Sandee Brawarsky: Elul By The Book
“I want to be written again/in the Book of Life, to be written every single day/till the writing hand hurts.” Like the call of the shofar, those last lines of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “I Walked Past a House Where I Lived Once,” herald the coming Days of Awe.
Many books emphasize the themes of the holidays: new possibilities, new meanings, and the resiliency of human beings and, at the same time, the very fragility of life. Here is a mix of new titles and classics, which will resonate through the holiday period and beyond.
S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days” (Schocken) was first published in 1938 and remains a timeless and timely guide, which always offers new insight in annual re-reading. With selections from more than 300 texts, the book is meant as a companion to the mahzor. In an introduction to the 1995 edition, Rabbi Arthur Green writes of the Nobel-prize winning author: “As a modern writer who was also a scholar and collector of liturgical and folkloric traditions, Agnon saw himself as a link between generations, one of the few who could hand over the new Hebrew (and now English) reader the richness of the Jewish past.”
The urgency of spiritual work to be done in this window of time is clear from the title of Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation” (Little, Brown), and it is the tone of his compassionate, intimate work. He writes of the possibilities of repentance and resolution, drawing on Jewish texts, Buddhist parables, fables, and moments from his personal history. Throughout, he encourages readers to fully experience broken heartedness and to open their hearts to God.
In “Opening Your Heart With Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year” (CCAR Press), Rabbi Debra J. Robbins leads readers in studying Psalm 27 – read every day between the beginning of the month of Elul and through the end of Sukkot — phrase by phrase, verse by verse, encouraging readers to linger and meditate on the range of emotions presented by the Psalmist. The book is set up to encourage an interactive spiritual practice, which readers might follow, or use the careful reading to guide their own reflections.
“Meditations for the Days of Awe” by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Growth Associates) includes reflections, guided imagery, creative exercises, and brief essays, following the flow of the holidays and the sequence of the mahzor.
From poet, scholar, and liturgist Marcia Falk, “The Days Between – Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season” (Brandeis University Press) is an introspective, poetic work. Falk includes blessings for home and synagogue, prayers, and meditations. She sees the sacred period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as “ten days of striving to keep the heart open to change.”
In “Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah,” (Jewish Lights), Dr. Louis E. Newman lays out the path of teshuvah, focusing on the principles of truthfulness, responsibility, and humility, and takes readers step-by-step, although it is a path that is neither short nor straight. To do teshuvah requires authentic turning, returning, and responding. His voice is wise and encouraging, positive and practical, cautioning against despair, underlining the hope that the past can lead to a better future.
“Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights) provides an in-depth analysis of the traditional Ashkenazi prayer said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with commentaries by Jewish thinkers across the denominations. The essays look at the powerful liturgy with its memorable, even haunting tone, in all its fullness — its history, authorship, legend, and layers of meaning, as well as its drama and poetics.
The prayer, as translated here by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, reads, “…And You will open the book of memories/And it will be read from:/Everyone’s signature is in it./And a great shofar will be sounded/And a thin whisper of a sound will be heard./” The book’s title appears a few lines later, “How many will pass on and how many will be created./Who will live and who will die./Who at their end and who not at their end./Why by fire and who by water…”
Some of the contributors write of the theological challenges of the prayer. Dr. Marc Brettler offers a biblical perspective and Rabbi Daniel Landes shares a halakhic understanding; Dr. Erica Brown recognizes God as a writer, and all of us as “authors of our own future.” Rabbi Ruth Durchslag shows how the prayer reminds us to heed the “voice of silence” and Rabbi Sharon Brous shows how the liturgy can encourage us to search for greater meaning and purpose in the life we have. As she writes, “The annual High Holy Day encounter with death is designed to unsettle our routines, break us free from stagnation and shock our system out of its instinctive selfishness and indulgence.”
“Jewish Theology In Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations & Future of Jewish Belief” edited by Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove (Jewish Lights) includes essays that are deceptively brief, as many are groundbreaking and powerful in presenting deep theological concepts. The tone is sophisticated but not academic, geared to a lay reader. Contributors include Rabbis Shai Held, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Naamah Kelman, Leon A. Morris, Asher Lopatin; Professors Eitan Fishbane, Benjamin Sommers, Marc B. Shapiro, and others. Many are essays to read and reread.
