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Books that matter to me
that you might otherwise not know about

Ideas and stuff that doesn't fit:
Bruce Schneier / Beyond Fear | Jane Jacobs reader | John Berger / Ways of Seeing | Howard Waldrop / Going HomeAgain

Online Community:
Agre & Schuler / Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community | Hiltz & Turoff / The Network Nation | Amy Jo Kim / Community Building on the Web | Derek Powazek / Design for Community | Howard Rheingold / The Virtual Community | Marc A. Smith & Peter Kollock / Communities in Cyberspace

Fernand Baudin / How Typography Works | Elizabeth Eisenstein / The printing press as an agent of change | Ben Shahn / Love and joy about letters | Ruari McLean / The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography | Rosemary Sasson, ed. / Computers and Typography | Jan Tschichold / The Form of the Book

Philip Greenspun / Database Backed Web Sites | Laura Lemay / Teach yourself web publishing with html xxxx in 7 days | Terry Winograd / Bringing Design to Software

Jewish and Israeli:
Ari Elon / From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven | Louis Ginzberg / On Jewish Law and Lore | Kugelmass, Boyarin / From a Ruined Garden | The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amicha | Marcia Falk / Book of Blessings | Ira Steingroot / Keeping Passover

Other resource pages

Mailing lists with which I am involved

Links of interest
currently, virus alerts, typography, online/Jewish community and education

Recommended books
currently: ideas, typography, computers/web, Judaism/Israel

Alternative Jewish Holiday Toolkits

Andy Tannenbaum's Jewish Resource Page

Other sites of interest that I host:


Europe '96 tour

The Klezmer Shack

Many personal web pages seem to be collections of lists, in particular, collections of things by which one would know the person who maintains the page. I have always had a lot of trouble just getting writing that I created up on the web--worrying about artifacts of interest has been of little interest.

In the case of books that matter to me, things have changed. For starters, when I moved to the East Coast from California on my return from Eastern Europe in 1996, I left virtually all of my books in a friend's garage. They are still there. So, while I have done a lot of reading in the last year or so, it has also, often been reading divorced from my familiar favorites. In a few cases, I have broken down and bought new copies of books that I choose not to live with. In addition, some of these books are relatively unknown, and I am happy to recommend them to others and to add a handful of new readers. This page was inspired, in fact, by the desire to promote a Jane Jacobs reader that was all but unavailable now. Finally, most books are available on the web. Even if I can't find a book in the local community library where I live, or in one of the excellent bookstores nearby, or if I don't find it serenditously in one of the excellent used book stores in the area, the odds are very good that I will locate a used copy "chick-chack" (Israeli slang for "lickety split"). And, finally, talking about books is fun, and I enjoy a good narrative, even if I'm the one who is doing the narrating. In that sense, this page is overdue. I will be adding a way to add your own comments or suggetions to this page eventually, but for now, and even after, do feel free to write me at:

Each book is linked to either or to a used book search service. In all cases, you should feel encouraged to use your local library and local new/used bookstores.


Ideas and stuff that doesn't fit categories

Well, this is what this page is about, in a general sense, but a few books come out of none of my usual haunts or categories. The ones whose ideas or writing penetrate and stay are often most worth passing on.

Bruce Schneier / Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, 2003

For years I have discussed risk and security with people and have often been frustrated by the confusion between "but we must do something" and "is it worth it". Security expert Bruce Schneier tackles the subject and explains it far better than I ever did: there is no such thing as absolute security. The things you need to be (or to feel) secure change over time. And just because there is a threat, not all solutions are cost- or otherwise effective. In particular, arming pilots in cockpits is not a great idea. Computerized voting machines don't equate to more accurate election results (but they do open up lots of new ways for election tampering and things to go wrong), online shopping is less risky than many types of shopping and a national id card is a very bad idea. If reading this book makes anyone think more rationally and carefully about threats, risks, and risk assessment, and especially if it causes someone to vote less for rhetoric and more for reality (which, as I type this, pretty much guarantees that you won't vote for a Republican President in 2004), that is already a good thing.

Max Allen, ed. / Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, 1997
(You'll need to do some work to order this--get the price and order info, then follow the links to the Ginger Press ordering page for directions on how to order.)

