Mitz­vah Sto­ries: Seeds for Inspi­ra­tion and Learning

  • Review
By – June 21, 2012

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.

Ellie Bar­barash is a writer, musi­cian, and dis­abil­i­ty activist liv­ing in Philadel­phia. Her non-fic­tion has been pub­lished in Bridges. Ordained as a Kohenet, she is work­ing on pro­duc­ing an anthol­o­gy, Clear­ing the Spring, Sweet­en­ing the Waters: A Renewed Call to Torah.

Discussion Questions