For a thoughtful guide to refocusing, re-energizing and deepening your tefilla, Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Prepare My Prayer: Recipes to Awaken the Soul” (Maggid) is both practical and inspiring. It’s not a book to be read in one or two sittings, but rather to be carried around, dipped into at quiet moments, perhaps early on in synagogue – or at home — or practiced and studied with a partner. For Rabbi Singer, prayer is an instinct, a longing inside people, an opening of the heart. The book will appeal to those who pray and want to know more about how to go deeper and higher, and to those curious about what that last phrase might mean.
“60 DAYS: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson is a daily guide to the months of Elul and Tishrei, presenting the time period as a journey toward hope and the realization of deep aspirations. Includes are exercises for personal development as well as a guide to the prayer services.
An anthology of women’s spiritual writing, “Beginning Anew: A Women’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates (Touchstone), includes interpretive essays by scholars, rabbis, novelists and teachers including Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Alice Shalvi, Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, Judith Plaskow, Devorah Steinmetz and others.
“Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything” by Viktor E. Frankl, with an introduction by Daniel Goleman (Beacon Press) is timely for the well-known author’s robust optimistic spirit in difficult times. The brief life-affirming book includes a series of public lectures that the late psychiatrist delivered in Vienna, eleven months after he was liberated from Auschwitz. Frankl has an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. He gave these talks before he published “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a psychological memoir that has sold more than 16 million copies in 50 languages.
For Frankl, every crisis includes an opportunity. He speaks of giving life deeper meaning through serving others, through loving and through the way we react to suffering.
The book’s title is drawn from a song sung by inmates at some of the four concentration camps where Frankl was imprisoned – his parents and wife were murdered in the camps. Many prisoners despised the song as they were forced to sing it repeatedly, but others found hope in the lyrics, “Whatever our future may hold:/We still want to say “yes” to life, /Because one day the time will come–/Then we will be free.”
A non-traditional choice, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf) is an unforgettable look at America – and it is a book about empathy. With compelling reporting, the authors tell the stories of forgotten working-class Americans. Amidst tragic accounts of lives cut short are examples of hope and resilience.
“Radiance: Creative Mitzvah Living” by Danny Siegel, edited by Rabbi Neal Gold (Jewish Publication Society) is a collection of Siegel’s prose and poetry from the last 50 years. The pieces range from very practical ideas about giving wisely to the study of related Jewish texts and philosophy; his poetry is full of insight and the light of Jerusalem streets. Siegel, the author, lecturer, poet, and tzedakah activist, has been spreading compassion and generosity for more than five decades.
Another extraordinary and unusual book, “Letters from Max: A Poet, A Teacher, A Friendship” by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo (Milkweed Editions), is a collection of letters between Ruhl, a playwright, and Ritvo, a poet who had been her student at Yale while in remission from pediatric cancer. Over four years, as his health declined, they shared spirited letters filled with love, wisdom, emotion, poetry, complexity, literary themes, and the practical details of life. This is a gorgeous book exploring life and death, art and friendship, determination, and resilience; its power lingers in this season of Elul and beyond—recommended to me last year by a dear BJ friend. Ritvo died much too young, at 26, in 2016.
From BJ member Linda Elovits Marshall, with illustrations by Francesca Assirelli, “Talia and the Very Yum Kippur” (Kar-Ben) is the story of a young girl who hears “breakfast” instead of “break-the-fast,” prompting her to consider the difference between “yom” and “yum” and to make puns throughout the book. She also reflects on her own wrongdoings, just like adults do during this holiday. Ages 4-6.
“Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” by Rahel Musleah, illustrations by Judy Jarrett (Kar-Ben) is based on a Talmudic tradition, suggesting connections between select foods that grow abundantly with prosperity, fertility, and peace. Musleah, who was born in India, presents a Rosh Hashanah seder with pomegranates, pumpkins, beets, dates, and other foods, along with blessings, songs, recipes, and folk tales.
Sandee Brawarsky, a journalist and editor, has been the longtime culture editor of The Jewish Week and recently received a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. For the newspaper, she also curates and moderates cultural events. She’s the author of several books, most recently “212 Views of Central Park: Experiencing New York’s Jewel from Every Angle,” with photographer Mick Hales.