a widow belonging to the neighboring Reform temple, and tensions between the two fractious congregations come to a head over tashlich services held on the same beach. Things get even more complicated for Yitzhak from there, but that’s all I’ll give away here!

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between



Some of the most pivotal moments of Judy Batalion’s memoir occur on the Jewish High Holidays: she invites the man who would become her husband to her apartment for the first time for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends; she meets his parents ten days later, ending Yom Kippur in their Hampstead home, where Judy discovers that her bashert’s mother, too, is a hoarder much like her own—a moment she recalls years later to the day, returning home from services with her husband and daughter as a family.


Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals



Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah? Why does it fall at such an awkward time on the calendar, and how do we interpret its definition in Leviticus as a remembrance of of the shofar blowing, zikhron truah, as the Jewish New Year? Why are we meant to observe Creation’s anniversary in a mood of “fear and trembling,” and could it be that Yom Kippur was intended as a joyous celebration? Where did the Kol Nidre and Ne’ila services come from, with no parallel customs for any other holiday? Rabbi Nathan Laufer addresses these and other questions in clear, text-based explanations for readers of all backgrounds.

Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York



Reading Robert Weldon Whalen’s study of “real gangsters and reel gangsters” exposes how American popular culture has been—and continues to be—influenced by the 1940 and 1940 series of trials prosecuting members of Abe Reles’s Brownsville gang for murder, torture, and essentially any “illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived:” car theft, burglary, assault, robbery, fencing stolen goods, drug trade… The hearings and their outcome sparked a fascination with organized crime and its arbiters as a gritty but glorified symbol of moral evil, the ethical consequences and imprint of which Whalen explores chapter by chapter in this academic by thoroughly engaging read.

Good on Paper: A Novel

Rachel Cantor’s second book is the first novel she ever wrote, and a little less zany than the first one published—but every bit as steeped in Jewish history and ideas: our hero Shira Greene’s love interest is an ordained rabbi who runs the local independent bookstore and a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the Kabbalistic concept of a person’s soul reborn in another body. But the strongest Jewish quality of the story, as Cantor highlighted in an interview about the novel, is the centrality of forgiveness in Shira’s development: “My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again.”

One of These Things First: A Memoir

“Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there.” Steven Gaines’s memoir begins on a purposeful route through his grandparents’ lingerie shop, escaping the supervision of the sales ladies in his charge to slip out the back door and attempt to kill himself at fifteen years old. Admitted to the famed Payne Whitney clinic, Steven delivers a note confessing “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” to a young resident and begins treatment to “cure” himself of his sexual orientation. The story ends with a difficult apology delivered fifty years later, which Steven struggles to accept, knowing that even his forgiveness will not be enough to enable the person seeking it to forgive himself.


Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s succinct reflections on over half a century of Jewish faith, practice, and leadership is indeed an “essential” read for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with lessons including “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook” and “Religion Is What You Do, Not What You Believe,” concluding with “A Love Letter to a World That May or May Not Deserve It.” Kushner’s chapter on forgiveness—as “a Favor You Do Yourself”—draws upon The Merchant of Venice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Egypt, King David’s relationship with his wife Michal, the movements led by Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, and personal anecdotes from Kushner’s life and pastoral career around the High Holidays.

Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World



“Throughout my life and then eventually through my Jewish education that, frankly, only started in rabbinical school, I had alternately rebuked and implored God, despaired of and celebrated tradition, lorded my own righteousness over some teachings and stood in humility and even shame before the vastness and depth of the tradition. But now, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing—the shattered and the whole—the promise of Mount Sinai,” Susan Silverman shares at the moment she first meets her son Adar. “And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.” Underlying Susan Silverman’s story of raising a family of biological and adopted children is a continuous theme of renewal and fulfillment, rooted in reflections on Jewish values, rituals, and proverbs. This memoir is a great selection for readers looking for an accessible, feel-good meditation on Jewish faith and spirituality for the High Holidays—just make sure to keep a pack of tissues handy.

Good People: A Novel

Israeli novelist Nir Baram’s Good People follows two characters at the time of World War II, a German in Poland and the daughter half-Jewish daughter of intellectuals in Russia, each working for their country’s government and intent on survival and success at any cost—even betraying those who saved them. Only in encountering each other, recognizing a similar genius between them, will they repent, but what does redemption look like in a time when nations and individuals alike seek only power and the destruction of their enemies?

Jewish Book Council wishes all our readers a Shana Tovah! Read a JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter's Rosh Hashanah letter from the JBC!

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10 Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5775

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Permalink

Looking for the new list for 5776? Click here!

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

1. Many Seconds Into the Future by John J. Clayton

Ten stories of ten men grappling with life, love, and loss from acclaimed short story author John J. Clayton contemplate Jewish identity, prayer, and mourning.

And then one day, on this very day of my first sentence, late fall, God comes to him, speaks in the form of a shiver that ripples through him and —he’s almost sure—means something. I could say he feels a surge of energy reaching from the box on his arm through the box above his forehead and down through him to his toes, but he himself can’t say exactly what happens in his body. He finds himself in tears.

