The Haftara Handbook: Lessons from the Prophets for the Contemporary Jew

June 28, 2011

This 381-page paperback belongs in Jewish homes and libraries. It would make a nice textbook for classrooms, too. Rabbi Jonathan Shooter’s skill at interpreting archaic language, then presenting it in contemporary parlance, is a gift from Heaven.

Each chapter-by-chapter presentation follows the gold standard for teaching any sort of literature: The SQ3R model (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review). Chapter headings condense a given haftara’s topic into simple declarative thought (a survey of the content). Shooter then asks readers “What’s the haftara about?” and replies with a neat synopsis of the material. He follows up by asking “What’s the connection to the present parsha?” or “What’s the connection to the present chag/date,” then providing detailed explanations from the haftara without boring you into a deep sleep.

Consider the passage about Parshat Para and its haftara, Yechezkel 36:16-38. A navi whose points can bring your blood pressure to a boil while stifling the most earnest intellectual efforts, Yechezkel’s message made easy is a Shooter shoe-in. Read pages 332-335 to read, recite and review the details about Parshat Vayechi’s “Whose dead baby was it?” case. King Solomon’s insight at planning the exposure of the fake “mother” claiming her dead baby, and understanding how it had died, goes deeper than you’d first think. Shooter demonstrates more skill at sharing his insights when he writes about the haftara of Parshat Vayera, pinpointing the source for Rav Dessler’s advice to mistakenly believing that they can predict the direction of financial markets.

If you want to better understand why an increasingly large world condemnation of Israel and the Jews is dominating headlines and messing up lives, read “Dirty Jew” on pages 143-146. The haftara of Kedoshim holds relevant life lessons. Rabbi Shooter will share them and leave your thinking hard about how you’re living your Jewish life.

Always demonstrating how seemingly outdated haftarot are ever-relevant to our lives, Shooter shares his dead-on analyses in easily understood sentences throughout his book. There’s more value to his otherwise lightweight paperback. Read The Haftara Handbook: Lessons from the Prophets for the Contemporary Jew (Devora Publishing, 2010). You’ll be glad you did.

Original review from the Jewish Press may be found here.


Eichlers.com recommends Rejoice in Your Festivals

June 27, 2011

Eichlers.com blog wrote about the  Jewish festival of Shavuot, and the tradition in some Judaica communities to exchange gifts on this holiday. Although Shavuot is one of the few Jewish holidays without any unique mitzvoth in order to observe it, some families exchange gifts during this festival just as the Jewish people received the gift of the Torah.

Today we’re going to feature a book that features thirty-eight separate derashot of Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopski. Rejoice in your Festivals: Penetrating Insights into Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot appears to be a great addition to any collection of Jewish books, and promises to provide “new dimensions to our understandstanding and enjoyment” of Shavuot.

From the full description on Eichlers.com:

“At once timeless and timely, many of the derashot were written at historic moments such as the end of World War II and the rescue of Holocaust survivors, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the miraculous Israeli victories against the Arab armies. All of the derashot provide valuable insight and inspiration to help us address the complex challenges we face today as a people and as individuals. “

I highly recommend this to any and all scholars looking to learn more about this wonderful Jewish holiday. And be sure to check out the tremendous selection of Jewish books available at the Eichlers online Judaica store.


JewishMediaReview on Silver From the Land of Israel

June 23, 2011

Silver From the Land of Israel: A New Light on the Sabbath and Holidays From Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook
Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Urim Publications
Hardcover, 271 Pages.
ISBN 978-965-524-042-9

Because of their poetic and mystical nature, Rav Kook’s writings are difficult even for readers who are fluent in Hebrew and rabbinic texts. Silver from the Land of Israel uses a clear, succinct style to provide the reader with a window into Rav Kook’s original and creative insights.

A companion volume to Gold from the Land of Israel on the Torah, this book presents Rav Kook’s thoughts on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. It elucidates his views on many topics, including:

What is the inner meaning of the shofar blasts?

Why are we instructed to drink on Purim?

What were Rav Kook’s views on secular Zionism?

What is the role of art and literature?

Why do we need both an oral and written Torah?

Why must the Jewish calendar be set in the land of Israel?

Why does a Jewish king need his own sefer Torah?

In what way is the Shabbat like a bride?

Why do we not celebrate Chanukah with a festive meal?

