Like most book lovers, asking me why I read is kind of like asking me why I breathe. I read books because the best of them teach, entertain, transport, inspire, and comfort me. Books make me think and connect to the world outside myself. In my reading life, I have laughed, cried, celebrated, grieved, argued, empathized, fallen in love, been scorned, and dreamed countless dreams.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Weekly trips to the public library are among my earliest childhood memories. I read under the covers with a flashlight, completed summer reading challenges, and considered bookshelves the most important element of home decor. When I got married, we joked that I paid my husband a dowry in books.
I have always enjoyed a wide range of genres, although I confess that I do always read the end of the mystery first. Throughout my dedication to being such a generalist though, books that fall under the wide umbrella of what may be considered “Jewish” have been a constant, always near the top of my reading pile.
The first such book I can recall is Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candlesticks by Amy Schwartz, which was eventually followed by the All Of A Kind Family series by Sidney Taylor. Along with a vast assortment of holiday themed stories and anthologies of biblical tales, these books reflected something essential about who I was. It wasn’t an accident that these books appeared in my home and school. They were placed there by adults who thought… well I don’t know exactly what they were thinking. Maybe that I would like them. Maybe that some were well-written, age-appropriate reading material for a Jewish child. Maybe that the books could explain something about Jewish history and Judaism more clearly than with the language they had at hand. Maybe that I would hear and see things differently, maybe be more receptive to new ideas, if they came packaged with pictures, or from a voice other than my usual authority figures.
In retrospect, it may have been any, or all, or none, of the above. But what I learned from these Jewish books was priceless. I learned that not all Jews look the same. That what it meant to be an observant Jew was not the same in every time and place. Changes in practice and diversity among the Jewish people could be a source of joy. I learned that there were multuple ways of learning, loving, and living Jewishly. I became a Jewish explorer.
Fortunately, being a Jewish explorer doesn’t come with a map. Instead, the Jewish books I read become my navigational tools. With no fixed mythical destination, or “X” to mark the spot, my Jewish books suggest places I might like to go. On these journeys I count my treasure in the riches of rituals newly interpreted, the people who become more than their names, lessons that instruct me how to deepen my relationships with my loved ones, community, and God.
I read Jewish books to be myself.
Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Rabbi. Jew.