A Poet’s Passionate Reflection in Prayer

Prayers are a particularly usable form of literature. And because they are composed by human beings to answer our most intimate needs, the stock of prayers always grows and changes. One scholar, for example, claims to count only 85 prayers in the Hebrew Bible, but the accumulation of Jewish prayer is now far beyond numbering and continues to grow ever richer and more plentiful.

Marcia Falk, author of “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival” (Reform Jewish Publishing/CCAR Press), is among the most prolific and influential of our contemporary prayer-makers. I first encountered her work when I reviewed her provocative and illuminating translation of “The Song of Songs,” and I admired “The Book of Blessings” when it was first published two decades ago. Now her classic book of prayer has been issued in a 20th-anniversary edition, which provides us with the occasion to reconsider the vitality and longevity of what she has contributed to Judaism.

Falk is not a rabbi. Rather, she is a poet and a painter, a scholar of biblical and Hebrew literature and a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish texts, all of which serve to inform her work as a modern maker of prayers. She declares that she stands in the tradition of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, whose heartfelt prayer was misapprehended by Eli the priest but not by God. “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is a branch of a tree whose seeds were planted three millennia ago by a woman who prayed from her heart,” says Falk, whose poems occasionally appear in the Journal.

Yet she sees it as her obligation to find new ways of praying, precisely because traditional prayer is not accessible or meaningful to every Jew.  “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is for those immersed in Judaism, and for those standing at its gates, looking for a way in,” she writes. “It is, especially, for those of us who have, at some time in our lives, stood like Hannah outside the sanctuary’s walls, suffused with longing, or anger, or pain.”

It is significant that “The Book of Blessings” is published under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a branch of Judaism that shares the egalitarian values that are so deeply embodied in her prayers — “the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities,” as she puts it.

Falk derives many of her newly minted prayers from ancient biblical texts, and she honors the oldest traditions of Judaism by, for example, providing all of the prayers in Hebrew. At the same time, she seeks to make the prayer book fully accessible by including both the English translation and the transliteration of the Hebrew text. And she pointedly insists on replacing the patriarchal deity who is invoked in traditional Hebrew blessings — “Lord Our God, King of the Universe” — with a wholly gender-free phrase: “the source of life.”

To be sure, Falk’s prayer book will strike some readers as a step away from Jewish tradition.  The fundamental prayer of Judaism, as it is rendered in “The Book of Blessings,” starts with a familiar phrase — “Sh’ma yisra’eyl” (Hear O Israel) — but continues with words and phrases that amount to something far more elusive than the original text: “The divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything; the many are One.” And, strikingly, she omits the traditional mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, and offers a meditation based on a contemporary poem, “Each of Us Has a Name.” For many Jews, I suspect, that’s a step too far.

If Falk’s exquisite and evocative prayers are the heart of “The Book of Blessings,” the brain is to be found in the commentary that she provides at the end of her book. Here we find a frank explanation of her approach to prayer, a sophisticated discourse on Jewish theology and an eloquent justification of the courageous changes she proposes to make in the trappings of Jewish observance. Significantly, she quotes Ira Eisenstein, a student of Mordecai Kaplan and a leading figure in the Reconstructionist movement, for the notion that Jewish values can and should become “the central theme of passionate reflection,” which is exactly how I would describe Falk’s enduring classic.

“Hebrew is my s’fat dam — the language of my blood,” Falk writes. Like her biblical exemplar, Hannah, Falk has poured out her heart to God, and we are privileged to not only witness but to participate in that “passionate reflection.”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language

kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

Honing Hebrew hilariously

Even the most ardent supporters of Israel might wish at times that its inhabitants had chosen an easier language … like, say, English.

However, because the linguistic choice of our common ancestors appears irreversible, two Israeli expats have come up with the idea of applying English phrases as memory cues to make Hebrew words stick in their minds. The result is a slim, richly illustrated and frequently funny pocket book by Yael Breuer and Eyal Shavit titled “Hilarious Hebrew” and billed as “the fun and fast way to learn the language.”

