Category Archives: books

Summer Reading List 2018*

Each year around Memorial Day I publish a summer reading list, letting the congregation know what books I expect to be delving into during the summer months.  Happy reading!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – A post apocalyptic tale of a traveling Shakespeare troupe, this novel explores memory, friendship, family, and asks the ultimate question:  what is it that truly makes us human? (378 pages)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe – Published in 1968, this book (non-fiction) chronicles the early hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the escapades of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters.  In a time when psychedelics are making a bit of a comeback this is worth a re-read, just after the author’s death at the age of 88.

The Story of the Jews:  Belonging, 1492-1900 – the long fight to survive, by Simon Schama – The British historian has just published part 2 of his history of the Jewish people.  The second installment covers a 500 year span as the Jewish community struggled with what it meant to live in the Diaspora.  Will the Jews be accepted or rejected?  Questions of antisemitism, assimilation, and Jewish identity come to life in Schama’s lively prose, and reading his book reminds us those questions are just as relevant today as they have ever been. (some 600 plus pages!)

The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical Times, by James Kugel – One of the best modern Bible commentators, Kugel explores the shifting sense of God that is conveyed by the Hebrew Bible.  Why is God present and active when the Bible begins, but remote and invisible when it ends?  This book is Kugel’s answer to that question.

On Middle Ground, a History of the Jews in Baltimore, by Eric Goldstein and Deborah Weiner – As advertised, a comprehensive history of Baltimore’s Jewish community, from its very first Jews to Pikesville.  Close readers will find that Rabbi Mark Loeb z’l does get a mention! (about 400 pages)

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi – One of Israel’s most thoughtful writers, Halevi explores with frank honesty his sadness at the Palestinian situation, his longing for reconciliation, and his fierce belief in Israel, its mission, and its right to exist.  In a world where we are all too often driven to extreme views, Halevi’s nuanced exploration of the ‘matzvah’ is poignant and necessary.

* As always, a caveat emptor – I may not read all of these books this summer, and I probably will read one or two books not on the list!  Enjoy the reading!!

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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Days of Future Past

Preposterous.  A second Civil War, once again between the North and the South.  Rebel forces and suicide bombers (all American).  A shadowy faintly Islamic caliphate that is manipulating events on American shores.  Biological weapons of mass destruction.  Political assassinations.  This is the dystopian near future that Omar El Akkad describes in his debut novel American War.

Akkad’s United States is a shattered and humbled country.  North and South have split over a fundamental disagreement about the use of fossil fuels, with the South refusing to accept the North’s ban on gasoline and oil.  As is often the case with arguments, there are deeper issues at work, and old grievances and unhealed wounds festering.  The North wins the war, and a reconciliation process is put into place.  But there are those in the South who will never surrender, and rebel groups and individual terrorists continue the fight.  Refugee camps are set up, civil rights taken away in the name of safety, human dignity stripped, individuals tortured, and in the process, the moral compass of an entire nation swings out of balance.

It does indeed sound preposterous, at least on the surface.  As bad as things might be at any given moment, there is no way we can get from here to there, from where we are now to the tragedy and terror that the book paints, from the United States to a divided North and South.  Is there?

But think for a moment.  How far is it really from here to there?  All of the elements that Akkad draws on to create his compelling narrative are already in place today.  We live in a country with deep, angry divisions between Red and Blue states, that only seem to be getting deeper and angrier.  The government is dysfunctional, unable to pass legislation to address today’s pressing needs.  Our leadership is polarizing.  Terrorist networks are operating all over the globe, many of them with the express intent of destroying the American way of life.  Weapons of mass destruction exist, whether biological or nuclear, and we have for years worried about what would happen if those weapons were to fall into the wrong hands.

The truth is Akkad doesn’t make anything up from whole cloth for his story.  It is all out there right now, today.  All the author does is put the elements into one pot at the same time, heat them up a bit, stir them in exactly the right way, and follow the explosion to its terrifying, and also logical, conclusion.  He is not really writing about some far distant time and place.  He is writing about the here and now.  His work is not so much an act of imagination as it is an act of re-organization.   It is not a picture of the future.  Instead, it is a warning about the present.

Will we figure out a way to heed that warning?   That is, at the end of the day, the question Akkad sets in front of us.  And we are the only ones who can provide an answer.  American War is a novel about the future that could not be more contemporary.  It is a sharp critique of today’s cultural, societal, and political trends.  It is a mirror in which our images look back at us with uncomfortable and uncompromising honesty.  And it just so happens to be a heck of a read.

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Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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