How does one choose the hundred best Jewish books? How can one even begin to compare books like Exodus (the second book of the Torah), and Exodus (the novel about the creation of the State of Israel by Leon Uris)? To avoid these sorts of problems, I have divided Jewish books into 10 categories and offer 10 important Jewish books in each category.
1. Tanakh. No need to justify this one.
2. Rashi‘s Commentary on the Bible. He deserves his own space, even though he is included in the following entry.
3. Mikraot Gedolot on the Humash. All the classical commentators in conversation on a single page; what else can you say?
4. Legends of the Jews, written by Louis Ginzberg and typed and edited by Henrietta Szold. Magnum opus of legend and midrash with extensive notes.
5. Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary. A lot of conversation between the different editors of the different volumes.
6. The Five Books of Moses, translated by Everett Fox.
7. Studies in the Weekly Portion, Nehama Leibowitz.
8. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Exciting, original essays on the stories of Genesis.
9. Midrash Tanhuma. Easier to read and more fun than Midrash Rabbah.
10. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. Edgy narrative midrash with unusual legendary material
1. Talmud. Discussion of Jewish law. Argument on the discussion of Jewish law. Commentaries on the arguments. Comments on the commentaries. You get the idea.
3. Shulchan Arukh. A “world Jewry” perspective on Jewish law incorporating both the Sephardic approach of Rabbi Yosef Caro (Safed, 1560’s) and the Ashkenazic comments of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Poland).
4. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Isaac Klein. An easy to read, detailed, referenced, English language compendium of Jewish law and practice.
5. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm. As a Congregationalist minister friend of mine says, “Jews really understand how to mourn.”
6. Practical Medical Halachah, Fred Rosner & Moshe Tendler
7. The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, Meir Tamari. Some philanthropist should provide free copies for corporate executives.
8. Women & Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women’s Issues in Halakhic Sources, Rachel Biale.
9. The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations, by Daniel Z. Feldman. Persuasive, detailed, and incredibly well-researched.
10. Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law, Moshe Zemer.
1. Prayer Book (Siddur). Crib notes for communing with God, mixed with popular philosophy and poetry.
2. Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
3. A Different Night (Passover Haggadah), Noam Zion. Lots of questions, fewer answers, for people who like to talk.
4. The Jewish Catalog, compiled and edited by Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, the best of 1970s “do-it-yourself-ism”; where else to find out how to tie-dye tallitot (prayer shawls).
5. It’s a Mitzvah!: Step-By-Step to Jewish Living, Bradley Shavit Artson. Sort of a Jewish Catalog for the ’90s.
6. Voices of Wisdom, Francine Klagsbrun. A great anthology.
7. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, Joseph Telushkin. One of the most powerful books I know. Rabbi Telushkin spices his books with examples and includes chapters about how we talk to members of our own family, the ethics of what we say, and much more.
8. Mourning and Mitzvah, Anne Brenner.A guided journal for helping people walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
9. To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, Hayim Halevy Donin. Basic guide to Jewish observance and practice from a very traditional point of view.
10. The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Louis Jacobs. Reliable, trans-denominational.
1. The Jewish War, Josephus. Can we learn history from a turncoat traitor?
2. A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Salo Baron. Can we learn history from someone who does not subscribe to the “oy vey” theory of Jewish history?
3. History of the Jews, Heinrich Hirsch Graetz. Can we learn history from…never mind, of course we can, and historiography too.
4. The “Shabbes Goy,” Jacob Katz. A thoughtful look at Jewish-Gentile relations in the Middle Ages.
5. Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, Arthur Hertzberg.
6. Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,Paula Hyman. Examines the role of Jewish women in American life.
7. War Against the Jews, Lucy Davidowicz. Definitive history of the Holocaust.
8. The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State, Shlomo Avineri. A study of modern Zionist thought.
9. A History of the Jewish People, edited byH. H. Ben-Sasson.
10. Jerusalem: A History of Forty Centuries, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman. Includes beautiful colorful photographs.
1. A Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides.
2. The Kuzari, Yehuda HaLevi. A medieval Jewish philosopher contrasts Judaism, Aristotelianism, Christianity, and Islam.
3. Faith and Doubt, Norman Lamm.
4. The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel. A philosophical and spiritual look at sacred time and Shabbat.