For instance, a cartoon shows a mountain climber and his unhappy dog getting soaked in the rain, with the man exclaiming, “OH, HELL. We forgot the TENT.” Below is the linguistic link: “The Hebrew word for ‘TENT’ is … OHEL.” The final word is spelled out in both English and Hebrew letters.

Another example is a freezing driver in an icicle-encrusted car, who notes, “It’s COLD in my CAR.” This is followed by, “The Hebrew word for ‘COLD’ is … KAR.”

Sometimes, the authors have to stretch for a connection: “The fastest car in the world belongs to BARACK Obama. It goes like lightning,” accompanied by a drawing of the smiling president clutching the wheel of a car. Beneath is the explanation, “The Hebrew word for ‘LIGHTNING’ is BAH’RAK.”

The originator of “Hilarious Hebrew” is Breuer, born in the Israeli university town of Rehovot and a former tank instructor in the country’s army. She now lives in Brighton, the popular seaside resort on the English Channel, and teaches modern Hebrew, coordinates events for youth programs and freelances as a journalist.

She soon shared her bilingual wordplay ideas with her friend Shavit, a pop-rock singer and guitarist, as well as a fellow Brighton-based Israeli, originally from Kibbutz Kfar Szold.

Although Brighton is hardly a major center of Israeli expats, there are about 100 of them, according to Breuer. They meet monthly in a Brighton pub for “Hebrew-only” get-togethers.

Breuer and Shavit started exchanging ideas and sentences and, in a few months, accumulated several hundred examples. They decided to turn their hobby into a book, and enlisted Aubrey Smith (also of Brighton) to do the illustrations, formed their own publishing company and, after two years, put the book on the market.

Describing the authors’ collaborative process, Breuer said, “Both of us come up with ideas, but I think Eyal’s are funnier than mine. Mine tend to be straight and simple, whereas his are quirkier.”

The first to test the efficacy of the authors’ teaching method was Smith, a gentile Brit, who absorbed many Hebrew words while doing the illustrations for the book.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is divided into sections under such rubrics as “Holidays,” “Family & Friends,” “On the Job,” “How Are You Feeling” and so forth. Also included is a listing of Hebrew letters and vowels and their English equivalents.

Breuer said she is perhaps proudest of the comment from a student she had tutored 22 years earlier and had recently met again. “She recited the English phrases I had given her two decades earlier to link them to Hebrew words, and she said they were still completely ingrained in her brain,” Breuer said.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is distributed in the United States by Gefen Publishing House.

The book is available through ” target=”_blank”>www.hilarioushebrew.com

Sifriyat Pijama B’America brings Hebrew-language reading to Israeli-American preschoolers

When Myra Clark-Siegel, wife of Israeli Consulate General David Siegel, packed their things for their Los Angeles mission, she sacrificed a few items. But she couldn’t leave behind her children’s favorite books, no matter that they weighed down the suitcases.

“We love reading, and we value reading and books enormously,” Clark-Siegel said in a phone interview from their new home in Los Angeles.

The native Texan made aliyah at age 25, and the couple’s children are bilingual. “It’s a joke where I keep telling my husband to stop buying books.”

But for the past year in Israel, the Siegel clan had one fewer book to buy per month. Free classic Israeli children’s books were delivered every month straight to the Israeli preschool of their youngest child, Ben, 4, as part of Sifriyat Pijama, an Israeli offshoot of the PJ Library program.

Conceived by Massachusetts entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, PJ Library was launched in 2005 and funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and strategic partners to instill Jewish values within American Jewish families through reading. All families had to do was sign up to receive free monthly mailings of Jewish-themed books. Today, more than 70,000 families are participating in the American program.