Why is the Temple so important to us?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the celebrated first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, is recognized as being among the most important Jewish thinkers. Just as his writings reflect the mystic’s search for underlying unity in all aspects of life and the world, his unique personality united a rare combination of talents and gifts. A prominent rabbinical authority and active public leader, Rav Kook was, at the same time, a deeply religious mystic. He was both Talmudic scholar and poet, original thinker and tzaddik.  – For a brief biography of Rav Kook, see the reviewer’s Shepherd of Jerusalem

http://www.jewishgrowth.org/cgi-bin/books.cgi?action=details&book_id=10027

After graduating with a B.A. in mathematics from Yeshiva University (New York), Rabbi Chanan Morrison studied for several years at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the Jerusalem yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in 1924. He was ordained after completing rabbinical studies in the Ohr Torah Stone (Efrat) and Midrash Sephardi (Jerusalem) rabbinical seminaries.

Rabbi Morrison taught Jewish studies for several years in Harrisburg, PA, before returning to Israel. He and his family subsequently settled in Mitzpe Yericho, an Israeli community in the Judean Desert.

In an effort to maintain contact with former students, Rabbi Morrison began emailing articles on the weekly Torah portion based on Rav Kook’s writings. Over the years, this email list grew quickly and now reaches thousands of readers from all over the world. Rabbi Morrison is frequently featured in the Torah section of the Arutz Sheva website, and his work can be read on his own website at http://ravkooktorah.org. His first book of essays of Rav Kook’s writings, Gold from the Land of Israel, was published by Urim Publications in 2006.

From Jewish Media Review


Is the Sefer History?

June 20, 2011

by Gil Student

imageThe future of the Sefer, the Jewish book, is currently uncertain, but not for the reasons you might think. Jews have been traditionally called the “People of the Book.” We maintained a culture of literacy even before public education became a societal goal. My non-Jewish business colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that my children learn to read Hebrew before English. Reading, particularly religious texts, is in our blood and our culture. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s pursuit of heresy among early translators of the Bible into English, Jews have generally treasured translations into the common language. We are commanded to read the weekly Torah portion with a translation, and we have an ancient tradition, albeit largely abandoned today, of reading the Bible in synagogue each week accompanied by a translation of each verse.1 Everyone, not just rabbis, must be well versed in the Torah.

The Talmud (Gittin 60b) says that, originally, only the Bible was allowed to be written. We must retain the oral nature of our other traditions. However, due to the danger of forgetting these sacred ideas, the Sages eventually permitted us to write them down. This led to the publication of the Mishnah and Gemara, Midrashim, and all subsequent Torah books. While there is a dispute today whether someone who publishes an unnecessary book violates this prohibition, everyone agrees with the vital importance, the national necessity, of publishing original Torah insights.2 So important is the publication of Torah books that we are told to set aside this prohibition rather than risk losing these ideas.

But Jewish book sales are down. On its own, this is unsurprising during a devastating economic downturn. When unemployment approaches 10 percent, it is hard to take a complaint about sagging book sales seriously. Financial difficulties do not restrain people from buying the must-have new book, the publication that excites their imaginations and draws them to bookstores, but such exceptions only prove the rule. Most books today languish on store shelves as cautious consumers spread their limited discretionary income ever more thinly. However, I think that something larger than penny-pinching is occurring. Even when the economy improves, there is a larger trend that may remain and jeopardize the future of the Sefer.

A Tale of Revolutions

A brief history of publishing revolutions can help us see what lies in the future. For centuries, publishing was largely a matter of hand copying manuscripts. During the Second Temple era, scribes gathered in the Temple in Jerusalem and copied books from a primary manuscript. These copies were then distributed and sold.3 This tedious process continued in varying forms, among Greeks, Christians, Muslims and Jews, until the fifteenth century when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press changed the world. Books could be produced en masse and sold at more reasonable prices. Those who could read had access to a much larger library of knowledge.

This technological revolution was the third in a series that changed humanity. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in an impassioned argument for educating the third world, describes the dramatic effects of these three innovations.4 Writing, initially with pictograms, created civilization. It enabled the permanent transfer of information from one person to another. However, reading and writing were limited to the few who mastered the complex written language, who studied as many as twenty years to acquire these skills. The development of alphabets, which encapsulate entire languages in only twenty to thirty characters, opened information to wider classes of people. The alphabet broke down barriers of society. It created the possibility that anyone could acquire the knowledge that allowed for exercising societal power.

The printing press brought literacy to the masses. Within fifty years of its invention, readers had access to more than fifteen million copies of over 35,000 titles across Europe. This spreading of knowledge eventually led to political and religious revolutions. The newfound wisdom empowered the public and gave people the ability to disagree with and overturn the ruling classes. Five centuries later, publishing has experienced another revolution.

The Internet As a Game-Changer

Writing created information. The alphabet spread it. Printing democratized it. The Internet is Read the rest of this entry »


Mordechai Weiss goes from Chabad rabbi to Israel tour guide

June 19, 2011

by Abigail Klein Leichman

In July 2003, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv with his pregnant wife, Ellie, nine of their 10 children (another was already married and living in Israel), and 40 pieces of luggage. Two vans transported them to their new house in Mitzpeh Yericho in the Judean Desert.

