This is a list I compiled for some friends and students. The list covers most areas of Jewish learning/knowledge; Kabbalah, Hasidut, History, Philosophy, Science, Holocaust, Mitzvot, Modern Jewish Life, Israel and General Jewish knowledge.
Investing in books is possibly the greatest investment one can make, and you will never regret it. (I certainly do not, this is a lesson imparted to me by my father, who apparently learnt it from his father too).
Please contact me if you would like further details about any of the books or authors, and obviously as you read them I would love to hear your thoughts and impressions.
NB. listing is in no particular order.
1. Israel: Martin Gilbert (for a more condensed read and lots of amazing pull outs and recreated documents buy the Story of Israel: Martin Gilbert)
The establishment of the State of Israel is the most seminal event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. For those of us born post 1948, Israel’s existence can often be taken for granted and knowledge of the sacrifices made to get here is sorely lacking. This book puts Israel’s history, warts and all, into its broader context. It highlights the individual stories of some heard of (Moshe Dayan) and unheard of heroes (Esther Cailingold). Like all of Martin Gilbert’s works, this reads like an action packed, gripping story and by the time the book has been through you, you will not be the same again.
2. A History of the Jews: Paul Johnson (easier alternative Letters to Aunt Fori: Martin Gilbert)
The Jewish people have lived practically in every country and encountered every civilisation, which makes reading a Jewish history a good introduction to world history. They have been through unspeakable tragedies but somehow have found their way through. There are episodes in this history, that will shock you. There are people in this history that will inspire you. The history of the Jewish people has lessons for everyone, as Rabbi Sacks often explains, the Jewish people or the treatment of Jewish people is the litmus test for a society. People tend to have short memories, or in the religious community, selective memories. I believe that to the extent we can, we should seek out the truth, specifically through history to teach us about how to live in the present and build a better future for our children.
3. One People: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
4. Arguments for the Sake of Heaven: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
I first discovered this little gem in the library of Yeshivat Hakotel in 2005. The book opens with a really excellent description of a contemporary Jewish family with 5 different children. Rabbi Sacks describes each childs story in detail, with each child representing a different Jewish path one of which you are guaranteed to either relate to or recognise in someone else. There is the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva-nik, the newly frum Baal Teshuva, the uninterested atheist, the traditional secular Jew (if I recall correctly). In a way, it feels like a contemporary four sons. What Rabbi Sacks does so beautifully is sketch out, how did each of these children get here. What was the historical background and circumstances that led to this particular path, what are the key ideas and influences. The genius of Rabbi Sacks is in the wealth of sources and knowledge that he draws from, as in many of his many works, Rabbi Sacks here puts the ideas in context, whether historical, religious, philosophical or sociological, laying it all out in a clear and precise way. Essentially, Rabbi Sacks does all the hard work for us. All we need to do is to act on his analysis.
5. Aryeh Kaplan Anthology Vols 1 & 2 : Aryeh Kaplan
6. Masterplan: Aryeh Carmel
7. Challenge of Creation: Natan Slifkin
8. 19 Letters: Samson Rafael Hirsh
9. We Jews: Adin Steinsaltz
10. If this is man: Primo Levi
11. Judaism on trial: R Nathan Cordozo
12. Tanya vol 1: R Adin Steinsaltz
13. Living Inspired: Rabbi Akiva Tatz
14. Souls on Fire: Elie Wiesel
15. Faith After the Holocaust: Eliezer Berkovitz
16. Strive for Truth: Volume 1/2: R Dessler
17. Night: Elie Wiesel
18. Patterns in Time Rosh Hashanah/Chanukah: R Matis Weinberg
You have never understood the festivals of Chanukah/Rosh Hoshanah until you have read these two books. In a telling approbation, one of the gedolim stated that Rav Matis reveals secrets in these books that should not usually be revealed in English books. Mind blowing ideas – kabbalah mixed with philosophy – very difficult concepts, these books provide one of the best examples in English of the real depth underlying our most sacred practices. Not easy to digest, but if you manage to work your way through it, your yom tov will never be the same again. There is nothing else like this out there.
19. Fate and Destiny: R Soloveitchik
20. The Sages (Vol 1-4): R Binyamin Lau
21. Biblical Images: R Adin Steinsaltz
22. The Prime Ministers: Yehuda Avner
23. The Revolt: Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin was the 6th Prime Minister of Israel and before the state was established was the leader of the Irgun Tzvia Leumi (Etzel), a pre-Israel Defence Forces military group fighting for Jewish independence and self government in Palestine. Drawn to this book following the heartening and inspiring “The Prime Minsters by Yehuda Avner”, this account written by Menachem Begin in his own words, details ‘The Revolt’ led by Menachem Begin against the British (and Arabs) in pre-state Palestine in the 1940’s. Menachem Begin provides a fascinating example for us of how powerful the media can be in influencing peoples perceptions and judgements. Menachem Begin, was painted as terrorist number one, villain, despot, bigot, extremist, right-wing hawk to name a few of the accolades that persist to this day (in the Jewish community also). However, a short perusal of his deeds, his own words and stories told about him quickly dissipate such ill informed trollop. I am filled with awe when I contemplate that Begin, then only in his 30’s was leading a paramilitary uprising against a world power and succeeded – it really is like a modern Chanukah story. Menachem Begin is a true Jewish role model in every sense, a product of galut (raised in Brisk and lost many family members in the Holocaust) forward thinking, principled, rooted in Biblical tradition, an incredible orator (very similar to Churchill) and someone who fought for, lived and breathed Jewish unity. Particularly sad are the sections where he describes how the Haganah (led by David Ben Gurion) treated the Irgun and Menachem Begin – the Altalena incident being the principle incident, but there were various others such as the bombing of the King David Hotel incident and also the ‘Saison’ when Begin had to go into hiding due to the Haganah hunting down Irgun members handing them over to the British some for hanging others for imprisonment. This is a truly inspiring account by a remarkable man of the struggles our grandparents generation made to achieve our modern day miracle called Israel. This book should be on the curriculum of every Jewish school and it is a tragedy that so few have even heard of it.