In 2009, PJ Library launched its sister program in Israel, Sifriyat Pijama, providing Hebrew-language children’s books to the country’s neediest public preschools. The program has grown dramatically with government support. In its first year, Sifriyat Pijama served 3,500 Israeli preschoolers; today it serves 120,000.

Clark-Siegel recalls how excited Ben and his classmates got when their Sifriyat Pijama tote arrived.

“He’d wait to read these books with David. It was a special thing they had together.”

When Encino-based philanthropists Adam and Gila Milstein, whose foundation supports causes that promote Jewish unity and continuity, learned about PJ Library from Grinspoon, they thought: Why not create an Israeli-American counterpart for PJ Library?

“I put two and two together,” Milstein said, speaking from the Encino office of Hager Pacific Properties, where he serves as managing partner. “You have books in Hebrew. We have about 700,000 to 800,000 Israelis in the United States that nobody can reach.”

Through Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which is co-sponsored by the Milstein Family Foundation, the Israeli Leadership Council and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Israeli-American families receive free monthly mailings of Hebrew-language books geared for children 3 to 5 years old. Within months of viral advertising, more than 2,000 families registered, far exceeding the Milsteins’ initial goal of 1,000. Next year, their goal is to reach 4,000 new families, and the waiting list continues to grow. He proudly scrolled down the list of sign-ups on his computer. “It’s hard to believe you have Israelis in Utah, Colorado and Minnesota.”

The program is a particular draw for “hybrid” couples with both American and Israeli roots.

“Language is a very important part of the culture and the tradition,” said Jasmin Epstein, sitting on the sofa of her Encino home with her husband, Danny Allouche, while their two oldest boys played nearby and their newborn napped. “We’re not just raising them Jewish kids, but Jewish Israeli kids that definitely have a connection to Israel.”

Born in Chicago but raised partly in Israel, Epstein married Allouche, a sabra from Omer, nine years ago. A former pro basketball player in Israel, Allouche, a financial adviser, moved to the United States after his Israel Defense Forces service to compete in American college basketball.

Children’s books, along with DVDs of Israeli television programs, give their children a cultural connection to their homeland and a sense of belonging when they visit their Israeli cousins.

Allouche remembers reading as a child the first Sifryiat Pijama book to arrive in early September: “The Bad Boy” by celebrated Israeli poet Lea Goldberg.

In the book, a normally well-mannered boy catches himself in outbreaks of bad behavior, from calling his aunt “stupid” to pushing his friend.

“It’s kind of true,“ Epstein said. “They’re not really bad kids. They have moments when their emotions take over, and I think that’s what the book gets at and tries to tell them.”

Asked what the book is about, their middle son, Guy, 4, recalled a scene when the boy calls his grandmother chamor (donkey), although at first he confused the word with shikora (drunkard).

“You wouldn’t have a book like this in English,” Allouche said, adding how the direct Israeli mentality is often reflected in children’s literature.

He noticed that in contrast to American children’s books, Israeli books tend to be more didactic. “If you scan the Israeli books and you look at Israel television shows for kids, there’s much more messaging and musak heskel (moral of the story).”

“The Bad Boy” is a favorite in the Siegel home.

“Every kid, especially young kids, have that side of them,” Clark-Siegel said. “They’re little kids. Ben is like most kids—we like to call him shovav, mischievous. It was a great book because it allowed him to understand that he’s not a bad kid, but if he does something mischievous or wasn’t behaving perfectly well, we had a mechanism for talking about it.”

Epstein and Allouche’s eldest, Evan, 6, prefers Hebrew books, hands down. “I like more books in Hebrew than in English,” he said. “And I like my Hebrew books because they’re cool, and that’s it.”

For more information about Sifriyat Pijama B’America, visit

Class Notes – A Model School

Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative synagogue in Santa Monica, thinks it has a winning formula for the eternal challenge of Hebrew school.

