Favorite Books for the Holidays

Stephanie Singer Books, Jewish Life — By on September 29, 2011 10:00 am

Here are some of my favorite recent, classic, go-tos and retellings… books that deal with one or more of the central themes of the holidays: repentance, reflection, accountability, forgiveness, returning to one’s core values, community and God.

Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days. By S.Y. Agnon. The subtitle pretty much says it all.  It’s a classic, assembled in 1948 by the only Israeli winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. You can find it used online (reprinted many times by now). The collection includes traditions, legends, and commentaries on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between, from biblical selections to the code of Maimonides, from Hasidic stories to mystical traditions, you’ll find just about everything here.
The Lowercase Jew. By Rodger Kamenetz. Kamenetz, the author of the well-known book The Jew in the Lotus, about the Jewish encounter with Buddhism, has mined the subjects of survival and forgiveness before, but this time, he considers the repentance angle as well.
Even Higher. By Eric Kimmel. This children’s book is a retelling of a short story If Not Higher by the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. As the story is retold here, every year, just before Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi of Nemirov disappears. The villagers are certain their rabbi flies up to heaven to speak with God. Where else would such a great and holy man go just before the fate of every soul is decided for the coming year? But a skeptical Litvak (Lithuanian Jew) scoffs at the villagers, claiming miracles cannot happen. He vows to discover the rabbi’s secret, but what he witnesses—an enormous act of human compassion—will make any doubter believe.
The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. By Jon D. Levenson. This is an academic book, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s very well done. I mention it because the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac by Abraham, is the Torah portion that will be read on Rosh Hashanah. The near sacrifice and miraculous restoration of a beloved son is a central but largely overlooked theme in both Judaism and Christianity. This book explores how this notion of child sacrifice constitutes an overlooked bond between the two religions. Not an easy read but fascinating and worthwhile.
This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. By Rabbi Alan Lew. The late Rabbi Alan Lew’s book has aged well and continues to resonate with me each year. This is a great preparation for anyone who has spent time in synagogue during the High Holy Days, trying to figure out the point of all those prayers. This lyrical, personal book by a poet and the author of One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, is a beautiful account of how the ten days of repentance—which begin at Rosh Hashanah and end with the Yom Kippur fast—acknowledge the essential questions and crises of human life.
When The Chickens Went on Strike. By Erica Silverman. This children’s book is adapted from a story by another great Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem. A story about the custom of Kapores (the custom of swinging a chicken over one’s head to take away the bad deeds of the past year), told by a man looking back on his childhood in a 19th century Russian village, this year the resentful chickens are fed up with being vehicles for a New Year’s clean slate. As with Kimmel’s book above, I love the adaptation of the classic Yiddish story for young generations of readers.  The illustrations are fun too.
Half A Life. By Darin Strauss. In this powerful memoir, novelist Darin Strauss examines the far-reaching consequences of the tragic moment that has shadowed his whole life. In his last month of high school, he was behind the wheel of his dad’s Oldsmobile, driving with friends, when a classmate swerved in front of his car. The collision resulted in her death. With piercing insight and stark prose, Darin Strauss leads us on a deeply personal, immediate, and emotional journey—graduating high school, going away to college, starting his writing career, falling in love with his future wife, becoming a father. Along the way, he takes a hard look at loss and guilt, maturity and accountability, hope and, at last, acceptance.

Happy reading!

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