This is the book that forced this page. It's a wonderful book, poorly marketed and generally unavailable away from the website (which doesn't even enable electronic commerce). After searching bookstores through two trips to Toronto, I finally found my copy in a small art store that had them in the back, ready for shipping back to the publisher (which hasn't yet, as of this writing, even notified the online bookstores like or Barnes and Noble that the book exists). So, what can we do on the web that we can't do otherwise? Draw international attention to nifty stuff, that's what!

I discovered Jane Jacobs' work only recently. I was gadding about Toronto in the Fall of 1997 when I noticed that there were newspaper articles about a conference dedicated to her work. Urban planner? Interesting, but not necessary, right? Then a friend took me to the Art Gallery of Ontario and made us find their "Jane Jacobs exhibit," which turned out to be a handful of sketches with notes about neighborhoods. Still, who was this person so beloved, or so well thought of, that even the local museum wanted to be in on the action? So, I went home and dutifully made my way through Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 magnum opus, the one that changed the way urban planning is done, hopefully forever. It's a great book--worth reading for the pleasure of reading, but it also resonatd with me because what she was saying about physical cities was suspiciously similar to things that I had been saying about online communities: the need for diversity, for short blocks, for renewal a bit at a time.... Then I caught her most recent book on philosophy, Systems of Survival and I was hooked. As part of the Fall 1997 conference, Ginger Press released a scrapbook of articles, a few pictures and letters, that provide a wonderful introduction to her work (including the middle works on economics which I have yet to read), and to her and her family as people. Jacobs is in the best tradition of clear-thinking activists who are good at bringing people together to do things worth doing. I'm focusing late, but if my online community work could be even an order of magnitude less effective than her work, I would feel very fulfilled. Oh, yeah, she's also a wonderful, lively writer, and she gives great footnotes--but you'll have to look at the last page of this volume to see what I mean, or to read page 334 of "Death and Life...."

John Berger / Ways of Seeing, 1972

In some ways, this is one of those pretentious picture books of the Sixties, sort of like McLuhan/Fiore's "The Medium is the Massage." (a good intro to McLuhan, but heaven help us, we have assimilated so much of what he wrote, that going back today one notices more the areas where McLuhan was totally wrong, rather than how much of what he wrote is cliche and canonical now.) But this is where Berger is different. For one thing, Berger is always readable, and almost always worth reading. This collection of essays, some in type, some image essays, all based on a BBC series by the same name, is a damn good place to start. In particular the first essay, repackaging Walter Benjamin's wonderful insights into how mass culture have changed our perception of art, accomplishes the the dual wonder of making us aware of Benjamin (for more on Benjamin's Angel, listen to the Laurie Anderson song, "Hansel and Gretel," among numerous sources), and opening up the whole question of how we see. But that's also what the book is about. I was passing through a bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, when I saw a copy and realized that I would happily pass it on later for the chance to travel with it today, while my original copy was in storage. Good move.

Howard Waldrop / Going Home Again, 1997
(actually, this will link you to the American hardcover, due in July 1998. You can also contact the Australian publisher, Eidolon Publications, for a softcover edition today: PO Box 225, North Perth, Western Australia 6006,

Alternatively, the story is part of Black Thorn White Rose, a 1995 Fantasy collection with updated takes on old fairy tales

This book exemplifies that part about "hard to categorize." I mean, Waldrop is well-regarded as a science fiction/fantasy writer, and he's quite good. I don't read much of either, although when I do, stuff like this is the sort of stuff I like. But his story, "The Sawyers" is the best literary example of musicians playing klezmer that I have seen. In part, this is because no one writes fiction about people playing klezmer. Jazz, sure. Classical or folk music? Yeah, what of it? But klezmer? Name another story in which the band is featured? Name another writer who has caught the experience? (I have some experience in this matter. I don't write fiction, but my Klezmer Shack has a lot of writing about the bands as I hear them, a Jewish child thoroughly Americanized, rediscovering Eastern European roots with everyone else.)


Online Community

In 1986 I posted an article about a recent trip to Nicaragua to a local computer bulletin board. Overnight, there were responses to the article from people I had never met. I was hooked. A few months later I co-founded the Jewish conference on the WELL (and co-moderated for the next 17 years). Now I am exploring new tools for online community. Fortunately, what we once learned by trial and error and conversation (not all online) can now be supplemented by excellent books.