First, it did away with Sunday school, which was constantly competing with sports, music, tutoring and family activities. The Tuesday program was lengthened to three hours, but rather than relying on one teacher to cover all subjects, students go to specialized classes in Hebrew language, prayer and holidays, Bible and ethics — much as they move from math to science in school.

It cuts down on boredom, said Cantor Keith Miller, who did the revamp with Rabbi Michael Gottleib.

“The kids realize there is a finite amount of time in class, so they are excited to maximize that time and they come into class ready to start,” said Miller, who is also the education director at the 300-member synagogue. The school has about 60 students in its second- through seventh-grade classes.

Kehillat Ma’arav also developed Club Shabbat, a junior congregation for Hebrew school children, which integrates the Hebrew school families with those families who come for services every week.

This congregation has long sought ways to make its school more innovative. Two years ago, Kehillat Ma’arav revamped its high school program by teaming up with Shaarei Am, a Reform congregation in the neighborhood. Teens from both congregations study together every week.

For more information, call (310) 829-0566 or go to www.kmwebsite.com.

After School Academics

B’nai David-Judea Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, is opening a new religious school for fourth- through sixth-graders with minor learning problems who attend public or private secular schools rather than Jewish day schools.

“For a lot of kids, day school is just too fast-paced, with too much homework and too many subjects to master,” said Janet Fuchs, a mother who helped establish Torah Club with B’nai David’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.

Eight kids and a teacher are already signed up for September classes, which will meet twice a week for two hours. Fuchs hopes the program will not only educate the kids but, more importantly, give them a sense of community. The vast majority of traditionally observant kids go to day school, leaving those who don’t out of the social loop.

Students at Torah Club will study the holidays, the prayerbook and the weekly Torah portion, but not Hebrew language, which eliminates the need for homework.

For more information, contact B’nai David-Judea at (310) 276-9269 or BDJ@bnaidavid.com.

Calling All Authors

If, like most Angelenos, you have a manuscript in your desk it’s time to pull it out. If it’s geared toward 8- to 11-year-olds, that is. The Association of Jewish Libraries is accepting submissions for the 21st annual Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition for aspiring authors of children’s books. The best fiction manuscript written by an unpublished author that serves to deepen an understanding of Judaism will receive a $1,000 award.

For entry forms and rules, go to www.jewishlibraries.org, then click on Awards, then click on Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award. Deadline for submission of manuscripts is Dec. 31, 2005.

Around the Fringe The Gift of Summer

Nine Southern California children were able to attend camp this summer thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Education. The Beverly Hills-based nonprofit gives scholarships to unaffiliated, financially strapped families so their children can enjoy a summer experience of Jewish education and identity building. All nine attended Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, which also contributed to the scholarships.

For more information on the Foundation for Jewish Education, visit www.tfjeinc.org or call (310) 273-8612.

The Winners Are…

Downey B’nai B’rith Lodge 1112 presented five students Al Perlus Awards for scholastic and community achievement. The recipients of the $25 or $50 scholarships are: Vanessa Vasquez of South Gate High School; Byron D. Zacarias of Bell High School; Mercedes Perez of Huntington Park High School; Lauren Duran of Downey High School, and Mathew Vasquez of Warren High School.

Emek Hebrew Academy graduate Adam Deutsch won third place in the Jossi-Berger Holocaust Study Center Essay and Poetry Contest, a national contest sponsored by Emunah of America. His poem, “Will There Be Another Day?” dedicated to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Shoah, is posted at www.Emunah.org.

Please send Class Notes submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.


The World of Do-It-Yourself Judaism


The Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, takes up more than 20 volumes and, for the past 2,000 years, legions of scholars assiduously dissected every word in it. That means for every sentence of Talmud, there are paragraphs — if not pages — of commentary to learn in order to understand it. Consequently, studying it properly takes time — a lot of time. If you do the express thing and study one page a day, with no breaks for Chanukah or Passover, you should get through it all in, oh, an easy seven years.

