Jewish Journal

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on Sep. 21, 2006 at 8:01 pm

In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don't mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays -- on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.
 According to a Chasidic teaching, the soul is like a rare coin that can become tarnished without proper care. Through polishing, the soul can be made to shine again.
As Rabbi David Aaron explains, the period from Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah is "a time when we polish our tarnished souls to reveal our true radiance and experience the joy of being who we really are."
His new book, Inviting God In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days (Trumpeter, $21.95) is a self-help guide for the soul. Based in Jerusalem and traveling frequently to teach, Aaron is the author of several books and the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization of outreach, Jewish learning and leadership training.
For Aaron, each holiday "celebrates a critical ingredient in the recipe for a loving relationship with God and our fellow human beings.... Each holiday on the Jewish calendar is a date with God."
In his chapter "Rosh Hashanah: Celebrating Accountability," he speaks of rejoicing in his trembling before God. The sense of being judged, while shaking the ego, confirms the sense of self; he feels assured that his choices and actions make a difference to God; that the way he lives his life really matters.
He understands that judgment is kindness, an expression of great love and care.
Finding Forgiveness: A 7-Step Program for Letting Go of Anger and Bitterness by Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang (McGraw-Hill, $21.95), with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, opens with "A Prayer for Forgiveness of the Nazis" by Rabbi Leo Baeck, who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He cautions against revenge in the aftermath of the war, urging that any traces of dignity and humanity should count as a ransom for a "rebirth of righteousness."
The author is Jewish, but has a strong interest in Tibetan Buddhism. She works as a psychologist and trainer in forgiveness, conflict resolution and trauma recovery, and has done work for international organizations, including the United Nations. Borris-Dunchunstang also serves as director of training for the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. Her approach is more directed to inner healing than to the healing of relationships and reconciliation that are part of traditional Jewish teachings. But there is much that is thoughtful, relevant and also provocative about the complexities of forgiveness in her retelling of individual stories.
"By being able to forgive," she writes, "we learn how to extend ourselves to others and to realize that this action is part of our healing." For Borris-Dunchunstang, forgiveness is a choice.
"Forgiveness is a radical way of living that openly contradicts the most common beliefs of the troubled world. It is radical because it involves a transformation of our thinking from thoughts of "an eye for an eye" to compassion and understanding. Forgiveness is the science of the heart, a discipline of discovering all the ways of being that will extend your love to the world and discarding all the ways that do not. Forgiveness is the accomplishment of mastery over a wound."
Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story by Dylan Schaffer (Bloomsbury, $24.95) is an uncommon memoir about forgiveness. The author's father, Flip, who is dying of cancer, invites his son to spend a week with him at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, taking a course in artisanal bread-making. The two men hadn't spent more than one day at a time together in the 30 years since Flip left the family, leaving Dylan, his mother and two siblings.
In class, they work side-by-side, wearing baker's coats and aprons, creating fragrant loaves and flatbreads from flour, yeast, salt and water. After school, they explore the city Flip remembered, enabling him to say goodbye.
The very funny stories of learning to bake are leavened with Schaffer's memories of growing up with an absent father, along with the stories he learns of his father's life. During their week together, Flip begins to let go of the guilt he carried for some 30 years. And even though Schaffer wasn't sure that his father deserved a pardon, he forgave him: He loved Flip and didn't want him to die with remorse. But what Schaffer thought was a gift to his father actually turned out to be a gift to himself.
Schaffer, a criminal defense lawyer who is the author of legal thrillers, lives in Oakland. Soon after their week together in New York, Schaffer got a call that his father wasn't doing well, so he went to South Carolina to be with him. He worries about sounding sentimental, but says it was the best time in his life.
Readers doing an inventory of all aspects of their lives at this time of year may appreciate The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval (Doubleday). The authors' approach is to imbue all dealings with kindness, increasing the compassion, generosity and goodness in the world. They admit that nice has an image problem, that nice gets no respect. The book is a slim self-help book with many ideas, some obvious and others deceptively simple. The authors work together at the Kaplan Thaler Group, an advertising agency: Kaplan Thaler is the CEO and chief creative officer and Koval is the president.
Citing a teaching from the Mussar movement, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins quotes Rabbi Israel Salantar, that one should make decisions all year long as though it were the last moments of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation edited by Elkins (Jewish Lights, $24.99) is a collection of brief pieces by an impressive array of rabbis, professors, communal professionals, activists and writers that relate to the themes and texts of the holiday.
This is a companion to last years' Yom Kippur Readings, also edited by Elkins, to be read in preparation for the holiday, or on the holiday itself, as a supplement to the mahzor.
In Melissa Fay Greene's new book, There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Children (Bloomsbury, $25.95), she turns her considerable reporting skills and large heart to the AIDS crisis in Africa. Her previous groundbreaking and award-winning books include "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing," about the 1958 bombing of Atlanta's oldest and grandest synagogue, a Reform institution known widely as The Temple.
Through the heroic story of one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, who has taken in many children left orphaned when the parents die of AIDS, Greene illuminates the epidemic in all its dimensions -- historical, medical, sociological and personal. But it's her skills as a writer who notices deeply that make this book as compelling as her others.
The book grew out of two magazine articles which garnered tremendous response. She points to ways that readers can help, through activism, microbusiness, individual adoptions, and financial support. Because the numbers are so huge -- millions of children are being left with no one to care for them -- she says in an interview that the real answer is not adoption, but "to stop the death, to keep the children's parents alive."
Greene and her husband have seven children -- two of whom they've adopted from Ethiopia -- who enjoyed spending the summer in Jewish camps. Greene connects her own activism to her experience growing up in the Reform movement in the 1950s and '60s, when the words of the prophets were taught from the pulpit and inspired much activism.
Looking ahead to Rosh Has hanah, Greene speaks of the Book of Life: "Let that book include 25 million Africans affected with HIV who don't want to die. Let us pray not only for our own loved ones to be inscribed in the Book of Life, but for many loved mothers and fathers whose children don't want them to die."
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