This is probably a purely neurological event, even the start of a nervous breakdown, not an encounter with the holy. At least that’s what I’d think if it happened to me. No burning bush, no heavenly chariot. But for Harry it’s a nudge from God—the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, brushing her soft Self against his skin. Holy goose bumps. Does he hear himselfcalled—Harry, Harry…? He isn’t sure. He answers anyway, Hineni, Here I am.

2. But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

On the second day of the Jewish new year, communities traditionally read the story of the Binding of Isaac—nineteen lines from Genesis, composing one of the most perplexing stories across the three monotheisms. James Goodman struggles with this passage through commentaries and exegeses of Second Temple sages, rabbis and priests of late antiquity, the Hadith, Syriac hymns, allegories from the First Crusade, medieval English mystery plays; through the art of Europe’s Golden Age, the great Western philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the works of Boby Dylan, Elie Wiesel, and A.B. Yehoshua.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would. I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t go back on yours.

Right up to the last moment, I thought, I hoped, I may have prayed, that Abraham would protest: I can’t do it, I can’t. I obey you as I obeyed my own father, Terah, but Isaac: he is my son.

But he didn’t.

3. The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars’ Gospel is essentially a Jewish Master and Margarita, without the time warp. Rewriting Jesus’ rise to fame and fervor during his living days from the isolated perspectives of Miryam (Mary), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiaphas, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), Naomi Alderman’s intense third novel is grounded in sources from Josephus, the New Testament, and the Talmud. The festering political tensions mounting in Jerusalem are mirrored in the High Priests preparations for Yom Kippur, when he will enter the Holy of Holies to atone on behalf of the Jewish people alone—and he may not survive.

They tie a rope around his ankle so that, if he dies, they will be able to haul him out[...] Today is ordinary, and tomorrow will be ordinary and the next day in all likelihood. But once a year he will stand in the full presence of the Almighty and see if he is worthy to survive.

4. The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Like The Liar’s Gospel, Nina Siegal’s stirring novel is voiced through multiple imagined perspectives of real and fictional characters. Inspired by Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, The Anatomy Lesson weaves the story of a criminal who remains unrepentant until glimpsing the face of the woman who loves him at the moment of his execution and the figures of Amsterdam who attempt, in their own ways, to redeem him.

I wish I could tell you that a kind of fire burned through my hand just then, feeling my mother’s benediction on my skin, but I can’t. All I can say is that I know it was the right thing. That, right there, would be the center of the painting. The artist’s invisible hand presents the surgeon’s living hand, to reanimate the hand of the dead convicted thief. And in that way, to resurrect all humanity.

I heard the singing grow louder outside my windows as the parade took shape along my street. I knew that I had finally found my way into this painting, and that it would be no mere portrait but one of my greatest works. I would illuminate Adriaen’s body. I would cast the damned man into the light.

5. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

The concept and practice of vidui, or confession, in Judaism, is extraordinarily complex. As part of the traditional Yom Kippur service, individuals ask forgiveness for the sins of the world—but both then and year-round, there is a personal component as well. Perhaps the rawest Jewish American confession penned for the current generation—and certainly this year—is Leah Vincent’s gut-wrenching memoir of survival after being abandoned and ostracized by her yeshivish family and community.

I slammed the phone down and struggled to take in a breath as frustration and despair and fury rose higher and higher in my body, like a typhoon in a glass bottle.

It was the tradition to ask for forgiveness in the High Holiday season, in hope that others relinquishing their grudges would swar a stern God to pardon our sins. Would there, I fumed, be such easy forgiveness for me? If I did anything that also hurt your feelings in some way? Is she fucking kidding or is she just completely oblivious? Exasperated, I shook my head.

6. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Though no intermediary between the penitent and God was originally prescribed, Hasidic masters encouraged their scholars to bring their vidui to a sage, a mentor. Up until his death four years ago, countless readers all over the world chose J.D. Salinger as their sage, though he had no wish to hear them. In My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff recounts her experience answering letters addressed to him while working for his agent as her first foray into the literary world:

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him with such urgency, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed[…] And so, of course, his readers felt an urge to write back. To say this is where it hurts or here’s how you made it better.

7. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck

A generation earlier, Jewish immigrants to New York had Abraham Cahan.

When I get angry I go into a trance and attack the weakest parts of the people I love. I am eating out my husband’s poor heart. So far, I have only used words, but it is just a matter of time before I become physically violent.

When I wake up in the morning I am remorseful. I vow to be good to him. But some little thing always sets me off and I become my old self in a minute. What should I do? A known murderer is at least punished, but I am an unknown murderer.

8. The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish New Year by Marcia Falk

Modern liturgist Marcia Falk has composed an entire book of original prayers and blessings for the Ten Days between Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, infusing traditional elements into contemporary values and sense of self. Her version of vidui replaces the “catalog” of sins throughout mankind with “a call to self accounting”:

In the mirror of our eyes, the other is reflected;
in the eyes of the other— ourselves.
We look outward, inward,
see how we have hurt and harmed,
how hurt embeds even in the smallest wounds.
We give ourselves over, begin to make amends,
Begin to make ourselves whole.

9. Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek by Lee Kravitz

Rather than test driving a few sports cars or researching hair regrowth gimmicks, when midlife crisis struck Lee Kravitz he began a “spiritual shopping expedition” through Buddhist meditation groups, Quaker meetings, Hindu chanting sessions, and Christmas mass. Eventually he returned to Judaism, finding a community that suits his specific religious needs. His memoir culminates at the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur:

Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we’re supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.

The stakes can’t get much higher than that.

10. The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman’s debut novel is by no means a retelling of the Biblical Book of Jonah; it is, rather, an impressive experimenta­tion with allegory and the antihero, leaning ever so lightly on the traditional Yom Kippur reading and exposing facets of the story heretofore unconsidered. Reimagining a modern-day Jonah as the Harry Potter of city street preachers—the unlikely savior of mixed parentage, straddled between the real world and suddenly-encoun­tered mysticism—in a society of devotees of the iPhone and capital assets, Feldman transforms the archaic dichotomy of good-versus-evil into a profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth.

For me, the image of the whale—or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish—presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that—and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so reso­nant with people—is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah.

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Internal Dialogue: The Days of Awe 5775

Monday, September 22, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Prayer doesn’t come easily to everyone. Whether one considers oneself religious, spiritual, observant, or curious, finding that optimum of space, intention, liturgy, and nirvana is for many a constant challenge, heightened by the stretch of High Holidays on which we embark this week. Jews of all affiliations and identities often feel a sense of urgency around this time, searching for a service, practice, or community that will house their spiritual needs during this holy week and a half.

“The High Holiday liturgy, with its emphasis on sin and judgment, can strike a discordant note even for those who pray regularly during the year,” observes 2014-2015 JBC Network author Marcia Falk in her introduction to The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. A worthy companion to her previous book of original liturgy, The Book of Blessings, Marcia has composed “inclusive, nonhierarchical” prayer specific to the Ten Days of Awe “for all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity… to speak to the widest possible spectrum of Jews seeing a new experience of the High Holidays.”

Offering original benedictions in both Hebrew and English, Marcia Falk guides her reader from the Rosh Hashanah feast through the sanctification of the new year, the Tashlikh ritual, meditations for each of the Ten Days, the pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and Yizkor remembrance to N’ilah, the closing of the Heavenly gates. An accessible explanation of the rituals attending each custom introduce each section, and the verses themselves do indeed “bring fresh language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy.”

Marcia is joined in the 2014-2015 JBC Network by fellow blessing brewer Alden Solovy and his Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, a collection of selections from over 400 original prayers and meditations written since the sudden death of Alden’s wife, Ami. He offers sacred poetry for Hopes; Praises; Family; Love and Friendship; Meditations Near the End of Life; Yizkor and Memorial Prayers; 9/11 Remembrance; Facing the Holocaust and Antisemitism; Physical Healing; Surgery; Pregnancy and Fertility; Cancer; Critical Illness; Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Dementia; Addiction and Mental Illness; Hospice Care and Letting Go; Medical Science and Medical Professionals; Sorrows; Bereavements; and Surrender. Following his writing over the past several months—with all of the personal and global difficulties they contained—Alden’s gift for bringing comfort to others through words proved its mettle.

“A modern-day liturgist,” he writes,” is a witness to the essential longing that occurs in all of us during the most uplifting and the most devastating moments in our lives. A modern-day liturgist is a witness to the yearning to express our joys—and our fears—to a God, to a higher power, to the soul of the universe."

Modern-day liturgists are not limited to paper and pen, either: with the release of Popular Problems on his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen reminded his faithful listeners and a whole new generation what a religious experience music can be. It seems no accident that this Cohen’s latest album came out this week, just in time to inspire reflection and spiritual serenity as we approach the Ten Days of Awe. In his posts on The ProsenPeople, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Liel Leibovitz wrote about accepting Leonard Cohen as his personal savior—in lieu, almost, of a bar mitzvah—and on the relative experiences of rock ‘n’ roll and religion. These essays expound on Liel’s current book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, an exquisite biography that elucidates the Jewish religious influences on Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre and articulates the redemptive, restorative quality of his poetry, lyrics, and music:

You feel the same hum at a Cohen convert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too, can somehow transcend[...] He is attuned to the divine, whatever the divine might be, not with the thinker’s complications or the zealot’s obstructions, but with the unburdened heart of a believer—it’s not for nothing that he referred to himself in song as “the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.

If you’re struggling to find the spiritual serenity you seek as we approach and enter into the new year, throw on a Leonard Cohen record, read A Broken Hallelujah, and sift through The Days Between and Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. You might just find something that works.

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High Holiday Reading

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 | Permalink

The High Holidays are right around the corner. Check out JBC's book recommendations and articles here.

Casting Off

Monday, September 26, 2011 | Permalink

Stuart Nadler's first book, The Book of Life, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.


For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.

Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.

But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.

Stuart Nadler will be blogging here all week and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network.

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