But applying yourself so diligently, like many people, might be a thing of the past, now that Rabbi Aaron Parry, formerly the education director of Jews for Judaism, recently wrote “The Complete Idiots Guide to the Talmud” (TCIGT) (Alpha). In a little more than 300 pages, Parry parses those tricky pages down to their bare essentials, making the Talmud palatable to all those complete idiots out there who previously felt shunned by those weighty tomes. Now, you probably won’t get the authentic Talmudic experience from reading this book — there is really no need to read it bechavrusa (with a partner like traditional Yeshiva students learn it) — but you will acquire enough of the lingo to name-drop your way quite respectably through any Talmudic dinner table discussions. Should someone bring up “Mar Shmuel” for instance — instead of staring blankly at your salad plate, desperately hoping the conversation will revert back to Ashley Simpson’s lip-synching skills — you can say, with authority, “Ah yes, that second century Babylonian sage. Did you know that he’s Rabbi Judah’s doctor?”

Parry’s is the latest Jewish book in the “for idiots” genre. It follows TCIGT “Understanding Judaism,” “Learning Yiddish” and “Jewish History and Culture” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech; “Jewish Spirituality and Mysticism” by Michael Levin; Jerusalem” by H. Paul Jeffers; and, finally, for smaller idiots, “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Judaism,” by Dan Cohn-Sherbock, adapted by Amy Zavatto. The “complete idiots,” it seems, are better served than the “dummies” out there, who if they want to learn about Judaism can only choose from “Jewish Cooking for Dummies,” by Faye Levy; “Hebrew for Dummies” by Jill Suzanne Jacobs; or “Judaism for Dummies” by Ted Falcon and David Blatner.

Despite the difference in monikers the books give to the intellectually unfortunate, both series of books follow a similar format. They are written in a breezy, chatty, writing style; have two of three subheadings per page; boxed texts; and icons like check marks (in “Dummies”) and men with lightbulbs coming out of their heads (in “Idiots”) to alert the readers to salient points. The “Idiot” books make better use of graphics than the “Dummies” books (perhaps the idiots aren’t as textually acute as dummies are). In “Idiots,” lightbulb-man is joined by genial-looking yarmulke-wearing rabbi, happy woman with empty speech bubble and studious man immersed in books.

So is it possible to squeeze 5,765 years of history, culture, law and food into a 380-page book? Yes! While academics might snub their noses, the books actually can teach both the idiot and the dummy quite a bit about Judaism.

In “TCIGT Understanding Judaism,” Blech starts with God and works his way down from there. He touches on the various secular theories of how the world was created, such as the Big Bang Theory, and then moves right back to describing how the patriarch Abraham smashed his father’s idols and started monotheism. The book goes through all the basics — holidays, Shabbat, various laws such circumcision, mezuzah and tefillin — but it throws in a whole salad of extras. Want to know the difference between Chasidim and Mitnagdim? No need to work through volumes of philosophy, because Blech already has, and in this book he summarizes the main arguments into three sentences. (“The chasidic movement chose the heart. The mitnagdim … sharp[ened] one’s intellect.”). He uses the same approach to get to the heart of those philosophical brain twisters like “Why do good people suffer?” and “Does God really care?” (Apparently He does.)

But perhaps you want to know less about the religion and more about the history — in which case “TCIGT Jewish History and Culture” is for you. The book, also by Blech, acts as a confidante and toastmaster instructor to its readers, offering them “Yenta’s Little Secrets” (“Lost is lost, but maybe some of the 10 lost tribes were found…”) and “Pulpit Stories” (“Moses Mendelssohn fell in love with a beautiful, wealthy woman. The match seemed highly unlikely, especially in the light of Mendelssohn’s severe physical deformity…”) The book not only elucidates Jewish history from biblical times through today, but it also explains to its readers (and this, of course, falls into the cultural, rather than the historical, section of the book)

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish doctors?”