Philip E. Agre and Douglas Schuler, Eds / Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community, 1997

Despite horrifying production values - primarily a typeface too small for aging eyes to read comfortably - this is an excellent collection of artists lauding, and sometimes warning against online community. Subtitled: "critical explorations of computing as a social practice" this is still worth reading six years later.

Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff / The Network Nation, revised 1993

This is where it all began - the first book describing online community - how it works, and why it makes financial and social sense. I used the author's first (?) system at the New Jersey Institute of Technology for a decade teaching graduate students online (for the New School, in NYC). For its time, it was quite exciting. I haven't followed subsequent events, but I would be surprised if they were less groundbreaking.

Amy Jo Kim / Community Building on the Web, 2000

When people ask me how one designs and runs an online community, this is the book I recommend. Kim has worked with everything from command line interfaces to avatars. She has a deep understanding of how one creates, moderates, sustains online community, regardless of the surface medium. And she writes well, succinctly.

Derek Powazek / Design for Community, 2002

It was Derek Powazek and this book that got me thinking about new ways of creating online community - about what happens when you use weblogs and comments and turn every piece of content into something that people can respond to. Delightfully written, well-thought-out, and nicely illustrated. For people trying to start out, I would say that this and Kim's book are the two essential pieces.

Howard Rheingold / The Virtual Community, revised 2000

Howard Rheingold's "mind" conference on the WELL was mind-blowing. I would guess that I have learned most of what I know about building online community and looking at it with continually new eyes, from him. He is a wonderful writer, as well. The revised edition of this book, covering virtual communities around the world, and with the new chapter on the WELL, is especially delightful. Don't feel bad about discovering his other works, too.

Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock, 1999

So far, the best collection of actual sociological data and analysis on how people interact online. This is the first stop for people trying to understand what is different about online community and what can be usefully measured. I do think that commercial online systems create dynamics beyond what are documented here, but I haven't seen the papers that usefully explore that dimension better than what is here. In particular, I call attention to the work on stereotyping online - it's a big problem, and the reality creates some difficult, unfortunate boundaries. If we could shake things up and work around that, we'd open lots of new doors.


Typography and Printing

To a large extent, typography has been my religion: Working with type, especially Hebrew, has been my spiritual grounding, my artistic and craft fulfillment, and wonderful meditation. I am most fortunate in being grounded in this way. I could easily list dozens of books, but here are the ones that I couldn't live without and had to either bring with me or repurchase. In checking out links for these books, I found a website devoted to books on typography. While all of my opinions should be understood as the word from Mt. Sinai, Type Books: For the Well-Read Typographer is a nice place to get alternative reviews and to find out about more books on the subject. I believe that they also have a bookstore.

Fernand Baudin / How Typography Works (And Why It Is Important), 1989
( will search for a used copy, but you might have better results using MX Bookfinder

There is no better introduction to typography and why it matters than this handlettered volume by Baudin, a European (Belgian?) handwriting master and general bon vivant. I love the book as an introduction to the subject, and I love listening to Baudin speak whenever I get the chance. Of course, if you can't find this book, you can achieve some illumination from a wonderful book by Robin "The Mac is not a Typewriter" Williams, "The Non-Designer's Design Book : Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice". She has a web design book out, too, but I have never seen it.

Elizabeth Eisenstein / The printing press as an agent of change, 1979

I picked this up years ago, having read a history of the Jewish Bund just prior in which their early years were described as a desperate attempt to (a) keep the printing press hidden, and (b) to conduct literacy classes so that the masses could read and learn about socialism. It was an impressive counter to the idea of the bomb-throwing revolutionary (Emma Goldman's unfortunate choice in men comes to mind), but that isn't what this book is about. Instead, Eisenstein goes through an amazing panoply of changes that came about as a result of Gutenberg's invention, things that range from the idea of authorship and alphabetization and even regionalizations, to the generally assumed role it played it making the renaissance "stick," with scientific progress finally heading out of the middle ages, and, the possibility of individual bible study--literacy for the masses!--and all that led to. Once you read Eisenstein, you will neither regard the printing press as a minor invention again, nor will you look at any invention as of limited, predictable, containable impact. I have the original two volumes in one humongous paperback version. There is also a condensed version of the book, "The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe". That may be enough, eh.

