Bring Your Own Books

Seven things to read in shul on the High Holidays.

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.

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.

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.

The Ten Days of Teshuvah have been shaped by Jewish tradition as a period of reflection and self-assessment, of asking for forgiveness from our fellow human beings and from God. Solomon Schimmel, a psychologist and a scholar of rabbinic Judaism, brings together many fields of expertise to explore the contours of atonement and forgiveness in his richly documented study, Wounds Not Healed by Time.

Schimmel draws on classical Western traditions — ancient Greek thought, along with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writings from ancient to modern–and on contemporary experience, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to examine the subtle distinctions between apology and atonement, acknowledgement and absolution, pardon and forgiveness. This is scholarship in the service of spiritual growth. If this is your synagogue reading, you will leave the room a changed person, perhaps with new questions, perhaps with new resolve to live differently.

Another popular work by a consummate scholar is the slim volume on Jonah in the JPS Bible Commentary series, the work of Israeli Bible professor Uriel Simon. In under 100 pages of introduction and line-by-line commentary (as well as an enhanced version of the JPS Tanakh translation of Jonah), Simon brings us past the humor of the Jewish prophet who doesn’t “get it” theologically while all the non-Jewish characters do, and into the core of the book’s message. For the first time, perhaps, you will come to understand why this short, enigmatic book was chosen to be read in its entirety on Yom Kippur afternoon, just before the climax of the High Holiday experience.

If, on the other hand, you want to focus not on the divine realm but on living properly in the here-and-now, have a look at Elliot N. Dorff’s To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics. Chapter 8, “Communal Forgiveness,” in particular, while not explicitly addressing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, can give you new perspective on what it takes to really begin anew each year.

For some, only a story can really open heart and soul to new perspectives and new thoughts on how we live our lives. Let me suggest one in particular, a story by Rachel Kadish called “The Argument,” found in the collection Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, edited by Paul Zakrzewski. Kadish reworks some of the images of old Jewish men familiar in American fiction, but her story is fresh and challenging. Does one forgive or forget past wrongs? Can we repair our relationships and our own souls, or should we be envious of those struck by memory loss? Kadish’s protagonist wrestles with these questions, and through him so do we.

Go online and buy one — many of these titles are available in paperback — or reserve one or two now at your local library. But please, if the rest of us are actually praying, wait for a break to show us the passages you can’t wait to have us read, too.

Reprinted with permission from

Discover More