A: They want to do tikkun olam.

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish comedians?”

A: Because those who have the most reason to weep “learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”

It is probably one of only books in print that enlightens the reader on the cultural significance of both King David and Jerry Seinfeld.

In “TCIGT the Talmud,” Parry has perhaps a more difficult task than Blech, because the Talmud is so vast and hard to categorize. Parry starts off by explaining what the Talmud is (the codification of the Oral Law of the Torah), how it got written and some of the famous people associated with it. Then he summarizes the Talmud’s major tractates. He also delves into the spiritual, mystical and philosophical questions that are found in the Talmud’s pages. However, the famous arguments that epitomize Talmud study are missing from these early chapters, which slash away anything possibly extraneous leaving only the bare minimum (i.e. “Challah — when one separated bread, it was required that a portion be given to the priests.” How much dough should be separated is discussed in this tractate). But there is a chapter on “Studying the Talmud” in which Parry explains the best ways of getting everything you can out of the original text.

The best thing about the “Idiot” books is that at the end of every chapter, it gives you a little box that shows “The least you need to know” about the chapter topic. It makes it easier for people who find reading a whole book chapter too tiring; this way they only have to read a list.

“Judaism for Dummies” has no such list, which makes reading it more mentally taxing than the “Idiots” books. The book tries to combine both the history and the basic laws into one volume. It also has an appendix of “A primer of basic words,” which is, to this reader, a fairly random list of words that you might (or more likely might not) come into contact with in discussions with other Jews, such as “Ladino,” “Ellis Island” and “Righteous Gentile.”

It is unlikely that these books will ever replace genuine Torah learning or academic study, but they do something else. They make Judaism — which so many people find foreboding or uninteresting — fun, palatable and easy, which means maybe these books aren’t so stupid after all.


Behold, You Are Fair

What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We’ve asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b’nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at

“>Click here to discuss this book

The Song of Songs.

I fell in love with the Song of Songs when I was 19, living on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, near Haifa. Israel was itself only 16 — a poor agricultural Israel, where the food was simple and scarce but the springs of the Galilee flowed with clear water, and hope and promise lit the quiet air. I was studying half-days at the kibbutz ulpan, and I kept notebooks in which I wrote down the songs I loved:

To the garden of nuts I went, to see the buds of the valley, to see if the vines had flowered, the pomegranates were in bloom….

The words seemed so fitting for this old/new land — biblical words that were vividly alive all around me in the fields, and made the reclamation of this land that was laden with meaning, somehow, holy. After a day of studying Hebrew and washing floors in the children’s houses, I’d pore over the words in my notebook, and write out more phrases from the Song of Songs. I felt as if the ancient Hebrew was at once a holy language and a celebration of the body, a love language, a language of longing: If only I could love like that, if only I could be desired and beloved like that!

Over the years, I returned over and over again to the Song. I read it for comfort. I read it in graduate school, for so many of its lines had infiltrated English literature. I read it when, at 23, I was living in Israel again — black-haired, dark-skinned, lonely; I felt like a Daughter of Jerusalem wandering around the city in search of “He whom my soul loveth. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved tell him I am sick with love” (5:8).

Along the way, I learned that Rabbi Akiva said that while the Ketuvim, the Writings of the Bible, were holy, the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies. But it is not because he saw it as the most impassioned love song he could possibly sing to his wife.

No, Rabbi Akiva was singing to God.

God! My beloved, sensual, Song of Songs, allegorized into a love song between Israel and God! At best, I was disdainful.

But very recently, while unexpectedly hospitalized for a painful illness, I came upon Christian poet Kathleen Norris’ “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith” (Riverhead, 1999), and found these words: “I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.”

“Religious belief as a relationship” — one to which you are profoundly committed, that involves the whole of you, yet also demands trusting the unknown. Now Norris may not be the only one to have said that, but the way she said it struck me powerfully. For whose beloved can ever be entirely known? And who can ever know what a deep relationship will demand “in the long run?”

