RJ Spring 2002

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

"I am recommending that we read four books a year that build on our foundation of common Jewish knowledge."
--UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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 recommend 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 website, where you'll find a discussion guide, a list of the previously selected Significant Jewish Books, and more.

The Counterlife
by Philip Roth

Over the course of a long literary career, Philip Roth has moved from the role of "bad boy" of the Jewish community, with his satirical portraits of American Jewish family life (Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint), to the head of the pantheon of contemporary American Jewish writers. For new readers of Roth's fiction, The Counterlife may be the best place to meet the Philip Roth of today.

Roth uses unusual narrative strategies to ask a serious midlife question: If we had the guts to totally change the circumstances of our daily lives, would we change our internal landscapes? What would it be like to live the "anti-myth" of our own lives? Roth enters these fantasies through his fictitious alter egos--the famous writer Nathan Zuckerman and his younger brother Henry. Abruptly leaving his family behind in New Jersey, Henry joins a settlement on the West Bank; Nathan himself moves to Gloucestershire with an English-born gentile wife. As the brothers try on "counter lives" of escape and reinvention, Roth continually returns to the question of what being a Jew means to him.

* * *

God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know:
Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning

by Lawrence Kushner

One verse in the Hebrew Bible--the utterance of Jacob when he awakens from his dream of angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder in Genesis 28:16--becomes the touchstone for a wide-ranging discussion in Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's book on Jewish spirituality. What did Jacob learn from this powerful experience?

Moments of awe and transcendence can be a starting point for learning about ourselves and our place in the universe. According to Kushner, any attempt to understand God begins with understanding ourselves. His approach to reading Torah is personal and psychological. Drawing on insights from Jewish teachers throughout the ages, he conducts a lively dialogue in each chapter on what Jacob may have learned about himself from his encounter with the "Self of the Universe."

Kushner, who served as rabbi of Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts and is currently rabbi-in-residence at HUC-JIR in New York, is one of a generation of contemporary theologians advocating spiritual renewal in American Judaism. His intention in this book is to provide a taste of the spiritual experience and encourage more openness to moments of connection in our lives.

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


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