With his new collected volume of writings Journey To Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Avi Weiss presents how his thinking and experiences have come together to shape his vision for the future of the Jewish people. Reaching beyond the limitations of a denominational platform, these essays articulate a menu of possibilities on a wide-range of topics, from halacha to Jewish leadership, diversity and inclusion in Jewish life, and the State of Israel. Although he intends his ideas to be linked under the umbrella of “Open Orthodoxy” each individual essay has the sturdiness of resolve and principle to stand on its own.
As some of the contents have been previously published, and in some cases over 20 years ago, the strength of each individual essay is hardly surprising. What is most striking about the collection is how it enables the reader to travel along with Rabbi Weiss as his thinking matures and sometimes changes. The gradual development of Rabbi Weiss’ positions, as he gains experience as a pulpit rabbi, visits and re-visits traditional texts, faces new challenges in his family relationships, and addresses stormy political seas emerges as his ultimate lesson. Living a full Jewish life, being fully immersed in the well-being of loved ones, community, and Am Yisrael is a long-term commitment, one that can be uncomfortable and deeply painful. In this volume, Rabbi Weiss powerfully demonstrates that his commitment to continuing on this journey has enabled him to create a space for a different kind of religious engagement and practice, one he hopes will emerge as a significant force in the future of Jewish peoplehood. Individual readers may not be in the position to affect the international conversation about what should constitute normative Jewish practice and participation, but they will be inspired to understand that their opinions about such subjects may change over time, and that there is tremendous value to exploring multiple options.
There will be readers who chafe at Rabbi Weiss’ characterizations of other Jewish denominations, and who will actively disagree with some of his halachic positions. While the book invites an in-depth critique of the movement he calls “Open Orthodoxy” readers need to be cautious not to judge Rabbi Weiss for not moving far enough or fast enough (or for going too far too fast). It can be difficult to separate his writing from the generally privileged religious, socio-economic and political contexts of his community in Riverdale, New York, and readers with limited experience with the formal study of Jewish texts may occasionally be overwhelmed. Readers who have been closely following Rabbi Weiss’ work and writings will probably not find much new material, although they will likely be most appreciative of having this well-edited and conceived collection. The best hope for this volume is for those who have accompanied Rabbi Weiss in his past decades of service to the Jewish people to better understand his journey, and that those who are less familiar with his work may learn from his experience and embrace the uncertainty of fully engaging in the conversation and journey of their own.
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The air is getting chillier, leaves are exploding with color, and Jewish communities around the world are getting ready to celebrate a month-long holiday-palooza. In addition to (hopefully) eating delicious food and spending time with our loved ones, we may also be spending hours in synagogue services, which along with all the screen-free days for the more traditionally observant, gives us plenty of quality reading time. So however you choose to celebrate this festive season, we’ve got a book list to help you elevate your holiday experience.
Days of Awe by SY Agnon – A classic and accessible collection of nearly 300 Jewish teachings related to the high holidays. Drawn from sources spanning 2000 years of Jewish experience and organized according to the order of services, this book serves as an ideal companion to the traditional liturgy.
But Where Is The Lamb? by Dr. James Kugel – In this thoughtful retelling of the story of the binding of Isaac, Professor James Kugel offers new insights and commentary into the centerpiece of the Torah portion that is traditionally read on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah. His scholarly attention to detail and nuanced language invites all readers to re-imagine the story they think they already know.
The Days Between by Dr. Marcia Falk – A collection of the author’s poetry and writings, Falk’s book offers a modern interpretation of the theological and liturgical themes of the high holidays. Her innovative service for “tashlich” (the symbolic casting away of sins) is just one example of how this work inspires readers to immerse themselves in the experience of the holidays.
All These Vows by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman – Rabbi Hoffman takes a deep dive into the ideas, language, and artistry of the “Kol Nidre”, one of the liturgical highlights, not only of the high holidays, but of the entire Jewish calendar year. Discover its history and new understandings of how it became such a popular and essential part of the Yom Kippur and Jewish prayer consciousness.
Jonah: A Modern Commentary by Rabbi Leondard Kravitz and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky – By the time we get aroun to reading it in the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, the book of Jonah doesn’t always get our full attention. This scholarly work wakes readers up, providing insight and context for this often-simplified biblical story.