Ben Shahn / Love and joy about letters, 1963
(or check for a used copy--note the ISBN: 052 1299 551, at MX Bookfinder

The first thing I do when I am exploring a new bookstore, especially a used bookstore, is to look for Ben Shahn titles. Shahn was a contemporary of Diego Rivera, and shares some similarities in terms of art, inspiration, and politics. It was a great pleasure, years ago, to marry his "four-man band" painting with the words of one of Shahn's heroes, Rilke, and a typeface, then new, by my friend Jovica Veljovic (Ex Ponto, from Adobe. A marvellous script. I was going for a bit of a grunge, minimal leading look at the time.) in a broadside. But, we were talking about lettering, and this specific book. To people like me, Ben Shahn is the god of letters. He wasn't just facile, like, say, Walt Kelly whose delightful changes of lettering helped represent different characters in the Pogo cartoon strips. Shahn knew lettering to the core. He shares for instance, what the lithographer to whom he was apprenticed at age 14 taught him about letterspacing (which was, in turn, taught to me by Dave Blake, of turnaround, in Berkeley, who also introduced me to Ben Shahn):

Imagine that you have a small measuring glass. It holds, of course, just so much water. Now, you have to pour the water out of the glass into the spaces between the letters, and every one has to contain exactly the same amount--whatever its shape....

And this is the book he wrote to describe that love and that lore of lettering and of typography. The book is also amply illustrated with some of Shahn's best work, much of which uses his graffiti- and hand-lettered-sign-derived "folk alphabet."

This is the sort of book you read a few times to learn about lettering and what it means, and then pull out when you want to be cheered up, or to look at wonderful art and lettering. I am especially inspired by the way he combines Hebrew and English on pieces like "Behold how good...." ("Hinei mah tov...") Anyway, when I last saw my friend, Jovica, he didn't have a copy of the book, so before leaving Berkeley, I talked with my friend John McBride at Moe's Books, on Telegraph Ave (exceeded only by Powell's Books in Portland, OR, as my favorite bookstore anywhere), who fixed me up with an okay "travel copy." But my own copy is still in storage, so Jovica will have to either find his own, or wait. It is not conceivable that I would voluntarily not have this book to read or to view. Shahn's ability to articulate his thoughts about art in a broader sense are also available in a small paperback which contains little of his art, but all of a wonderful series of lectures about art, and about the role of the artist in society, given at Harvard in 1956-1957, The Shape of Content. Shahn, for me, is more than a great artist. In his ability to combine wonderful art with social conscience he has been one of my role models.

Ruari McLean / The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography, 1992

My friend Briem never fails to mention this as an excellent reference to typography and all that it entails. I was quite thrilled when it became available in the US as a relatively inexpensive paperback. McLean does, in fact, present a good grounding in everything from the technology (current through desktop publishing), types of type, and even the important rules of thumb (a line of type should never exceed 10-12 words, or about 60-65 characters, for readability). This is an important book to have and to refer to, but it doesn't inspire. (That may be what makes it worth recommending.) I would refer this book a thousand times over advertisements for "isn't type cool and groovy" (Spiekermann & Ginger's "Stop Stealing Sheep"), or even to the inspired work of an exceptional amateur (Robert Bringhurst's "The Elements of Typographic Style," covers much good information, and does it superbly, but is also divorced from all realities of professional production).

Regardless of how you get there, I will say this: Anyone who thinks that they can design effectively for the web without being grounded in typography and in page design is unlikely to produce penetrable or useful, or for that matter, graceful web pages. (The opposite, unfortunately, isn't true, or I would be dazzling you with my own pages.)

Rosemary Sassoon, ed. / Computers and Typography, 1993

I sometimes forget that I actually once wrote a chapter in a book. As it happens, the book was a very interesting volume edited by handwriting and calligraphy marvel. Rosemary Sassoon. I feel somewhat overshadowed by the breadth of the book, which contains the printed version of Briem's "Introduction to Text Massage," the world's wittiest and clearest introduction to typography, to Fernand Baudin's wonderful article on teaching handwriting (a "must read" just to understand why this matters and how to do it well; it is from Baudin that I understand the "page" as a real concept), as well as articles on every aspect of typography and the computer issues that arise when typography matters.

My own article is entitled "Digital Hebrew in a Monolingual World" and is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Type90. Since the computer files have disappeared, this may be the only way to read it at this point, should you be tempted. The publisher has a page up with basic information about the book. Purchase copies for all your friends so that some one will force Rosemary to do a sequel! (No, I get no residuals. Just as well.)

