Seven Books to Read in Shul on
the High Holidays
By PERETZ RODMAN
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
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
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.