November 20, 2019

Chart a new course with these spiritual guides for the New Year

As we think about rewriting our personal narratives in the New Year, adding new pages and chapters, several new books inspire new visions, renewed creativity and new relationships between the calendar and a sense of holiness.

Beautifully rendered in a poetic and sensitive translation, “The Book of Psalms: Translation With Commentaries,” by Robert Alter (Norton), is both a comfort to read for its remarkable content and an enlightening study. As Alter writes in the introduction, through the ages, “Psalms has been the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers.” These poems, he continues, “retain their eloquence and liveliness after two and a half millennia or more, for believers and simply for people who love poetry.”

Alter’s informed commentary will add much to readers’ understanding of what is “at least as a set of techniques and conventions, the most original literary creation of the biblical writers.”

In his translation of Psalm 27, read daily at this time of year, Alter notes that the line toward the end, “Though my father and mother forsook me, the Lord would gather me in,” is breathtaking and extravagant in its declaration of trust in God, “perhaps the most extreme in the whole Bible.”

“Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays,” by Rabbi Paul Steinberg (Jewish Publication Society), covers Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, guiding readers to go deeper into the themes of the holiday and find new meaning in their own observance and celebration. Organized with much thoughtfulness, he includes a richness of materials for each holiday: writings from some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time reflecting on ideological aspect of the holiday; interpretations of sacred texts on the literal level, incorporating historical interpretations and personal perspectives; modern perspectives on the holiday by contemporary scholars and rabbis, and alternative meditations, including essays, poems and new rituals.

There’s much good and inspiring writing here. Included are the voices of Rachel Adler, S.Y. Agnon, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Kook, Elie Wiesel and others. The author is the rabbi and director of Jewish studies and Hebrew at the Levine Academy in Dallas.

“Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health,” edited by Rabbi William Cutter (Jewish Lights), is a collection of provocative essays delving into the relationship between classical Jewish texts and contemporary health issues, linking body, mind and spirit.

Contributors are a group of scholars, activists, rabbis, teachers and artists not directly involved in health care but deeply interested in the human dimensions, including Rachel Adler, Arnold Eisen, Eitan Fishbane, Rabbi Arthur Green, Rabbi David Ruderman and Albert J. Winn. Cutter is director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: A Spiritual Resource for Mentoring and Leadership,” by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Behrman House), is an uncommon spiritual how-to book. Artson guides readers to becoming mentors for others, learning to enrich others through sharing authentic experience, knowledge and a sense of holiness. Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, performer and music producer Craig Taubman has put together a collection of brief essays, meditations and poems on the theme of hope and healing, “Jewels of Elul III” (Craig ‘n Co./American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem), emphasizing the possibilities for change, growth and hope.

The pieces in this third edition are available online in a daily version or in a small pocket edition, compact enough to fit into a tallit bag. The 29 contributors include Rabbi Harold Kushner, Matisyahu, Dr. Jerome Groopman, Anita Diamant and Rabbi David Wolpe.

The Los Angeles Central Library’s ALOUD program will feature a discussion between Robert Alter and Jonathon Kirsch on Alter’s book, “The Book of Psalms: Translation With Commentaries,” moderated by David L. Ulin. The discussion will be held on Monday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at the library.

For information on obtaining a free copies of “Jewels of Elul III” call (800) 707-9250 or visit

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.