Memoirs, Liturgy and Jewish Advice: High Holidays Nonfiction
The world, Pirkei Avot notes, is sustained by three pillars: Torah, prayer and good deeds. That seminal text expresses the importance of tradition, self-reflection and a commitment to helping others—themes that also permeate the High Holidays. Each of the following books provides insight into one or more of these pillars: through memoirs that create a path for helping others cope with death; examinations of liturgy and Jewish textual sources; or the words of Jewish thinkers offering guidance and reassurance in an uncertain world.
Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall (Rowman & Littlefield, 266 pp.)
Speaking to those who are interested in rethinking Jewish traditions in the wake of lockdowns and quarantines, Remix Judaism offers a vision of a meaningful Jewish existence outside what the author terms a “strictly observant lifestyle.” Chapters cover food—for example, avoiding certain foods not merely because of kashrut but because the food is not ethically sourced; holidays; creating Friday night rituals that include candle lighting followed by a family movie; and lifecycle events such as marriage and mourning. The book helps individuals and families craft new patterns of joyful and authentic observance.
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything By Viktor E. Frankl (Beacon Press, 136 pp.)
Just 11 months after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, famed Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Viktor Frankl delivered a series of lectures in Vienna. Published together for the first time in English, the transcript of those lectures includes discourses on resilience; belief and the importance of “embracing life”; and finding opportunities even in the face of adversity and uncertainty—ideas that resonate and uplift today.
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times By Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Basic Books, 384 pp.)
The former chief rabbi of Great Britain and distinguished scholar looks at how toxic public discourse, the absence of communal responsibility, hyper focus on the self, lack of family cohesion and other societal ills have caused the loss of a shared moral code—a trend Rabbi Sacks calls “cultural climate change.” Sacks devotes most of his book to describing how and why we have gotten to this state. In a final section, he provides suggestions for a return to a shared commitment to the common good through altruism and compassion.
My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me: A Memoir By Jason B. Rosenthal (Harper, 240 pp.)
Heartwarming, then heartbreaking, Jason Rosenthal shares the joys of his marriage to best-selling children’s author Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the struggle of coping with her death from ovarian cancer. Ten days before she passed away, Amy’s essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” was published in The New York Times. In it she described her husband and her hopes that he finds a fresh start and happiness after her death. The column went viral, read by more than five million people worldwide. Replete with Jewish touches, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me describes what came next: how Jason and their three children coped, despite their profound sorrow; the over 300 women who contacted him in response to the op-ed; and his commitment to respecting Amy’s wish as well as his attempts to help others dealing with loss.
Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy Edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji (University of Pittsburgh Press, 216 pp)
Taking its title from a phrase in a Jewish prayer for the deceased, Bound in the Bond of Life brings together essays on the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks in American history. Gathering accounts from local journalists, academics, rabbis and community members, Eric Lidji and Beth Kissileff reveal efforts to make sense of the shooting, from raw, first-person descriptions to pieces by those who translated the horror into activism. Among the contributors is Jonathan Perlman, Kissileff’s husband and rabbi of New Light Congregation, three of whose members were among the 11 victims that day. He shares a prayer that he wrote with two other rabbis that is based on a prayer for martyrs, and which is part of the Yom Kippur liturgy: “…We buried our bodies./ And upon them we wept/ And even so, this did not break us./ Nonetheless we were steadfast in our place/ And we continued to stand….”
When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill By Howard Mortman (Cherry Orchard Books, 410 pp.)
For more than a century and a half, rabbis have been included among the clergy who open each session of Congress with a prayer. Howard Mortman, who is Jewish and who serves as communications director for C-SPAN, looks at these Jewish prayers and the over 400 rabbis from all denominations who have taken part in the tradition of leading a prayer on Capitol Hill.
One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to US Edited by Erica Heller (Harry N. Abrams, 352 pp.)
Erica Heller, memoirist and daughter of novelist Joseph Heller, asked several dozen personalities to visualize a meal with a person, now deceased, of their choice. The results are eclectic and touching: Documentary filmmaker Muffie Meyer writes about a luncheon at a Montreal Jewish deli with socialite and cabaret performer Little Edie; Kirk Douglas, who passed away in February, imagines asking his father, Herschel “Harry” Danielovitch, what he thought about him becoming an actor; Journalist Jesse Kornbluth pictures sitting down with Nora Ephron to ask forgiveness for an unflattering article he wrote about the famed screenwriter and humorist. The vignettes, inspiring, funny and candid, reflect a universal desire to connect, reassess and spend one more moment with a lost loved one.
Prepare My Prayer By Dov Singer (Maggid, 292 pp.)
Israeli educator Rabbi Dov Singer, a leader of the modern Israeli revival of Hassidut, believes that all people, indeed all creatures, pray instinctively. His book, popular in Israel and recently translated into English, is an instruction manual for harnessing that instinct to create greater connections with the Divine. In 11 chapters, each beginning with excerpts from traditional Jewish texts, he sets up short, practical instructions to guide readers through different aspects of prayer, from emphasizing concentration and creating an emotional connection with God to praying in private and finding spirituality in communal services.