Reading for Inspiration: Books That Sustain and Uplift
Jewish tales, from the sacrifice of Isaac, recited during Rosh Hashanah, to Jonah and the whale, read during Yom Kippur, provide spiritual insights that sustain us through the year. A few new books, including a biography of a religious and civil rights leader, essays from Israeli women sharing their personal struggles and stories from a pastoral counselor, continue in that tradition, telling powerful tales that inspire us not just during the holiest time on the Jewish calendar but throughout our lives.
Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women
Shira Lankin Sheps (Toby Press)
About four years ago, Shira Lankin Sheps, a social worker and amateur photographer, began The Layers Project as a space on social media for religiously observant Jewish women to share stories about their personal challenges and discuss taboo or stigmatized topics around health, family, religion and careers in a supportive community. The Facebook page expanded into an online magazine featuring longer profiles and articles around issues affecting Jewish women. Sheps’s latest project is Layers, a collection of personal stories from 34 Israeli women, many of whom she met through The Layers Project. Among them are Gabi (only first names are disclosed), who shares her decades-long struggles with eating disorders; Ahava Emunah, who fought ovarian cancer and passed away weeks before the book’s publication; and Yaffy, an Afro-Latina Jew who shares her stories about growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Florida as well as her fears as a young wife married to an active-duty officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Their stories, and the others in the book, are inspiring, heartbreaking, intimate and, yes, layered reflections of the lives of observant Jewish women today.
Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Life of Radical Amazement
Julian E. Zelizer (Yale University Press)
It is likely not an exaggeration to say that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is one of the most often cited Jewish figures today. The iconic picture of the rabbi standing with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., at the Selma civil rights march in 1965 has been featured in numerous articles and discussions about the Jewish contributions to racial justice. How Heschel came to symbolize “a seamless connection that some believed existed between the Jewish tradition and social activism,” as author Julian E. Zelizer writes in his prologue, is the focus of a new biography. Born in Warsaw, influenced by Hasidism and trained in Orthodox institutions, Heschel became one of the leading religious thinkers of the 20th century. The book describes his time as a professor of mysticism at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and how his fiery spiritual rhetoric inspired others to join the fight for a more equitable world. It also describes his activism in the context of his time—an era when many religious leaders were called to social justice—as well as how he wrestled with the religious implications of the Holocaust. For Heschel, religion and piety, in the service of justice, were the answer to the existential questions of his time—a piousness he connected with wonder at the world. “Our goal should be to live life with radical amazement…. get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” Heschel famously wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Reaching for Comfort: What I Saw, What I Learned, and How I Blew it Training as a Pastoral Counselor
Sherri Mandell (Ben Yehuda Press)
In her latest book, writer Sherri Mandel shares her deeply personal journey to becoming a pastoral counselor—a relatively new profession in Israel. Through short vignettes describing her interactions with patients and staff at different hospitals in Jerusalem, including Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, she recounts the lessons she learns about how to talk to and offer “small moments of comfort” to the sick or grieving. Mandell has three goals in pursuing her new profession: “To be able to help those who suffer. To understand my own suffering and how I can use it to help others. To be able to pray.” The American olah is acquainted with loss and grief. Twenty years ago, her oldest son, Koby, was murdered by Arab terrorists at age 13 outside the West Bank town of Tekoa. Throughout the book, she describes how that loss continues to color her encounters as a pastoral counselor and how she nevertheless learns to use her pain to help others express their own grief. She writes of her amazement at the hope and deep connections she observes while visiting grieving mothers, both Jewish and Arab; sitting beside sick children; and counseling men and women steadfastly standing vigil over their ailing loved ones. “I had witnessed that devotion again and again, as families cared for their loved ones in the hospital,” she writes. “That love transcended the fragility of the body.”
Leah Finkelshteyn is senior editor and book editor of Hadassah Magazine.