The Union for Reform Judaism recommends two Significant Jewish Books each quarter for individuals and book groups. Study and discussion guides are available at http://urj.org/books.
A Code of Jewish Ethics:
Volume 1—You Shall Be Holy
by Joseph Telushkin
(Bell Tower, 559 pp., $29.95)
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literary, Biblical Literacy, and The Book of Jewish Values, cannot be accused of shying away from big topics. His latest and most ambitious work, A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, is the first volume in a projected three-volume work on ethics.
Designed on the model of Jewish law codes, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Arukh, this book presents a vast amount of material organized by theme with numbered entries within each section dealing with one precept at a time. Included are sections on “Becoming a Grateful Person,” “Controlling Anger,” and (especially important in an election year) “How to Avoid Speaking Unfairly of Others.”
For those who find all this material on character development daunting, Telushkin presents a less intimidating approach with examples like this: “Every night, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would write down any sins he had committed that day. He would then read the list aloud to himself and say, ‘Today, I, Levi Yitzchak, did such-and-such. But tomorrow, I, Levi Yitzchak, will not do such-and-such.’”
I especially liked the prayer he composed for Yom Kippur, to follow the traditional recitation of Al Chet, the list of transgressions (“For the sin we committed by….”). In this prayer (“For the Mitzvah We Performed”), he suggests adding positive reinforcement for the things we got right and should continue:
For the mitzvah we performed by standing up for justice when we saw someone mistreated.
For the mitzvah we performed by knowing embarrassing information about someone and not passing it on.
For the mitzvah we performed by apologizing to one of our children whose feelings we had unfairly hurt.
All these things, God, please remember and inspire us to do more acts like these in the year ahead.
—Bonny V. Fetterman, literary editor, Reform Judaism magazine.
The Book Thief
by Marcus Zusak
(Knopf, 576 pp., paperback $11.99)
From the book’s opening words, the reader is drawn into horror and hope, disregard and caring, disillusionment and wonder—a world within the world of the Holocaust. As a child growing up in Australia, the author listened to his parents’ tales of their lives in Nazi Germany. The Book Thief is Zusak’s response.
The book focuses on two distinct characters: Death and Leisel. Death is the omnipresent narrator who is overwhelmed by the souls he has to collect—from the concentration camps, the battlefields, and the small German town that is the target of aerial bombings. Leisel is a child abandoned by her mother who has to bury her younger brother and steals books for comfort. She is adopted by caring foster parents; in fact, her new father, Hans, models kindness by hiding a young Jew in the basement at great peril to his family. Leisel’s closest friend, Rudy, also defies the Nazis, antagonizing the cruel, arrogant local Hitler Youth leaders. Through Hans and Rudy, Leisel learns the power of friendship.
Through the prism of Death and the trials of ordinary people, we are reminded of the ultimate questions that haunt our lives.
—Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, R.J.E., Union for Reform Judaism adult learning director
NEW BOOKS / URJ PRESS
Shavua Tov: A Good Week
Michelle Shapiro Abraham introduces young children to the Havdalah blessings and rituals that bring Shabbat to a close, and Ann Koffsky’s beautiful illustrations show the sacred objects in use.
Eichach: A Modern Commentary on the Book of Lamentations
Using classic commentary and gleanings from contemporary sources, Rabbis Leonard Kravitz and Kerry Olitzky shed light on this ancient, often overlooked text that is both an elegy and reminder of Jerusalem’s centrality in our spiritual life.
Contact the URJ Press at 888-489-8242, www.URJBooksandMusic.com.