Jan Tschichold / The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design

Well, you aren't going to be in doubt as to Tschichold's views on any subject relating to printing, typography, or design. The thing is, most often, he's right. This is the premier typographer of our century laying down the law, unequivocably. I'm not saying that he doesn't address some issues that have become obviated over time, but whenever I find myself scoffing, and then mess around just to see, I most often find that he was right. Tschichold, for instance, gives you the rules for good page layout and tells you how to implement those rules. Bringhurst gives you 20 alternatives and no reasonable way to decide. It was Tschichold's writing that first made me think about tables and the rules we put around them, or to separate rows and columns. He points out that, for the most part, using rules around or in tables is an indication that the table has not been thought out. I used to tell my students that they were free to disregard Tschichold and to make their work represent their own time and place, but until they had read and explored Tschichold they were amateurs. Afterwards, they were making informed decisions.

I better stop here. Writing about Tschichold reminds me of how much I enjoy rereading Walter Tracy's Letters of Credit, which says so much so well about type design (including a chapter on Tschichold's "Sabon"), all which will lead even further into the glorious swamp of wonderful books on typography.... No, I will stop here. Go explore Briem's page, or the Type Book site--I've got typographic links around here, somewhere


Computers, the Web, Technical

This will probably be the shortest section, even though most of the books I buy are computer books of some form or another. But then, six months later, they get recycled. There aren't any classic works on, say, Borland Turbo Pascal, that really, really are worth recommending today. On the other hand, sometimes you watch people floundering because they walked into the bookstore and bought the latest of thickest useless book. For those (and for the people who steered me right), here are a few titles worth knowing about.

Laura Lemay / Web Publishing with HTML 4.0 in a Week, 1997

No one explains HTML, and more importantly, how to design a good web page, than Laura Lemay. Personally, I didn't find the 4.0 edition to be an improvement over my html 3.2 edition--If you can find a used version of that, go for it! (You may find people who have ditched it in favor of "upgrading".) But this is still the best introduction to understanding the web and web design. Whatever you do, though, don't get the heavily padded, hardback, "professional" editions. Her publisher lucked out with Lemay--she put content, not shovelware, in the original book, but my experience with SamsNet books is usually quite the opposite, and the "professional" versions of this series show them flying their usual colors (in my opinion). I believe that Lemay is now working on a perl/cgi book, and it is unlikely that she will be doing further editions of this book. Indeed, the 4.0 stuff in this edition was seemingly tacked on by Arman Danesh, not Lemay.

Philip Greenspun / Database Backed Web Sites, 1997

I believe quite strongly that a good website that has lots of data should be run out of a database. (I'm working on it for several of the ones I host. It's hard to re-learn SQL on a full schedule.) Greenspun does a good job of explaining the issues and of providing tools, but what makes the book is his first chapter: "Envisioning a Site that won't be featured in". The material is all available online, as well as access to some fun tools, but for bathroom reading and sharing with friends, the dead trees edition is essential.

Terry Winograd / Bringing Design to Software, 1996

This is one of those absolutely delicious collections (not dissimilar, in some ways, to Addison-Wesley's "Pattern Design of Software" books) that talks about how one designs software sanely: software that fits the human hand, and that actually makes it out of the box. Every so often, it is also about mistakes. Winograd and the others have edited a collection which ranges from Mitch Kapor to Don Norman. This is the sort of book that makes you realize that you don't have to design software by jumping in and coding, and gives you tools to do better. But it is also something more than, say, The Mythical Man Month. There are a diverse series of case histories, and a strong case made that software can be designed--and how to go about it.


Jewish and Israeli

The Holocaust, and in its own way, the creation of the State of Israel, cut off debate over what it means to be Jewish in this century. The first event slaughtered the participants in the debate; the second seemingly obviated the discussion for a few decades. Neither event can be ignored, both must be studied and their stories passed on (Israel is a story still unfolding). And now there are new books renewing the broader discussion as we pass the midway point of our 57th century. Enjoy!