5. Questions Jews Ask, Mordechai M. Kaplan.
6. A Living Covenant, David Hartman.
7. Standing Again At Sinai, Judith Plaskow.
8. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner.
9. Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
10. Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha, Eliezer Berkovits.
1. Zohar attributed to R. Shimon bar Yochai.
2. The Ladder, Yehuda Ashlag. A modern, accessible commentary on the Zohar.
3. The Holy Letter (Iggeret Hakodesh) of Nachmanides. Sanctifying eros.
4. Likutei Maharan, Nahman of Bratslav.
5. Collected Sayings (Likkutei Amarim), also known as Tanya, Shneur Zalman of Lyady.
6. To Heal the Soul: The Spiritual Journal of a Chasidic Rebbe, Kalonymus K. Shapira, translated by Yehoshua Starrett.
7. 13 Petaled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz .
8. The Book of Words, Lawrence Kushner.
9. A Call to the Infinite, Aryeh Kaplan.
10. The Religious Thought of Hasidism, edited by Norman Lamm.
1. The Chosen, Chaim Potok.
2. Exodus, Leon Uris.
3. As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg.
4. Night, Elie Weisel.
5. Inside, Outside, Herman Wouk.
6. Jephte’s daughter, Naomi Ragen.
7. The Love of Elspeth Baker, Myron Kaufmann.
8. The Rise of David Levinsky, Abraham Cahan. An immigrant success story, written by the long-time editor of the Yiddish Forward.
9. Badenheim 1939, Aharon Appelfeld.
10. Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth.
(The biblical book of Esther, in my opinion, can also be included for this category. I consider it the first book of Jewish historical fiction, but that is a discussion for another time and another article.)
1. Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited and translated by T. Carmi. Great anthology.
2. Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems, Yehuda Amichai. A broad and a bilingual collection.
3. The Dybbuk, Ansky. Bless my soul; I am stuck on this play.
4. The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick.
5. Favorite Tales of Shalom Aleichem, selected and translated by Julius and Frances Butwin.The “Jewish Mark Twain” in English.
6. Miriam’s Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World, Howard Schwartz.
7. America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers, Joyce Antler (Editor).
8. Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul: Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, Jack Canfield (Editor).
9. Twenty-One Stories, S. Y. Agnon.
10. Shirot Bialik, Hayyim Nahman Bialik. Steven Jacobs (Editor).
1. Something from Nothing, Phoebe Gilman, simply the best introduction for small children to the Jews of Eastern Europe, and it does not even mention Eastern Europe!
2. Jeremy’s Dreidel, Ellie Gellman. “Being blind is not about how you look, it is about how you see.”
3. When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest.
4. About the Bnai Bagels, E. L. Konigsburg.
5. The Return, Sonia Levitin. Escape from Ethiopia.
6. Diary of A Young Girl, Anne Frank.
7. The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen.
8. All of a Kind Family, Sydney Taylor.
9. The Feather Merchants and Other Tales of the Fools of Chelm. Retold by Steve Sanfield. Antics of the sages of Chelm.
10. The House on the Roof: A Sukkot Story, David Adler. “Then the judge said to the old man, ‘I’ll give you just 10 days to take your Sukkah down.'”
Misc. Great Books
1. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classical Jewish Texts, Barry W. Holtz.
2. The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel. The binding of Isaac from midrashic perspectives.
3. Living Each Day, Abraham J. Twerski.
4. This is my God, Herman Wouk.
5. Sacred Fragments, Neil Gillman.
6. My Life, by Golda Meir. Powerful autobiography from one of the 20th century’s greatest Jewish women.
7. Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber.
8. Maus Art Spiegelman, Holocaust story in comic book form.
9. Big Book of Jewish Humor, William Novak and Moshe Waldoks.
10. Basic Judaism, Milton Steinberg.
Pronounced: ah-ha-RONE, Origin: Hebrew, Aaron in the Torah, brother of Moses.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: sue-KOTE, or SOOH-kuss (oo as in book), Origin: Hebrew, a harvest festival in which Jews eat inside temporary huts, falls in the Jewish month of Tishrei, which usually coincides with September or October.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.