Thursday, November 3, 2011

What I've Been Reading Lately

People often ask me what I have been reading lately. This post represents a partial attempt to answer this question. I have limited this first list to books; perhaps we will later include journals or articles as well. As our theme at The Jewish Center this year is Jewish literacy, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you the books that have come into my orbit of late.

Every so often I hope to highlight one or two books and include some extended musings or reflections. In the meantime, I have provided some brief editorial thoughts. Of particular interest to me is what emerges when these volumes are viewed through the lens of Jewish values. Much worthy material is contained within these pages. Titles featuring a star are highly recommended.
If you have read any of these titles, or should you be inclined to engage any of these texts, I would welcome your thoughts and the opportunity to discuss them with you. If you would like a particular text to be the subject of an upcoming sermon, please let me know. Additionally, if you would like to recommend a book, I will gather suggestions and report on the most popularly recommened titles.
Most of the books below are hyperlinked to sites where you can find synopses or purchase the book. If a book is out of print, have a look at There you will find an easily searchable database of reputable booksellers who specialize in used and hard-to-find books.

Happy reading,
yosie levine

*Out of the Depths, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau
Rabbi Lau's memoir is not just an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man; it is a narrative of lived faith. For our generation, Rabbi Lau's life story is an endless inspiration.

The Path of a Pioneer: The Autobiography of Rabbi Leo Jung
More a loose compilation of correspondence, essays and memoirs, this is an uneven book. For the discriminating reader, the chapters on Rabbi Jung's rabbinic life and his years at The Jewish Center are well worth the challenge of sifting through the many less compelling pieces. Rabbi Jung was a giant in the 20th century American rabbinate. What he accomplished is simply staggering.

*The People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
A superb and thoroughly compelling work of literary fiction.

*The Stranger, Albert Camus
This short book you surely read in college is worth rereading. An extraordinary critique of indifference. This text figured prominently in my 2011 Shabbat Shuvah Drashah: The Indignity of Indifference.

City of Thieves, David Benioff
This is not the most rabbinic book and the religiously sensitive reader does well to gloss over the more lurid passages. That said, it is brilliantly told and utterly gripping. By the end, the protagonists have become good friends for whom you are perpetually rooting.

Judaism: A Way of Being, David Gelernter
This book contains some exceptionally important observations about Jewish life and some very creative and persuasive readings of classic Jewish texts. On balance, though, the book's pomposity and paternalism make it hard to read.

Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower and the American Century, Philip Terzian
Too dry and dense for anyone who is not a scholar of this era.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
This very popular book left me disappointed. A great historical fictional setting does not live up to its billing. I found the epistolary style rather annoying and the potentially rich characters never seem to quite develop enough.

The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen
The book's central argument is a very important one for our generation. It could have all been said in a 1500 word opinion piece and many trees could have been spared. Read the synopsis.

The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
This book is a little too conversational and at times is too much of a rant against technology. That said, Carr does a very good job marshalling evidence to support his primary thesis: The internet age has drastically diminished our capacity to read deeply. Literary minds will appreciate the case he builds.

*Moneyball, Michael Lewis
A must-read for baseball fans.

*The Beginning of Wisdom
Though at times bordering on the irreverant, this is my favorite contemporary commentary on Genesis. Kass is a deep thinker, an excellent reader and a master teacher. Add exquisite writing to the mix and you have a recipe for a fabulous book.

Sacred Trash, Adinah Hoffman and Peter Cole
I had difficulty discerning this book's genre. If it is a scholarly history of the Cairo Geniza, this book is a failure. It is simply too shallow. If it is an attempt at popular non-fiction, the story is not just compelling enough. Though the writing is elegant and even lyrical at times, I remained unmoved.

Hunting Eichmann, Neal Bascomb
A well-told version of a narrative every Jew must know. It often seems as though Bascomb is trying too hard to create suspense or mystery where there is none. Had I known Prof. Deborah Liptstadt was publishing a book on the Eichmann trial, I would have waited and read hers instead.

*The Book and the Sword, David Weiss Halivni
This memoir manages to convey the greatness of a unique man without pretense or pomposity. Prof. Halivni is a living tribute to the ethic of Talmud Torah. He reminds us that in Jewish learning one can find not only depth and wisdom, but a protective embrace. Particularly relevant to our contemporary moment is the author's description of his having left JTS when the institution began ordaining women.

Hoping to share thoughts soon on the following titles:
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
Fermat's Last Theorem, Amir Aczel
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ficciones, Jorge Louis Bourges
Listening to God, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chuchill's Empire, Richard Toye
A Letter That Has Not Been Heard: Dreams in the Hebrew Bible, Shaul Bar
Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
*The Dawning of the Day, Haim Sabato
What So Proudly We Hail, Leon and Anne Kass
*The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner
How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids will Talk
Brewing Up a Business, Sam Calagione 


  1. Thanks, Rabbi Levine, for joining the ranks of bloggers. I look forward to following your book reviews and recommendations. I think I'll start with City of Thieves.
    ~ Barbara

  2. How wonderful. And how interesting! I was just thinking that I would like to buy books for Chanukah gifts -- I will definitely turn to your bookshelf for ideas. Rachel R.