Ari Elon / From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven, English, 1996

This is a book that was suggested just recently on Virtual Ashkenaz. I got it, got into it slowly and reluctantly. Elon is an Israeli "hiloni," secularist, who also teaches and studies Talmud. Ostensibly, this book is about freeing up the sourcebook of much of Jewish philosophy from the domain only of the fundamentalists. But the book is also a mediation on being Jewish in Israel and what that means. Translator Tikva Frymer-Kensky has done an amazing job of turning Israeli and Talmudic Hebrew into meaningful, literate Feminist English. The typography, I must note, is embarrassing. Jewish Publication Society has been making books worth reading for over a century. They should know better.

The last two chapters are especially intense. intense. The penultimate chapter gets into the mind of the talmid khakam, the scholar of the talmud who has, essentially, made of the Torah a bride. It ends with the story of the four rabbis who made it to Paradise. Of them it is written: Ben Zoma looked and was wounded. Ben Azzai: looked and died. Only two remained whole in body and spirit: Rabbi Akiva and Elisha ben Avuya. But there is a difference. Akiva returns to the yeshiva (and not mentioned in the text, for foreshadowed for those who know their history, will be flayed by the Romans after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the last stand of Jewish statehood as a precondition of Jewish identity prior to the formation of the modern state--more in a second). Elisha ben Avuya doesn't return. He moves on, and gets a new name, "Other." To Elon, it is Avuya, along among the rabbis, who was able to view Paradise, allow himself to be moved and changed, and yet, to remain whole.

This contrasts quickly with the last chapter which is less about Talmud in its surface, than about the process of serving reserve duty, while the Israeli soldiers in his company degrade and humiliate the Palestinians surrounding them in Gaza City. It is both an emotional statement about what the occupation has done to Israelis, but also an amazing extension of Talmud, and of understanding and accepting the Palestinian's right to anger under those circumstances, and a very specific stating of their humanity, of their humanity and, in a sense, their presence as talmidei khakham, scholars of Jewish law.

This is a transforming book. I'll need to read it again in a few months.

Louis Ginzberg / On Jewish Law and Lore, 1955
The 1970 Macmillan reprint is out of stock--try MX Bookfinder

Ginzberg is better known for an authoritative (but not so compellingly rendered) multi-volume set of Jewish legends. I first encountered this book during my year in college at Hebrew University. I was busily being atheistic at the time, a point of view to which I return on occasion (although it gives me far less comfort than the idea that there is a god, but that the entity we know by that name has no particular interest in human affairs in the specific, or in humanity, particularly). Ginzberg was not an atheist, actually, that's just the personal setting in which I encountered this book.

This commemorative collection of essays made much of Jewish scholarship both current and accessible to me. In particular, his essay on "The significance of Halachah for Jewish history," noting that the difference between Hillel and Shamai was not, as we had often been told, the difference between strict and liberal, but rather, between classes. The discovery that Jews had responded to class differences nearly two thousand years ago, and that they had responded in ways that make me proud today, was only overshadowed by the exposure to a breadth of Jewish thought that I had missed in Day School.

From "Jewish Folklore:" In discussing the origins of the legends: "I have refrained from speculating on their racial, national, or religious characteristics because of the subjective nature of such a speculation. Such attempts remind one of the legend about the manna which is said to have had a different taste to everybody who partook of it. True criticism, however, must rise not only above the prejudgements of conventional thinking, but also above the predilections of one's own personal taste."

In an age where a particularly primitive form of Jewish fundamentalism has overtaken "orthodox" circles, in which the brand of toothpaste used by Moses can be specified as though it were written in the Bible, which was, as we all know, written by God, Ginzberg's scholarship is both welcome, and a welcome antidote to the notion that village superstition need define Judaism or Jewishness. It is also a reminder not to cut our roots to spite those who have claimed them so insultingly. It was Moses Maimonides who said (to the best of my memory) that followers of a tradition cannot accept responsibility for every odd belief attributed to them by others. ("Jerusalem," the book that launched the Jewish "Englightenment," I guess). This volume is an antidote to all that. And now I have a new-to-me edition, decommissioned, for a song, from a local library. The fools.

Jack Kugelmass, Jonathan Boyarin, eds. / From a Ruined Garden, 1985

When this came out in 1985, I remember protesting that, surely, we had Holocaust books enough in the world. Then I read the introduction with its description of the breadth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust, and began reading through the book. This volume is a collection of excerpts from "yizker bikher," the memorial books written by survivors of the Holocaust to immortalize their towns. "[The books were] written collectively, usually by a combination of emigrants and survivors. Many of these books were written right after the war but many were only written in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Usually these books are written by non-professional writers meaning that people just told stories about their town, Jewish holidays and family." (Elissa Sampson, from Virtual Ashkenaz).

