RJ Winter 2000

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

Our Significant Jewish Books column, inspired by UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's Reform Movement Literacy Initiative, challenges all Reform Jews to read at least four books of Jewish substance a year. In each issue we are recommending two or more titles representing the best of Jewish literature, both fiction and nonfiction, selected in cooperation with the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth.

It is our hope that you will read at least one of these selections on your own or with others in a synagogue study or book group. Connect with thousands of other Significant Jewish Books readers by accessing the Adult Jewish Growth Web site, where you'll find a discussion guide, the criteria and process for the Significant Jewish Books selection, and more.

The Jewish Moral Virtues
by Eugene Borowitz and Frances Weinman Schwartz

The Book of Jewish Values
A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living
by Joseph Telushkin

All religions claim to provide guidance for "being a good person," but what special insights can we gain from the Jewish tradition? Throughout the generations, Jews have meditated on the complexities of human relationships and what constitutes moral behavior in society. This genre of literature is known as musar--ethical teachings--and its distinguishing characteristic is its practicality in trying to apply ethical precepts to life.

Two new books--written in the musar tradition--explore the relevance of Jewish values in contemporary life. Musar is "the practical wisdom that has informed Jewish piety through the centuries," writes Rabbi Eugene Borowitz in The Jewish Moral Virtues. "In so far as we infuse our everyday affairs with our Jewish values, we add our own style to the unbroken chain of musar." Borowitz, and his co-author, Frances Schwartz, take their list of "Jewish moral virtues" from a thirteenth-century musar text, which includes topics such as compassion, generosity, wealth, charity, and humility. Their aim is to provide a contemporary discussion of these attributes, drawing on insights from a wide range of Jewish literature such as the Bible and Midrash, the writings of Maimonides and other medieval philosophers, Ladino maxims, hasidic tales, and Yiddish proverbs. The result is a nuanced study of moral living with a sometimes surprising array of reflections on such issues as when and how to give tzedakah (charitable donations).

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin presents a thought-provoking collection of anecdotes--from rabbinic sources as well as contemporary life--intended for use as a daily spiritual exercise. Musar literature always had a practical component as a discipline for self-improvement. "For ethical teachings to carve a way into our hearts," Telushkin writes, "we must study and practice them...day after day after day." This book provides an inviting format for considering ethical issues in our personal lives. Included are such tempting topics as qualities to look for in choosing a spouse and teaching children to be kind. Telushkin quotes Nachman of Bratslav, the eighteenth-century hasidic rabbi, in articulating the goals of this accessible, down-to-earth guide: "If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?" This quest takes us into the heart of musar teachings.

Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

Edited by J. Sanford Rikoon
Translated from the Yiddish by Jacob Calof and Molly Shaw

Rachel Bella Calof's memoir is a treasure for the insights it gives into the experience of being a woman, a Jew, and a homesteader on the North Dakota frontier at the turn of the last century. Born in the Ukraine, Rachel was orphaned at age four, when her mother died. She and her siblings were raised by a stepmother who starved and beat them. Later, she worked as a servant for wealthy relatives. At the age of eighteen, Rachel made a daring and desperate choice to escape a life of poverty and helplessness--she agreed to marry a stranger, Abraham Calof, a Russian Jew living in America.

Unlike most Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in large cities, Abraham Calof decided to try his luck out west with his mail-order bride. When Rachel met Abraham at Ellis Island, she was prepared to work side by side with him for a better life. "I had no idea where North Dakota was or what the country was like, but I was prepared for the challenge," she writes. "Of course I had no intimation of the incredible hardships which awaited us there." Her memoir, written in Yiddish, describes their grinding poverty, small triumphs, and survival on their homestead farm for over twenty years.

With unflinching honesty, Rachel describes her adjustment to life on the prairie, which was in many ways more primitive than the life she left behind in the Ukraine. Every winter, her in-laws would move into her twelve-by-fourteen shack in order to save fuel. Five adults lived in these cramped quarters with chickens in cages under their beds. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader, the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear," she reflects.

Rachel bore nine children, with little help or support from other women. Despite their back-breaking work, a season's crops were often destroyed within hours by a sudden hailstorm or cyclone. Yet, the portrait that emerges in this straightforward, unromanticized telling is that of an extraordinarily resourceful and dedicated wife and mother, and a woman with a firm sense of self, who tried to conduct herself "under the most severe conditions as a Jewish woman should." Over the years, the Calof's home became a congregating point for other Jewish farming families in the Devils Lake region.

Bonny V. Fetterman is the literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

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