Bring Your Own Books

Seven Books to Read in Shul on the High Holidays

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Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it happens sometimes that you’ve had enough of the traditional synagogue service. It’s long. It’s much the same from year to year. The themes can be arcane, the motifs seemingly repetitive.

To Do the Right and the Good by Elliot DorffEnhancing Your Shul-Going

Rabbis and cantors know this, and they use words and music to stimulate new thoughts and new feelings, but you can take charge of your own new directions. Bringing an iPod with your own music, even if it’s cantorial favorites or neo-Hasidic melodies, would raise too many eyebrows. But bringing our own books–now that’s not considered over the top by anyone. Here’s my hit parade of reading to enhance shul-going and inculcate the sort of contemplation appropriate for the High Holidays.

Our first stop is not far from the mahzor (the High Holiday prayer book) itself. Reuven Hammer’s Entering the High Holy Days is a book designed to help us find our way among the texts and practices of the traditional prayer service for those days, drawing out their themes and helping us appreciate the artistry that infuses the classic prose and poetry that we recite. There are other surveys and introductions, but Hammer’s is easily approachable and yet not at all superficial. We come away with a much more profound sense of why these are called “the Days of Awe.”

The Days of Awe is, in fact, the title of another work designed to enhance our experience of this ten-day period of reflection and penitence. Nobel Prize-winning Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon was not only a fiction writer in a league he invented and he alone populated; he was also a master anthologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish literature.
stack of books and glasses
In this collection Agnon draws on that library, especially the stories of the sages, both Hasidic and non-Hasidic, of early modern Eastern Europe, to offer insights into the ways in which Jewish traditions have shaped the days from the onset of the month of Elul through the end of Yom Kippur. Its chapters are bite-sized but spiritually nourishing. Bring it to services and you’ll find yourself passing it down the row repeatedly, in order to share with others the wisdom in this or that vignette.

Beginning Anew may be subtitled “A Woman’s Guide to the High Holy Days,” but this abundant collection, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, is of no less interest to men. The contributors share insights from women’s experience of the Bible readings and liturgy and rituals of those holy days, insights that truly enrich the occasion for every reader. Some essays are provocative and outrageous, others simply the product of a painstaking reading of ancient texts. This is a volume you’ll keep on your shelf for next year and the year after that as well.

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Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.

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