A Book List To Prepare You For Jewish Learning… In Israel Or At Home

There are some lucky folks fortunate enough to be able to spend big chunks of time studying Jewish texts.  Some of them will depart for Israel for a year, come autumn.  To help them prepare, the Wisdom Daily is providing a suggested reading list, some titles that will get them thinking about what it means to spend time studying Jewish texts, and to do so in the land of Israel. Hopefully, this list will get students to think about what they are doing and why studying Jewish texts will bring value to their lives.

So for those who are about to go off to Israel for a year to study (one of my offspring among them) and those who are not about to make the journey themselves, but want to share as armchair travelers, here is a list of suggestions to help prepare you for Jewish learning.  There are already  plenty of great reading lists about Israel, such as this one for Birthright alumni by the Jewish book Council or the website of Kevah, so the focus of my list is to help those getting ready to go abroad to think about Jewish learning and what its purpose is.

That said, one does need to start with the land. For a general understanding of how the land of Israel plays a role in understanding Biblical texts, and why the text of the Bible is inseparably connected to the land, there is no better guide than the book, The Bible on Location, by actual tour guide Julie Baretz. For armchair travelers especially, this  You Tube video of Baretz discussing the story of David and Bathsheba on location at the City of David is a must-watch to give a sense of the landscape’s shaping of the Biblical story.  The format of the book gives the reader historical background, Biblical texts and commentary, in that order for each text and location.

Similarly, the book to read and tour with to understand Jerusalem and its history, from ancient times to the present day, is the Yad Ben Zvi Institute’s Jerusalem: A Walk through Time which has walks in different Jerusalem neighborhoods with photos and explanations.  The book is more fun to read if you are there, but still great for lovers of Jerusalem wanting to learn all kinds of details about the holy city.  Another book that gives a wonderful sense of different places around the city and their meanings is the sociologist Samuel Heilman’s 1995  A Walker in Jerusalem.  Heilman’s vivid descriptions of the various places he goes, as well as his understandings of what the city means symbolically, make this a fantastic read.

That transitions us to Heilman’s other book, about the act of study itself, The Gate Beyond the Wall. This is less about the city of Jerusalem itself, and more about the various groups to be found there and how each of them understands what they do when they learn.

There is no better place to start Jewish learning than the basic text The Ethics of the Fathers, by Pirkei Avot, literally chapters of the fathers in Hebrew.  For reading for teens about to go on a gap year, why not have them read the graphic novel edition by Jessica Tamar Deutsch and published by Print O Craft(who also do nifty Haggadot)?  Deutsch has an MFA in art and a background in traditional text study. She combined her interests to do this project, which is essentially a visual explication of the text, providing new meaning to old words with the drawings and ideas conveyed with them.  Don’t believe me – here is the review in Tablet. Deutsch is a talented person taking a text and making it her own, bringing her own flair and skill and understanding to it.  I can think of no better way to inspire a teen(or adult) to start off a year of learning.

In addition to Deutsch’s visual depiction, there are a number of literary adaptations to Jewish texts that are great jumping off points.  The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf illuminates the passions and tensions in study and the enduring problem of why bad things happen to good people. This short paean to it by Josh Lambert calls it “extraordinary.” Amen.  There is a new version of the same story of Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya and his teachers by an Israeli writer, Yochi Brandes, that has just been translated to English.  I have not yet gotten my copy, but Ms. Brandes ‘ The Orchard has had fantastic reviews at Publisher’s Weekly and the Jewish Book Council. It is her eighth book and all have been major literary events in Hebrew, so I feel confident in this recommendation.

Another marvelous retelling of Biblical stories is by former Knesset member and current educator, Ruth Calderon.  Dr. Calderon’s A Bride for One Night takes seventeen short sugyot(sections) of Talmudic texts, translates them and comments on them from the standpoint of a teacher and scholar.  What makes this book so useful to a beginner, is that Calderon then writes an imaginative retelling of the text, a reflection that gets at the subtext of the tale and the issues that are driving it. One could not ask for a better introduction to Talmud study.

When a teacher and a writer says that he loves particular texts so much that he wants to share them with other readers, it makes sense to pay attention to what he has to say.  Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is a professor of Talmud at New York University, but writes for the general reader, as well as his academic colleagues.  His newest book, The Land of Truth: Talmudic Tales, Timeless Teachings, forthcoming in November 2018, is a superb analysis of particular tales, both what they mean in the context of other Talmudic stories and how modern readers might see parallels in stories and events of today.  In his other books for general readers such as Rabbinic Stories in the Classics of Western Spirituality series and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, he also gives helpful explanations of the texts.

Not all Jews have historically had access to all of these texts.  Vanessa Ochs’ 1990 Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred is a portrait of a number of female teachers in Israel and their struggles to find places for themselves and their learning, as well as accounts of learning itself and some of Ochs’ personal experiences. I think it would be fascinating reading, particularly for teens who may not be aware of how far women’s learning has come and how quickly. Ochs was a journalist who became so fascinated by this topic that she went back to school to earn a PhD in the anthropology of religion and now teaches at the University of Virginia.

Finally, if I were to choose a common read for a group of both students and parents, my pick would be Ilana Kurshan’s memoir of studying a page of Talmud a day, If All the Seas were Ink.  Kurshan immerses herself fully in her material, so much so that when her children bite each other, she is reminded of a section of Talmud; she also makes Shabbat dinners whose contours adhere to particular connections to the text.  As I wrote in Tablet, Kurshan is both trying to live with the text and trying to live inside it.  Her devotion to the text, which she did not begin to study till she was in her late 20’s, is inspiring.  Like Deutsch with her art, Kurshan strives to incorporate the text into her life in a way that is meaningful to her talents and interests.  When I interviewed her about the book, she discussed a section of Talmud that says that the very air of Israel makes a person wiser.  She added, “I never wrote creatively in America,” noting that her learning in Israel has given her “so much to say.”

That is a great recommendation for anyone going off to hopefully become a bit wiser, whether in Israel or in an armchair.

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