24. The Great Partnership: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
25. Leaves of Faith Vols 1&2: R Aharon Lichtenstein
26. Mans search for Meaning: Viktor Frankl
27. Created Equal: Joshua Berman
My first encounter with ancient mythology, such as the Gilgamesh story came from a Shabbat morning perusal of our synagogue’s dated Hertz Chumashim. At that time, I just thought they were old Chumashim and welcomed the new, shiny Artscroll Stone Chumash when it came out (1994-95). Little did I know, what a gem of scholarship those Chumashim were – including essays dealing with Evolution and Creation, responding to Biblical Criticism, utilising and quoting Bible scholars of all faiths. Joshua Berman’s book continues where the Hertz Chumash left off. This unique book places the Torah and its ideas in the context of the surrounding societies of the time, surveying their texts, laws, origin stories comparing and contrasting with the Torah text. Some of the essays deal with the Biblical stories as portrayed in art and offer insight into art as parshanut of which I was completely unaware of. Essentially, the Torah in contrast to the texts and traditions of the societies of the time, comes across as radical and revolutionary at the time. The similarities of the Moshe origin story to other similar stories is remarkable, as are the other similarities. This is an important book that puts Chumash in its historical context without denigrating or secularising Torah as just another text. You will never read Chumash in the same way again after reading this.
28. Maimonides: Life and Thought : Moshe Halbertal
A perusal of Jewish history and its famous personalities will reveal huge gaps in our knowledge of even some of the most famous stars like Rashi who left a legacy of Torah commentary and writings. These gaps in the biographies of many of our household names, start in the Chumash (sometimes filled in by Midrash) and continues all the way up to the 16/17th centuries. Not only do we not know much about their biographies but we have little appreciation for what daily life would have been like, what people were thinking or feeling or what it was like to live in that time. Due to the discovery of the Cairo Geniza (18/19th century), which contained 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments preserved in the storeroom (geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Egypt), we have unprecendented insights into the life and times of this part of the world during the Middle Ages. Specifically, preserved in the Geniza, are many of the personal writings, works and letters of correspondence of the Rambam the greatest Jewish halachic authority, doctor and medival philosopher. Moshe Halbertal brings all of these sources together in a very readable volume (it is amazing how much he condenses into this one volume) and paints a comprehensive picture of the Rambam – as the title implies – his life story and his accomplishments as greatest scholar.
29. Rebbe – Joseph Telushkin
The greatest leader of our generation, Rabbi Menachem Mendal Schneerson, or the Rebbe as he is affectionately known was beloved by thousands. This very personal biography by Joseph Telushkin is informative, intimate, heart warming and inspiring. The Rebbe’s influence on Judaism and the Jewish world as we live in it today is unquantifiable, so much of what we do has been shaped by his visionary leadership, it is hard to think about what the world would look like in his absence. His powerful Chasidic ideas and unique worldview and perspectives offer a refreshing perspective on seeing the spiritual in our increasingly physical focused world.
30. Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 – Marc Shapiro
The orthodox biography genre usually is lite on the biography/history and heavy on the hagiography. As Berel Wein opines, whether the story is historically true or not is of little consequence to the truth of the values being imparted to the reader through the story. Unfortunately, after reading one or two such biographies they become predictable, unbelievable and in most cases present unattainable models for aspiration. This biography, written by the greatest orthodox historian of our time, is unique. Dr Shapiro here brings the reader on a journey into the life and mind of this rabbinic “gadol”, revealing intimate details into the life of this remarkable posek. The writings, personal letters, and human complexities intertwined with incredible (and tragic) world events, makes this biography one of a kind and an essential read to understand the Rabbinic world and the struggles of its leaders in making difficult decisions.
31. Speeches that Changed the World – Simon Sebag Montefiore
Although not a specifically Jewish book, this book with audio CD/DVD accompaniment has plenty of Jewish speeches – Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, Chaim Weitzman, Jesus, Moshes to name a few, but I would also argue it has many more Biblically influenced speeches such as Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech. One can argue about what speeches made the cut and which didn’t, but this introduction to several of the most monumental speeches set in incredible historic circumstances is a great starting point for someone with a keen interest in history and the influence that ‘words’ can have in shaping the ideas and aspirations of a generation. I think a follow on from this book for a Jewish audience with the best Jewish speeches would be an excellent idea. It is particularly inspiring to listen to some of the originals here included on the audio CD – from Churchill’s ‘our greatest moment’ to Chaim Weizman ripping the paper at the UN.
32. Letters to my Grandchildren – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin