Why Be Jewish?

by Rabbi Michael Green Whybejewish

I have had the pleasure of hearing Doron Kornbluth, author of  the newly released book, Why be Jewish, speak on several continents. Be it to seminary students in Jerusalem or a room comprised of mostly unaffiliated Persian Jews in Beverly Hills, I’ve always been impressed by his ability to not just captivate and inspire the audience—but to engage and empower them with something to think about as they walk home or drive off into the evening. Arguably most recognized for being the best-selling author of, Why Marry Jewish, Doron chose to tackle an even more fundamental question in his latest release.

Truth be told, this question is one that I presume any good Jew ponders at least once or twice throughout their lifetime!

Frankly, in our contemporary times, a question such as: why be Jewish? is more important to address and truly understand—before one even thinks of the subject of marriage! That said, as a husband, father, religious Jew, and Orthodox Rabbi, I was curious to see if this book was going to speak to me as well.

After reading this book cover to cover, I can report that Why be Jewish exceeded my expectations!

I credit this to the fact that Doron opted not to write this book as he had written his other works. First, the entire book is written in a  format that allows the reader to flip through the book and select a chapter or section that speaks to them. Second, each chapter is written as a different narrative and allows one to hear various perspectives about the choice and way in which ones Jewish pride developed. In so doing, this allows the reader to be exposed to a plethora of experiences from which they can relate to and grab a hold of as well! All in all, I found the writing style useful, not just because it will speak to a generation that is increasingly used to reading short blog posts and not long novels—but because if one chapter doesn’t relate to the reader or their life experiences—one is assured that there will be many other stories that do resonate with their upbringing.

While I do not take the author to task about some of the people he elected to write about in his book (see the comments here for instance), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Continue reading “Why Be Jewish?”

Why Marry Jewish?

by Jack Abramowitz Why Marry Jewish

Why should anyone in today’s society care about marrying Jewish? Nowadays, a smoker marrying a non-smoker or a vegetarian marrying a carnivore is likely to raise more eyebrows than a Jew marrying a non-Jew. After all, isn’t anyone who refuses to interdate, and potentially intermarry, elitist? Or worse, aren’t they racist?
Friends and relatives hoping to dissuade intermarriage may give a variety of reasons: Jewish continuity; the prohibition against marrying out of the faith, as outlined in Deuteronomy, chapter 7; what would Bubby say?, et cetera.

Unfortunately, while these arguments may be quite compelling to the giver, the average person contemplating intermarriage doesn’t really care about Jewish continuity; Deuteronomy, chapter 7 or what Bubby would say, et cetera. Anyone seriously at risk of intermarriage is not likely to be swayed by someone quoting Rambam. (Would that it were that simple!) That’s why Doron Kornbluth is here to help.

Kornbluth is an author whose works on modern Jewish thought may already be familiar to readers. In addition to articles he has authored, Kornbluth edited Jewish Matters and co-edited Jewish Women Speak about Jewish Matters (with his wife, Sarah Tikvah Kornbluth). The genius behind Kornbluth’s approach here is that he doesn’t try to appeal to any particular sense of Jewish community (which is unlikely to be successful), or worse, Jewish guilt (which is undoubtedly doomed to failure). Rather, he takes the approach of “what’s in it for me?” demonstrating the potential repercussions intermarriage could have upon the intermarried themselves.

An example of Kornbluth’s approach at work: An argument that could be presented by someone contemplating intermarriage is the very basic question, “What difference does intermarriage make if neither partner is observant in their respective faiths?” With a simple word-association quiz, Kornbluth shows how even Jews who consider themselves unaffiliated may possess “innate negative reactions to much Christian imagery.” The same imagery, of course, may hold very positive connotations for their potential spouses. This exercise reveals some very strong, diametrically opposed emotional reactions that a couple might otherwise not discover until triggered by some event later in life. Baptizing a child, for example, can be very distasteful even to an unaffiliated Jew, but it may not be a topic of conversation until the couple is expecting.

This is by no means the only arrow in Kornbluth’s quiver. In another section, he Continue reading “Why Marry Jewish?”

A Review of The Accidental Anarchist in the New York Journal of Books

by Charles WeinblattThe Accidental Anarchist

The Accidental Anarchist tells the intriguing true story of the colorful Jacob Marateck, a Jew conscripted into the Russian Army during events leading up to World War I.

He becomes a leader of soldiers in the brutal Russo-Japanese War, many of whom wanted to murder him for being Jewish, yet he gains their admiration after leading them in ferocious battles.

Marateck is an extraordinary character facing certain death many times with consistent humor and steadfast faith in God. The reader certainly does not need to be an Orthodox Jew to appreciate the intense commitment Marateck has to his faith and his religious duty. His notes reveal a breathtaking ability to absorb the absurd that life dishes out to a lowly Jew in the Czar’s anti-Semitic army with aplomb and grace.

Despite being subjected to court martial several times, Marateck escapes under the most amazing and bizarre circumstances. At times he and his comrades face an enemy within the Czar’s army more fearsome than the nation’s military enemy at their borders.

Barely surviving terrifying battles, the brutality of his own soldiers, and being sentenced to death by his own officers, Marateck faces it all with humor, faith and courage. He later joins the Polish resistance whose membership desperately wants to end the reign of Czar Nicholas II.

After being captured, he is sent to a terrifying prison camp in Siberia, where Continue reading “A Review of The Accidental Anarchist in the New York Journal of Books”

A Review of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction


 by Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

There are those who wonder, for various reasons, whether twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and its counterparts are appropriate for Jews. This book by Rabbi Shais Taub boldly considers the intent of twelve-step programs alongside classical Jewish teachings. He finds strong points of commonality. The positive connection between recovery from addiction, twelve-step programs, and Jewish spirituality could not be clearer.

The title God of Our Understanding consciously echoes the phrase found in the twelve-step tradition. Taub’s presentation is inclusive and of interest to anyone connected with the process of recovery. He presents an easy-to-read, well-considered study of the program in light of Jewish spirituality. I liked that the book was structured along the lines of the twelve steps. As Taub considers the steps he pairs them with basic principles found in Jewish ethics and spiritual teachings. These pairings are powerful; no one who reads this book can doubt the appropriateness of twelve-step recovery programs for Jewish participants.

I highly recommend this book for those who are in need of recovery as well as those in their families and communities. Other readers, too, will find much here to enhance their spiritual understanding.

This book first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

The Search Committee: Not Quite “a Novel”

From Shiloh Musings:The Search Committee high res

When I was at the recent Jerusalem International Book Fair, I was offered books to review by a couple of publishing houses.  UrimPublications.com told me to just take a few from their stand, which I did.  One of them is The Search Committee- a novel, by Marc Angel.  When I took it, I didn’t check the copyright date or I would have had discovered that the book is far from recent.  It was published in  2008.

I’ll start with the good…
The book is easy and quick reading, and the main topic is thought-provoking.

Now, why have I titled this “Not Quite a novel?”  Honestly, I don’t see it as a novel.  Here’s the definition of a novel from dictionary.com:


a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity,portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.

The book does not have any real scenes, actions, character development etc. And there is certainly no “complexity.”

Simply put, Marc Angel,  “Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is the author and editor of over two dozen books, and this is his first work of fiction,” has tried to humanize two extreme trends/ideologies in American Jewish Orthodoxy aka Torah Judaism.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t published a lot about the same exact issue as non-fiction.

In Angel’s opinion there’s a danger to Orthodox Jewry if Continue reading The Search Committee: Not Quite “a Novel””

Morality for Muggles: A Review

by Mary Lou Hennemanmoralityformuggles

Many readers are passionate about the Harry Potter books, and Moshe Rosenberg is no exception. Known as “the Harry Potter Rabbi,” Rosenberg views the wildly popular stories by J.K. Rowling as reflections of many basic lessons related to Jewish ethics, which he teaches at Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Garden Hills and at SAR Academy, both in New York. As he writes in the introduction, “I hope that you will share some aha! moments, when it becomes clear that what felt so right when it came out of Dumbledore’s mouth was also a teaching in Ethics of the Fathers,  or a Midrash, or a Hasidic story. There will be times that an insight from the wizarding world will illuminate a biblical theme or vice versa.”

Addressing all seven of the Potter books, he capably relates Bible stories of Moses, Aaron, and King David as he touches on themes of breaking the rules, jealousy, grief, repentance, friendship, death, and much more. This small book contains many big ideas and is perfect for Harry Potter fans who would like to experience the tales from a fresh perspective. Rosenberg has carefully documented this enjoyably book that will appeal to both teenagers and adults.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today.

A Review of Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash

 biblicaleddby Evelyn Pockrass

Although the title of her book may seem provocative, Sandra E. Rapoport, an attorney who spent twelve years litigating sexual harassment cases, provides serious, methodical analyses of the stories of six women in the Hebrew Bible. These women found themselves in what we recognize as disturbing relationships with men. The tales involve seduction, rape, incest, murder, fratricide, and loss, but also triumph and the birth of sons whose descendents became well known to future generations. Rapoport notes that God did not condemn these women (although some commentators have).

Rapoport is fascinated with the women and the men in their lives – Dinah and Shechem, Tamar and Judah, Batsheva and David, Amnon and Tamar, Ruth and Boaz, and the daughters of Lot. She translated portions of the Hebrew Bible and examines them in detail, explaining the derivation and meaning of names, places, words, and phrases. She parses rabbinic literature (Talmud and Midrash) and more current writings to fill in gaps in the biblical narrative.

More than a hundred pages are devoted to notes, an extensive bibliography, a source index, and a general index. Well researched, occasionally repetitive, but always thoughtful and compelling, Rapoport’s work is recommended for Bible study and women’s groups.

 This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Recalling the Covenant

recallingcovenantby Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

This thought-provoking commentary draws on classical Jewish sources as well as contemporary archaeological discoveries. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes with a deep concern that readers understand the plain meaning of the text with all its associations and symbolic allusions. Shamah assumes that the Torah is divinely inspired. He also understands that the Torah addresses a sophisticated audience; his carefully considered, thorough commentary does the same.

Recalling the Covenant follows the schedule of weekly reading common in the synagogue, featuring several studies on each portion. Throughout, one is aware of the debt Shamah owes to his teacher, Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon. In particular he references Sassoon’s theory on number symbolism in the Torah, a theory that often reveals interesting insights.

Shamah’s blend of traditional and modern sources yields insight and wisdom. He offers a panoramic understanding that leads the reader to a deeper appreciation of the text. Shamah’s commentary enriches the intellect and the soul.

This is not a book for a casual reader. It challenges us to meet the text anew and consider broader associations than initially meet the eye. Recalling the Covenant is a rewarding book that examines the Torah for its own message. Highly recommended.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

A Review of The Essential Jewish Stories

EssentialJewish stories

 by Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

Stories tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is evident for all to see; sometimes you need to hold stories up as a mirror in order to see the truth. In The Essential Jewish Stories, Seymour Rossel shares his collection of favorite tales. They will make you laugh, move you to tears, and – most importantly – make you think about the human experience. They teach a great deal about the Jewish outlook on the world.

The stories are arranged in four large categories, each subdivided into discrete sections. The stories come from multiple sources, largely rabbinic and Hasidic literature. Other stories are of Rossel’s own creation. He helps by noting the source for the original tale, allowing us to decide if we agree with his version or wish to retell it in our own voice. Rossel’s occasional brief annotations comment on sources or the similarity to other tales or traditions.

Rossel includes three helpful indexes: festivals and holy days, notable characters, and concepts and values. For anyone planning a program or researching a theme, these indexes will prove indispensable.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Sages of the Talmud: A Review

by Rabbi Ari EnkinSages of theTalmud Web1

Sages of the Talmud is an encyclopedic work on 400 Talmudic sages that are found on the pages of the Talmud. The various sages are listed in alphabetical order. After the sages’ name, it is noted in which century he lived and whether he was a Tanna, Amora, Babylonian or Palestinian. The listing continues with stories and anecdotes which help the reader understand the sage’s personality and the social environment in which he lived. Their rulings, ethical teachings, and famous sayings are cited, as well. In some cases bibliographical information is also included, especially regarding the lesser-known sages.

For example, the entry on Pinhas ben Yair states:

“Rabbi Pinchas was a son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his student for many years. He lived in southern Israel, not far from Ashkelon, and was active in the mitzva of redeeming prisoners…It is said of Rabbi Pinhas that never in his life did he eat bread that was not his own…R. Pinhas b. Yair said, “Zeal leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity. Purity leads to self-restraint, and self-restraint leads to sanctity.”

The Talmudic sources for all such stories and sayings are cited. Entries range from a single paragraph up to several pages, depending on the prominence of the sage and his frequency of appearance on the pages of the Talmud.

Most people do not know when each of the sages of the Talmud lived and what the outside world looked like at that time. Many don’t even realize that there were hundreds of years between the earliest and latest sages of the Talmud. This is true even regarding different sages who are found on the same page of Talmud! And so, what is exceptionally unique in this work is that at the end of every entry, not only are the dates when each sage lived included, but readers are directed to an appendix at the back of the book which lists the historic highlights of regional events that took place during that time. For example, at the conclusion of the entry on Rava, we are told he lived between 250 and 350 CE. Turning to the pages that discuss these years at the back of the book one will find historical tidbits such as:

• Gallus became Roman emperor in 251 and was assassinated in 253
• Valerian attempted to recover the territories lost to King Shapur of Persia, but was captured by Shapur in 259 and held captive until his death ten years later, in 269
• Aurelian was assassinated in 275
• In 325, several hundred bishops led by Constantine attended the Continue reading Sages of the Talmud: A Review”