A few years ago, Aish HaTorah Rabbi Yaacov Deyo (of SpeedDating fame) presented me with a book before Rosh Hashana. With this simple, gracious gesture he changed forever the way I relate to what can be the most daunting time on the Jewish calendar.
Passover seders, Purim carnivals and the lighting of the Chanukah menorah all have a festive air. The High Holidays are a sober contrast, observed primarily in temple. People who may never set foot in synagogue the other 360 days of the year attend lengthy, solemn services throughout Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Even in our jaded culture, these days are approached with a sense of reverence. Yet this reverence, that binds us so strongly as a community, can also block us from connecting to the holidays on a personal level.
Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles which can help make the start of the Jewish year a time to be embraced rather than endured.
A good place to begin might be "Tastes of Jewish Tradition -- Recipes, Activities and Stories for the Entire Family" by Jody Hirsh, et al (Wimmer Cookbooks, $26.95). Produced by the JCC of Milwaukee, this book is extremely accessible. There is a chapter devoted to every festival on the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat. A historical/biblical overview of what the holiday is about is accompanied by lesser-known information (such as a description of a North African Rosh Hashana seder). Then there are recipes -- some classic, some innovative. Finally, as the title promises, there are activities to appeal to the whole family. Crafts are geared toward younger kids, while projects such as creating a "Book of Life Scrapbook" offer a chance for people of different ages to reflect together on the past year.
Another book that is both reflective and interactive is Shimon Apisdorf's "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit" (Leviathan Press, $14.95). Apisdorf writes with a soft-spoken intimacy, as though he were sitting across the table with a cup of hot tea. Discussing the short teruah notes of the shofar, he encourages, "Before you rush in headlong to the New Year energized by your rekindled convictions, pause for a moment. Let the sense of inspiration settle in. Let it fill your soul."
Throughout the text, he manages to bring to life the poetic, meditative essence of Jewish worship. A more cerebral take can be found in "Entering the High Holy Days -- a Guide to the Origins, Themes and Prayers" by Reuven Hammer (The Jewish Publication Society, $29.95). This book examines the rituals and themes of the holidays with the aim of showing "how they are woven together to form a magnificent tapestry that encompasses the many facets of life."&'9;&'9;
This incredibly thorough volume is replete with details. There is a step-by-step outline of a Rosh Hashana ceremonial meal. Translations of entire prayers appear with commentary. What is most impressive about this work is that it is consistently didactic without being pedantic.
There are also a number of Web sites where people can tap into the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One that stands out in particular is the World Zionist Organization's site www.wzo.org.il. Holiday articles can be accessed by typing "Rosh Hashana" into the "Search" box on the upper right corner of the page. These articles offer thoughts that blend the traditional with the personal. They are informative and witty, and they offer fresh insights in a decidedly casual tone. For instance, in "TENtative Thoughts -- the Ten Commandments and the Ten Days From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur," Robin Treistman addresses Web surfers directly: "Here's my idea: I will present a guide for each day parallel to each of the 10 categories. The only rule is there are no rules."
To their credit, Treistman and the other contributors successfully maintain a degree of levity without crossing into disrespect. It is a tribute to these writers and a testament to the real-world orientation inherent to Jewish spirituality.
The books and articles available on the High Holidays are as varied in style as the Jewish community itself. What's important to remember is that there really is something for everyone, an open door for anyone who'll knock. Happy reading.
Local Rabbi's Suggestions for High Holiday Reading
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, educational coordinator, Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jewish Studies Institute: "'Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)' by Agnon. Nobody tells it better."
Rabbi Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple: "'Finding God' by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. Selected reading on this topic does exactly what the title indicates."
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, faculty, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles; Sidney M. Irmas chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School: "The single book that I recommend the most is 'On Repentance' by Rav Soloveitchik. It is deep, beautiful, and inspiring."
Rabbi Morley Feinstein, University Synagogue: "Milton Steinberg's novel 'As a Driven Leaf' brings up Jewish identity in a complex modern world. How a Jew deals with these things is especially important at this time of year."
Rabbi Samuel Lieberman, Congregation Beth Israel: "I would say to read 'Shaarei Teshuva [Gates of Repentance]' by Rabbeinu Yona, and anything on Jewish law, to know how to conduct oneself during these days and throughout the year."
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, currently teaching for Isralight: "There's such a wealth, such an ocean of material on the Internet -- and articles are much more digestible than books. So it's a wonderful, practical way to go."
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Makom Ohr Shalom: "'Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters' by Adin Steinsaltz. This book lives up to its title. A master of Jewish thought shares meditations on words, good, evil, envy, death, family, love, God and even Hollywood."
Eli Stern, outreach director, Westwood Kehilla: "I would suggest reading through the 'Artscroll Machzor.' It gives commentary and explanation throughout all the services, so it's a good preparation."
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr Hatorah: "For the moral dimension, I always study 'Cheshbon Hanefesh' by Menachem Mendel of Satanov. I tend to focus on Chasidic texts."
Aaron Benson, rabbinic intern, Congregation Beth Meier: "Just look through the Machzor itself. Look at it as literature and poetry, rather than just an instruction manual." -- Denise Berger, Contributing Writer