“As we alighted from the vans in front of our still-under-construction new home, all we could see was sand, sun, and sky,” he writes in his recently released book, “You Come for One Reason but Stay for Another” (Devora Publishing, $18.95). “It was like entering the Twilight Zone. Goodbye civilization (Teaneck, New Jersey), hello Mitzpeh.”

For more than two decades, Weiss was part of the Jewish landscape of North Jersey, as rabbi of Teaneck’s Chabad House, director of the Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, and chaplain of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps. His wife taught at the Yeshiva of North Jersey and welcomed untold numbers of visitors to the Weiss home. Yet the pull of their ancestral homeland brought the large family to a unanimous decision to leave all that and resettle in a 300-family desert community.

In the book, which presents five years’ worth of e-mail updates to friends and family, Weiss provides a frank look at why the family moved; the challenges, triumphs, and tragedies of the first years in Israel; and above all, the reasons most of the family chose to stay.

Now working as a licensed tour guide, Weiss told The Jewish Standard that the notion for the book came from several people on his distribution list. He envisioned his readers as falling into two distinct groups: those familiar with the concept of aliyah, and those “who might be interested in a true and honest family experience, a personal story to be enjoyed.”

In describing his children’s adjustment, Weiss often writes about the role of sports in their lives, particularly for Mendel, who was a third-grader when they arrived.

“Because baseball was an important part of Mendel’s upbringing, it was extremely important for him to be connected to baseball here in Israel,” said Weiss, “despite the difficulties of schlepping him to Jerusalem, Petach Tikvah, and Kibbutz Gezer on a weekly basis. Baseball was important for his self-image, particularly as school was difficult, with the new language having him at a disadvantage. Baseball gave him a way to excel; he was good at it in Teaneck and he was really good at it here!”

Though Mendel made the Israeli Little League national team and played successfully in a championship game in Prague, he gradually gravitated to Read the rest of this entry »


2011 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards

June 16, 2011

Congratulations to all the winners!

The writeup in The Canadian Jewish News on pages 1 and 18 can be found here, and a blog post on June 7, 2011 with pictures from the Awards ceremony can be found here.

2011 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards: Citations

FICTION Alison Pick, Far to Go Published by House of Anansi Press Inc.

The magic of good storytelling brings into sharp relief the steady deterioration of Jewish daily life in Czechoslovakia under the influence Nazism just before the onset of World War II in Allison Pick’s novel Far to Go. Woven into the historical setting of the Czech Jewish experience is an exploration of the relationship of a contemporary historian of the Holocaust to her subject, upon the discovery of a set of letters that bring the past to life. The Jury was impressed with the crisp and elegant writing, and the novel’s subtle probing of the inner life of both Jews and non-Jews as Nazi racial ideology takes hold. The double narrative – past and present – examines the ways that the stories we uncover and tell shape our lives, our values, our sense of meaningfulness and possibilities.

POLITICS & HISTORY Tarek Fatah, The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism Published by McClelland & Stewart

It took courage for Tarek Fatah to write The Jew is Not My Enemy. It also takes courage for its Jewish and non-Jewish readers to follow the history of Muslim hate towards the Jews as the political activist and broadcaster depicts it, and the harsh but hopeful conclusion that there is no black and white resolution. The Jury noted the diligent scholarly and journalistic research examining the historical, political and theological ideas. In the end the book is a personal history of a journey towards tolerance and reconciliation.

HOLOCAUST LITERATURE Robert Eli Rubinstein, An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life In Canada Published by Urim Publications

The author, a businessman and community leader in Toronto has written a remarkable memoir of the physical and spiritual rejuvenation of his parents, Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust, after the unspeakable horrors they had experienced. With most of their immediate families murdered and the Russians imposing a new tyranny in Hungary, they decided to leave. Early in 1946, they and a few of their surviving relatives escaped to Italy. There, in a Displaced Persons camp located on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital near Turin, birthplace of the author, they found the healing conditions to revive their hope in the future and their commitment to their faith.

By a fortunate, almost accidental chance, that future led them to Toronto, where the Rubinsteins and their cousins became leading real estate developers and benefactors of the community. This work, however, is not just the record of a remarkable family’s survival in the Holocaust and re-establishment in Canada; it is above all a sensitive tribute by a loving son of the debt he feels to his parents for the character and values they have imbued in him by their actions and example. Beautifully expressed, this memoir is a wonderful contribution to the hitherto largely ignored area of Holocaust survivors’ re-establishment of their shattered lives.

BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life and Times Published by Random House Canada

A decade after his death at 71, Mordecai Richler has found the biographer he deserves. The jury declared that Charles Foran has written the definitive biography – generous, thoroughly researched, psychologically nuanced, highly readable. They lauded him for uncovering the demons that drove Richler to create. Foran shows how the novelist’s gritty early life in working-class Jewish Montreal and his experience as a child born of a poisoned marriage shaped his prickly personality, which remained unchanged throughout his life. Foran skillfully contrasts Richler, the tender father and husband, with the hard-drinking Richler who made people angry and uncomfortable. He reveals Richler as deeply moral, using his sharp wit to expose snobbery, hypocrisy, inauthenticity, lies, anti-Semitism, and cant of all kinds.

SCHOLARSHIP Harold Troper, The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics, and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s Published by University of Toronto Press

While Jews were present in Canada almost from the birth of the country, their community always remained at the edge and separate from mainstream society. They were kept apart by internal and external contingencies. In the dramatic years after the Second World War, a new conscience emerged as the place Jews should occupy as individuals and as a community. In the 1960s, the blooming of the Jewish community reaches its maturity when it confronted and accepted inside dissident voices and fully engaged in the national community at all levels. Several events but mainly the Six Day war became moments of conscience when all members of the community took stand, realizing their place and role as Jews and as Canadian.

With great insight, Harold Troper offers us in The Defining Decade, a sensible analysis of the crucial years of transformation of the community, which parallels the one of the country. With great expertise and detailed documentation, he clearly exposes the many and deep changes and the dynamic of the process.

YOUTH LITERATURE Judie Oron, Cry of the Giraffe Published by Annick Press

Cry of the Giraffe is a powerful novel that skillfully achieves what characterizes the best of historical fiction: a seamless blending of the personal story of the main characters with the forces that alter the course of their lives. The story of young Wuditu is set against the ugly backdrop of government persecution of the Jews of Ethiopia, where they are demonized as a despised minority. The book provides an inside view of the daily lives of Ethiopia’s Jews, even offering a peek at their Passover customs and their schooling. Oron masterfully captures the drama of the Ethiopian story, tracing the difficult trek to the refugee camp in Sudan and the perilous situation of women left alone in a male-dominated world. The reader’s interest is gripped by the heroine’s courageous struggle, against unimaginable odds, to find her sister, protect herself, and flee to the Promised Land, “Yerusalem.” Cry of the Giraffe is a fitting celebration of the rescue of one family as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Operation Solomon, the airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in May, 1991.


On Changes in Jewish Liturgy – a book review

June 15, 2011

By Dr. Israel Drazin

On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations
By Daniel Sperber
Urim Publications, 2010, 221 pages

This is the second recent volume where Daniel Sperber, professor, rabbi, author of thirty books and more than four hundred articles, a leading expert on Jewish laws and customs, addresses what many consider deplorable treatments of women in Judaism.

The earlier book, Women and Men in Communal Prayer, treated the exclusion of women from being called to the reading of the Torah, called aliyot, in Orthodox Jewish synagogues. It offered the opinions of four prominent, well-respected, and articulate men, rabbis and scholars. Two, including Sperber advocated changing the current practice to allow women to participate more than presently. Two opposed the change. All four approached the issue from “halakhic perspectives,” meaning that the authors articulated opinions based on the precedents of past rabbinic rulings.

Sperber, as is his custom, presented a host of examples to support his view that the concept of “human dignity” should trump all arguments that disallow full participation of women in the Torah reading service. He did not contradict Jewish halakhah (law), but argued that the concept of “human dignity” is a vital part of halakhah. He uses the same historical halakhic approach in this volume. He shows that the law is not what people think.

This volume asks: can changes be made in Jewish prayers? Sperber examines many prayers, including the three blessings that are part of the introduction to the morning service, prayers that set the daily mood.

The origin of these “blessings offensive to women” is a statement by a second century CE rabbi in the Babylonian Talmud, Menakhot 43b:

It was taught: R. Meir says: A person (read, man) must say three benedictions every day, and these are they: “who has made me an Israelite (meaning, a Jew); who has not made me a woman; who has not made me an ignoramus.” Rav Aha bar Yaakov heard his son reciting the blessing, “Who has not made me an ignoramus.” He said to him: Why do you recite this blessing? Surely the ignoramus is also obligated in mitzvot.

Rav Aha advises his son to substitute “Who has not made me a slave.”

Should these prayers be recited as they are written because they are a Jewish tradition? Are they sacred because they were unchanged for two millennia and were repeated in this format by generations of Jews? Are Jewish prayers never changed? Read the rest of this entry »