All of a sudden I could feel why Rabbi Akiva experienced the Songs of Songs as a love song between Israel and God.

A love song to God? How strange the words might seem to us. True, when we say the Shema we remind ourselves that we should love the Holy One with all our heart, all our soul, all our might. And before we ever say the Shema we say that God has loved us “greatly.” But what does such “love” actually mean to us? Can we imagine intimacy? Yearning? Passion?

Rabbi Akiva could.

What would it be like just to taste what he might have felt as he chanted the Song of Songs? For all the nuances of a deep relationship are there: the ache of loneliness; the longing for connection; the profound sensual pleasure in the other’s presence. Yearning, desire, appreciation, awe, ecstasy, wonder.

Our liturgy reminds us repeatedly that God is sovereign of the universe, creator of the cosmos, Redeemer from Egypt, Bestower of Torah and Lover of Israel. The Shema commands us to love God, and tells us that God loves us. But to experience that love, to revel in it, to ponder its nuances, we need to set aside our 21st-century skepticism — and our inhibitions — and open up the Song of Songs.

Read it alone or read it with friends; imagine the lover of your dreams or read it with your beloved, because the Song of Songs magnificently celebrates human love.

And then let Rabbi Akiva’s heart inspire you. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”: Read it now as a love song between the Holy One and your own soul.

A match made in heaven, indeed.

Miriyam Glazer is in her final year of rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of the University of Judaism, where she is also professor of literature. Her books include “Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration and Love” (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and “Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers” (State University of New York, 2000).

Community Scholar

Driven by a personal desire for intellectual growth, Arie Katz set out last year to attract to Orange County the sort of eminent Jewish scholars that few synagogues can afford to woo on their own.

With little more than his own chutzpah and considerable networking skills, the Newport Beach attorney won support and financial backing from the area’s most influential Jewish agencies to establish a community scholar-in-residence program. Its first event, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28, will kick off at the Jewish Federation Campus in Costa Mesa with the arrival of Avigdor Shinan, an Israeli professor and author.

During a monthlong U.S. stay, Shinan, 55, agreed to a jam-packed schedule of lectures, Shabbat events and study series at a range of interdenominational synagogues, four campuses, an educators retreat and a working weekend in Seattle. An engaging speaker and author of six books, Shinan is a specialist in rabbinical literature and has served as a guest lecturer at Yale University and New York’s Yeshiva University. He is currently a professor of Hebrew literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and is the immediate past chair of the department.

In an e-mail interview, Shinan told The Journal he agreed to the demanding schedule, although he conceded the visit will contribute little to his own career. "What is being a teacher if not standing before anyone who is ready to listen and try and bring into their life something new?"

Most of the lectures, with titles such as "Folk Stories in the Talmud and Midrash," are from material Shinan developed for previous presentations at established community scholar programs in Washington, D.C., and Houston, Tex.

If the pilot program’s intent is giving adults affordable access to high-level learning, it also reveals that the county’s Jewry is capable of organizing across denominations and institutional boundaries. "The Federation felt it was very important to create a communitywide education concept," said Bunnie Mauldin, executive director of the agency, which contributed $10,000 toward the program’s $25,000 cost.

"It’s one of the few co-sponsored events that builds community," added Julie Rubin, assistant executive director of the county’s Jewish Community Center (JCC). "It’s a model for Jewish programs in our community."

Only one major synagogue is not participating in the community-scholar program. Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm has its "university," a five-part lecture series that on its own can afford to attract celebrated speakers. "I have speakers from Hebrew University all the time," explained Rabbi Mark S. Miller. "We ask our people to come to so much; we risk overload. I would wonder where to fit it in."