My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin – While this expansive book includes all the holidays that make up the Jewish calendar, the material that addresses the high holidays and those that follow in the month of Tishrei deserves its own mention here. The author’s focus on celebration and ritual makes her writing especially relatable, and readers will likely find much to enrich their personal appreciation for these special times.
Every Person’s Guide to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah by Rabbi Ron Isaacs – More of a “how-to” guide, this book provides excellent instruction about the origins, meaning, and observances of the titular holidays. For readers who wonder how to keep the holiday spirit alive after the break fast, Rabbi Isaacs makes it appealing and empowers them to get started on the next stage of their Jewish journey.
JPS Bible Commentary – Ecclesiastes by Rabbi Michael Fox – This volume of the JPS Bible Commentary series includes the text and intensive scholarship on the book of Ecclesiastes which is traditionally read during the holiday of Sukkot. This book, with its combination of traditional text and modern commentary, is a treasure trove for those who enjoy a sophisticated grappling with theological issues and questions of human nature.
The Wisdom Books – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes by Dr. Robert Alter – In his translations, the author approaches these canonical books as works of literature, and the results are a breathtaking. For readers who appreciate the linguistic and poetic subtleties that underly the larger moral and metaphysical messages. Read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, be inspired to read Job and Proverbs throughout the year.
And God Said… A Brief History of Creation by Barbara Leff – On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the world, and on Simchat Torah we celebrate that we get to read about it again in the new year. Leff’s poetry collection draws from the Jewish tradition and is the perfect jumping off point to appreciate the return to the beginning of the Torah reading cycle.
With a vibrancy and complexity that brings her characters and their stories to life, Gila Green’s latest book, White Zion is a celebration of her artistry. Written as a collection of stories, it weaves together the tales of generations as Green crosses continents, watches empires fall, and new countries and families emerge.
Readers who are familiar with Green’s other works will find themselves returning to the stories of old friends, as some of the material in White Zion refers to her earlier narratives. New readers will relish the introduction to a diverse cast of characters and insights into the highly personal side of history. Through the lenses of different family members, national and international political, religious, racial, and gender movements become intimate, headlines become the background to individual lives.
Green’s connection to the Jewish Yemenite community in Israel and Canada forms the strong backbone for her work, and White Zion beautifully captures their multi-faceted experiences. Especially enticing are the stories set in the first half of the twentieth century, before the founding of the State of Israel. This earlier Yemeni pilgrimage to Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, and the stories of the established Yemeni community at the time of Israel’s founding provides a vivid portrait of the country’s popular roots. As readers travel through time and around the world, Green maintains a skillful balance of particularity and universality in each individual narrative.
Readers who enthusiastically embrace White Zion’s epic journey will find themselves carried along in this current of adventures and discovery of identity. In order to stay connected to the myriad characters and settings, readers may prefer to inhale the whole book in a few short sittings, then return to savor favorite stories at a more leisurely pace. White Zion contains someone or something for everyone to relate to and its historical and geographical diversity adds to its book club conversation potential. For readers who are looking for a refreshing approach to the history of Israel, its Yemeni community, and the immigrant experience, White Zion checks off all the right boxes and should jump straight to the top of the to-read list.
Like many others of my generation, my earliest images of the Catskill mountains and its Jewish summer bungalow and resort communities, came directly from the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. While my imagination will always equate the Catskills with the fictional Kellerman’s and the popular mythology of real-life Kutcher’s , Andrea Simon’s new book Floating In The Neversink showcases the summer Jewish experience in the mountains in an equally engaging, if much harsher narrative.
Floating In The Neversink is a complex and tightly woven “novel in stories” told from the perspective of young Amanda (Mandy) Gerber. A pre-teen when the book opens in 1955, it follows Mandy through her adolescence and high school years, recounting her summers with her extended family in the Catskills and the other seasons back in Brooklyn. Simon’s remarkably detailed descriptions of these settings are an immersive treat for her readers, being gritty enough to overcome any over-enthusiastic nostalgia. And as the book includes subject matter related to the sexual assault of children, mental illness, racism, and suicide, readers should be prepared with trigger warnings.
Yet even as Simon’s writing exposes the sharper edges of the Catskills for Mandy and her family, it also celebrates the best of these memories. Her deep relationships with her grandmothers and seeing how Mandy, and her sister and cousins are shaped by their shared experiences, is a joyful tribute to family that shines out from the underlying dark conflicts. Over the course of the stories, Simon deftly unfolds the nuances of her characters, all of whom are humanly imperfect, yet all of whom remain somewhat shadowy around the edges. This is the essential challenge of the book as a collection of short stories. It succeeds because of the strong continuity and its detailed character development. It succeeds when understood as a series of memories, but readers will be left without the whole of Mandy’s story.
Will readers be satisfied with this sense of incompleteness? Floating In The Neversink demands that its protagonist accept that there are things that can’t or won’t be discussed. That there are secrets and things that are unknowable in every family. And Simon doesn’t give her readers any more insight than she allows to Mandy. The result, is a thought-provoking and beautifully written book that will challenge how its readers think about how an individual weaves the tapestry of her family’s collective memory.
BooksAndBlintzes..com received an advance review copy of the book for the express purpose of writing this review. Its contents are solely those of its author.
Alice Shalvi is a force to be reckoned with, and in her memoir, Never A Native, she describes how a refugee German Jewish girl became one of the most important voices in Israeli feminism and social politics. From its early descriptions of her family’s fight from the Nazis to England in the 1930s to her celebrated work re-shaping the academic and political fabric of a new nation state, Shalvi’s rich and courageous personal story shines through.
Shalvi’s focus on her early life and her relationships with her family provide more than just her personal history. Her attention to these details firmly place her story as part of the narrative of the Jewish people. As she recounts her journey from Germany, to England, to Israel, readers will recognize in her individual story the pathways and experiences of their own families and neighbors. Within the intimacies she shares about being a partner with her husband, parent to her children, a daughter, sister and friend, Shalvi emerges as a powerful storyteller that makes her professional attainments seem inevitable. She is hardly invincible, but showcases the intelligence and determination that empowered her and so many other women to speak and achieve their goals.
For readers who think they know Israeli political history but are unfamiliar with its women’s movement, Never A Native is an essential primer on this part of the country’s development. Similarly, those who are interested in Israel’s academic and social welfare institutions will find in Shalvi’s work a thorough examination of how they were shaped. Shalvi is not so disingenuous as to try to pass off her life experiences as being “typical” of her generation, but she balances a very fine line between acknowledging her privilege as a Western European, highly educated women with some of the economic and political hardships that were common in the early years of the state.
Never A Native deserves the accolades and attention that it has received. While not every page is teeming with fast-paced action, Shalvi provides her readers with so many opportunities to reflect, question, and be inspired. Educators will find it rich in material to share with high school, college, and adult learners. And everyone should be grateful to Shalvi, not only for the tremendous work she has done to support women’s rights in Israel, but for her willingness to share her story in such an approachable and thorough way.
In Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman turns his laser-like investigative focus to the “Arab Section”, a tiny group of Jews from Arab countries who were recruited to secure intelligence for the pre-Israel military. As he did in his debut Pumpkinflowers, Friedman offers a sliver of history, a small narrative easily overlooked in the saga of a much large conflict. In Pumpkinflowers it was a hilltop. In Spies of No Country, it’s a spy unit.
Friedmans’s deep dive into the formation and activities of the “Arab Section” brings with it close look at life in final days of British Mandate Palestine. His attention to the experience of mizrachi Jews in both Israel and their countries of origin provides a breathtakingly fresh approach to the often European-centric view of the establishment of the State of Israel. Friedman is respectfully direct in addressing the racial, social, political and economic inequalities that existed prior to Israeli Statehood. He effectively describes the tensions between both the Jews and their Arab neighbors, and Jews from different national backgrounds. In this way, Friedman’s work challenges readers with fundamental questions about the definition and formation of Israeli identity.
Friedman’s writing maintains a scholarly distance while staying sensitive to the humanity of his subject. In Spies of No Country, Friedman includes photos and interview transcripts, enlivening the story and providing additional background into his research process. They allow him to balance his roles as reporter, narrator, and interpreter, giving full color to the Arab section, the men who were a part of it, and the places where it operated.
Spies of No Country will appeal to all those who seek a greater understanding and knowledge of the State of Israel. The desire to recognize and learn more about those who lived through the time that it was established and fought for its survival is well-served by Friedman’s work. A basic background on the British Mandate in Palestine, the War of Independence, and the geography of Israel and her neighbors is necessary to truly appreciate the book. Spies of No Country would make an excellent selection in education settings from high school and above.