January 28, 2020

New books challenge readers to revitalize their Judaism

Sounded every morning during this month of Elul, the shofar is a call to review, rethink, renew, revitalize, to shake things up a bit, to go deeper. This season, a number of new books also challenge readers to think anew about their connection to Judaism and to Israel, to their ritual practice and religious lives.

Historian Jonathan Sarna takes a departure from his works of American Jewish history to look at the central themes and values of Jewish life, as they are reflected in the cycle of holidays, in “A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew” (Basic Books). He presents Judaism as a way of life, a way of marking time and finding meaning. Written in the form of letters to his daughter, the book is a wise introduction to the American Jewish experience and makes for a particularly good gift for college or high school students.

In an interview, Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of several books, including the award-winning “American Judaism: A History” (Yale, 2004) said that he hopes that the book will be not just informative, but inspiring.

Sarna, who has strong ties across the spectrum of Jewish life, stays away from denominational distinctions and provides a view grounded in tradition, open to pluralism. He emphasizes that we have a variegated tradition, noting the traditional Jewish idea that there are “70 faces” to the law. For Sarna, “the multiplicity of answers is the right answer.”

In writing about Yom Kippur, he writes about the role of the individual within the Jewish community, favoring the “precept that ‘all Jews are responsible for one another,’ whether they know them or not, like them or not, agree with them or not.”

He also asserts his confidence as a Jew, and in a final paragraph writes, “So long as Jews sound the shofar, so long as they cry, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ so long as they learn from the past and work to shape the future, so long as they juggle Judaism among their priorities, so long as they maintain a strong sense of family and community, and so long as they aspire to uphold common values and teachings, I am confident that the people of Israel will live on.”

The book is part of a series of books on mentoring; Sarna explains that this volume was inspired in many ways by George Weigel’s “Letters to a Young Catholic.” He writes that this book is a “onetime departure” for him — he’s now working on a new work of American Jewish history, looking at President Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews.

“The Accidental Zionist: What a Priest, a Pornographer and a Wrestler named Chainsaw Taught Me About Being Jewish, Saving the World and Why Israel Matters to Both” by Rabbi Ian Pear (New Song Publishers) is a thoughtful and original exploration of theology, politics, faith and identity.

Its curious title will draw readers to Pear’s vision of a “new way of channeling the blessings of the Diaspora, including its openness and material rootedness, to create an attractive, reinvigorated and purpose-driven form of Jewish life.” He believes that Israel can provide the inspiration, unifying force and overarching purpose to renew Jewish life and “reinvest it with deep meaning.”

The book includes traces of Pear’s own spiritual and intellectual journey. His idea of universal Zionism suggests that the return to Zion by the Jewish people and their re-establishment of the Jewish state is “ultimately the most powerful way for the Jewish people to also return to their universal roots and, in so doing, offer their greatest gift to the world.”

Pear, who was born in the United States and holds degrees in law and international relations, is founder of Shir Hadash, a synagogue, educational institute and community center in Jerusalem.

“Whose Torah?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism” (New Press) by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, with a foreword by Elaine Pagels, examines six critical issues, including poverty, race and the environment.

The chair of the religion department at Temple University asserts that the Torah belongs to Jews all along the religious spectrum and that pursuing justice is a central value of Torah and should inform and guide the pursuits of the Jewish community. Alpert, who is one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi, has long used her rabbinate to speak out against injustice.

For Brenda Shoshanna, looking beyond Jewish tradition has inspired her to look within in a deeper and more authentic Jewish way, as she details in “Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen” (DaCapo Press). The author, a psychologist, describes herself as a long-term Zen student and a practicing Jew raised in the Chasidic world of Borough Park “who has been unable to let go of either practice.”

For Shoshanna, each practice is essential to the other and enriching. She believes that as Zen practice deepens Jewish experience, Jewish practice provides the warmth, grounding, life perspective and humanity that’s sometimes is missing in Zen.

Her chapter, “Making Peace in the Family and in the World: Forgiveness and Renunciation,” is timely reading for these days of reflection, as she looks at how both traditions deal with making peace, practicing kindness and the dynamics of forgiveness.

“Beyond Survival: A Journey to the Heart of Rosh Hashanah, Its Prayers, and Life” by Simon Apisdorf (Artscroll) is a revised version of this informative guide to making the holiday service more meaningful. Apisdorf highlights the concepts of the holiday and the prayer book with translations, explanations and insights into particular prayers.

For those who gain more inspiration from the spoken word, a newly launched Web site offers CDs with teachings and prayers to prepare spiritually for the holidays. Rabbi Debra Orenstein, an author and teacher, draws wisdom from sacred texts, providing contemporary interpretation, guiding toward self-transformation, cultivating a sense of awe and bringing more compassion to the world.

Also available are two new CDs featuring the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, with whom Orenstein has co-officiated at holiday services at Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles for the last 14 years.

For new culinary ideas for the holiday, “Jewish Holiday Cookbook: Festive Meals for Celebrating the New Year” by Jill Coela Bloomfield (Dorling Kindersley) is a well designed basic cookbook that encourages children to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the kitchen. The author, creator of a childrens’ cooking consulting company, Picky Eaters, offers a mix of contemporary and classic dishes. For Rosh Hashanah she includes illustrated step-by-step recipes for Sweet Ginger Gefilte Fish, Harvest Rice with Pomegranate Seeds and Honey Lemon Cake and for Yom Kippur, Smoked Salmon Frittata.

For Rabbi Janet Ozur Bass, who provides commentary and explanations, the home and table are important centerpieces of Jewish life.

In the kitchen, she writes, “We can teach someone that cooking is about using our resources wisely, being generous and taking only what we need. We can teach the mitzvah of hospitality by graciously opening our hearts and homes to old friends and family and extend that mitzvah to new friends who might have no other holiday table at which to celebrate.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.