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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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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, books, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, summer reading, Uncategorized, winter reading

Winter Reading List

When the days grow short, the weather cold, and the pull of a comfortable chair next to a warm fire almost irresistible, we imagine we will weather our way through various and sundry winter storms while sipping hot chocolate or tea (or a fine Islay whisky!), cuddling up, and reading.  Here are some books that are on my winter reading list.

First up, I am almost finished with Ta Nehasi Coates’ slim memoire/social justice essay/letter to his son called Between the World and Me.  This 150 page volume should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the roiling racial tension in our society today.  With stark courage and unflinching honesty Coates describes the life shaping experience of growing up as a black man in white America.

Secondly, there are books a rabbi wants to read, and books a rabbi has to read.  Michael Oren’s Ally falls into the latter category.  It will be the topic of the Sisterhood book review on January 20, and also the topic of my talk during our annual ‘Snowbird’ program in Florida.  Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, has written a book that traces the Israeli-American relationship during his tenure.  His premise:  although the bonds between the two countries may stretch and strain at times, they are ultimately unbreakable because of shared values and goals.

Last (but not least), the English historian Mary Beard has written a new, comprehensive (but short!) history of the Roman Empire called SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome.  The civilization, thought, and values that were at the heart of Rome’s rise are still at work in our culture today, two thousand years later.  Understanding where we’ve come from better positions us to move forward into the future with eyes wide open.

Enjoy the books!

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Filed under books, civil rights, clergy, Israeli-American relations, Uncategorized, winter reading

A Winter’s Tale

Or book. Or books. For many years now I have put together a summer reading list that I post for the congregation. Folks seem to enjoy it, and some people even read some of the books on the list. The summer is a natural time for reading. We imagine ourselves enjoying long relaxing days on the beach, alternating naps in the warm sun with sitting in a beach chair, reading a good book, the unceasing waves gently lapping at the shore.

But the winter is also a good reading time.  Deep winter especially.  With long, dark nights, falling temperatures, the wind whistling outside through leaveless tree branches.  Snuggled in a chair under a blanket, perhaps with a dram of whisky by your side.  Here are two books I hope to read over the next weeks, as winter comes in.

The first is a classic ‘rabbi’s must read.’  Entitled ‘At Home in Exile,’ this new book by Alan Wolfe (professor of political science at Boston College) is an exploration of the importance of the diaspora Jewish community.  The subtitle of the book is Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, and the author dares to suggest that there are some things important, in fact perhaps even necessary, about diasporic Judaism.  After all, in large part Judaism is what it is today because of the experience of living in the Diaspora.

The second book is fiction.  Science fiction, in fact, a genre that is rapidly growing in respectability.  Michel Faber’s ‘the Book of Strange New Things’ chronicles a young clergyman who is sent to a far away planet to preach and teach faith to the native alien population.  How could a rabbi resist that storyline?

So there you have it.  Two books I’ll be reading through this winter.  I expect another one or two might make the list, but it is getting late, and I have a lot of reading to do.

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