Though most local synagogues offer their members cultural and theological enrichment by scheduling visits by guest lecturers, a community scholar program’s duration can create a different opportunity. "My hope is it will whet people’s appetite for more, teaching adults that Jewish learning is a lifelong endeavor," said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue of 480 families that is sponsoring Shinan’s talk on "Moses and His Two Wives." "The depth of learning that creates personal transformation only comes through consistency," Spitz said.

While the region’s Jewish population of about 60,000 is successfully supporting the physical expansion of new schools and new shuls and providing learning opportunities for youth, the area lacks resources for adults that are available in larger cities. In fact, the void here is reflected in most American Jewish communities, which place less cultural emphasis on adult learning than communities in Europe and Israel, Spitz says.

Some residents resort to unusual steps to fill that vacuum. Take Linda S. Seidman. Before returning to full-time work, the Irvine aerospace engineer would schlep to Los Angeles to satisfy her interest in serious scholarship from a nontraditional, feminist perspective. That luxury ended when she resumed design work on a global positioning satellite for Boeing in Huntington Beach. Seidman’s solution was to hire her own professor, underwriting for a year weekly classes studying how Judaism perceives women. It is attended by a dozen other students and offered through the county’s Bureau of Jewish Education. "We’ve gotten stuck in the first two chapters of Genesis and haven’t come up yet," Seidman said. "I’d rather dig deeper than go broader."

Seidman, though, is an exception. Most Jewish adults effectively end their Jewish education after their confirmation. "What I think is missing is not big-name speakers but sustained education," explained Joan Kaye, director of the county’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which is sponsoring two multipart Shinan courses. "The problem with adult Jews, is they leave Hebrew school after the seventh grade; they have a 12-year-old’s vision of the world."

Demand for adult education has increased over the last 15 years, Kaye says, growing out of family-oriented programs in day schools and synagogues. "What family education has started to do is give people a taste of Jewish learning," she said.

Many communities offer nondegreed, adult education courses based on curriculum developed by the rabbinical training schools. These include the Melton curriculum, developed by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, training ground for rabbis of the Conservative movement, and the Me’ah Program, developed jointly in 1994 by the Committee of Jewish Continuity and Hebrew College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.

Avoiding denominational barriers and potentially drawing people out of hidebound routines is a clear benefit of a secular community scholar program. "Synagogues have their own agenda and bring a scholar that’s consistent with their religious orientation," pointed out Marilyn Hassid, program director for Houston’s JCC, which has hosted scholars in residence since 1985.

"People live for this," said Hassid, estimating that the Houston program cumulatively reaches about 4,000 people annually. That includes a cadre of 40 scholar groupies, who often attend every lecture by following the scholar’s itinerary. One consequence, she said, "is there’s a desire to continue learning after the scholar leaves."

The inspiration for Orange County’s community scholar program came from a weekend retreat that Katz attended last February through his synagogue, B’nai Israel. Noam Zion, a visiting scholar and master teacher infused the study of the familiar biblical story about Cain and Abel with relevancy about contemporary family relationships. "We did an intense text study that made people excited to learn," recalled Katz, 34, a corporate attorney who relocated with his family from Boston four years ago. "It was interesting and motivating."

After learning of the Houston and Washington scholar-in-residence programs from Zion, Katz set out to replicate their success by first seeking advice from two other synagogue members. "To me, it’s a very significant event in the development and growth of the community," said Mike Lefkowitz, who suggested Katz rely on the JCC for organizational strength.

"If it’s successful, it will perpetuate itself," added Dr. Harold Kravitz, a retired Costa Mesa family practitioner, who made federation introductions for Katz.

"No other institution offered this," Katz said. "We didn’t find it, so we created it." For seed money, he and 19 friends chipped in. Synagogues are paying fees beginning at $500 per session, which will help underwrite succeeding year’s events.

Even before getting underway, the scholar program is generating unexpected benefits, such as a co-presentation planned with the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation of celebrated Israeli author A.B. Yehoshova next month.

Clearly an optimist, Katz is already securing bookings for February 2003.