On those terms, the book might have been memorable, but what Kugelmass and Boyarin did was search painstakingly through the YIVO archives to ensure that the collection illustrates how much more life in Eastern Europe prior to Hitler was than Anatevka and "Fiddler on the Roof" From the humorous, "most towns have a fool, our town was so small that our fool was only half crazy" to the poignant description of the first meeting of a village Zionist society that was also its last--in the morning, the German's came, this is Jewish life in the big cities, as well as the "stetlach" in all of its quest for "what does it mean to be and to live Jewish in the 20th century." That debate was cut off by Hitler, and only recently revived. This book is a wonderful, essential place to start. And, as I said, the Introduction is one of the best places to get a sense of the context and the real enormity of what it means to destroy not only six million people, but the diversity and experimentation and variety of six million dreams. "From a Ruined Garden" is a memorial book in the best sense; it makes it possible for us, more than fifty years on, to begin picking up the threads and reweaving Jewish.

As of July, 1998, the Jewish Genealogical Society's Yizher-Bikher project has put online three translated chapters of the new edition of From A Ruined Garden. The three translated chapters are about Polish and Russian towns including Minsk. They can be accessed at: (Elissa Sampson).

Yehuda Amichai / Selected poetry of Yehuda Amichai, 1996
The hardcover edition is ten years older, but this is more portable and less expensive. If you want the older one, try MX Bookfinder.

I don't remember when I first encountered Amichai's poetry. I think I found a collection at a Jerusalem book fair, and leafed through, astonished to discover that Hebrew poetry didn't have to be as bad as Chaim Nahman Bialik. Or maybe it was just that everyone I knew read him, and that many of my favorite artists set his wandering poetry to music. It never occurred to me to read the poems translated into English, though, until I found this wonderful, wonderful edition with translations by two of my favorite translators: Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, both of whom have done extraordinary work with Hebrew ranging from the book of Job and Song of Songs to more contemporary poets. A few of Amichai's poems have been set to music. They are always strange songs--he doesn't write in conventional rhymes, but no one writing good poetry in our age does. Here are a few lines from "You can rely on him":

Joy has no parents. No joy ever
learns from the one before, and it dies without heirs,
But sorrow has a long tradition,
handed down from eye to eye, from heart to heart.

To me, Amichai's poems not only touch a quiet place and express love of life, but they also chronicle what it means to be in Israel, to grow up, to go to war, to live in a land ancient and threatened, and to want peace with one's neighbors who are more similar than different, even to their separation from us by politicians. Amichai also writes about love and about children, about the mundane things that mark our deepest feelings and connections. Other than a few William Carlos Williams or Denise Levertov, (and poetry written by friends) he is one of the few poets I have discovered who has given me rest as an adult.

Marcia Falk / Book of Blessings, 1996

Wrestling with alternative forms of prayer has been a major concern among Jewish "alternative" and "new age" circles for many decades. Falk has come up with ways of expressing prayers that avoid the pitfalls of "he or she", while also focusing attention on the divine. This is useless as a prayer book, standing by itself, but invaluable as a reference and as an inspiration. I do not approve of the typography, of which I wrote more when the book came out.

Ira Steingroot / Keeping Passover, 1995

Subtitled, "Everything You Need to Know to Bring the Ancient Tradition to Life and Create Your Own Passover Celebration" this book is, in its own way, a continuation of Ira's work as a bookbuyer at Berkeley's wonderful Cody's Books. For years Ira has ensured that Cody's had the largest selection of Hagadas for sale, from stapled together local editions, to the ornate reproductions of medieval booklets. In this book, he takes things further, explaining Passover customs, alternatives, recipes, all with a wonderful talent for narrative, and a lovely sense that on Passover, at the seder, one must fulfil the mitzvah to retell the story of the exodus in a manner appropriate to one's time and year. This book is also the perfect starting point to discovering what a seder is and the significance of the holiday. This book is a blessing.


in association with amazon.comI like the idea that if you read about a book you can purchase it. But I like even more the idea that you'll read about a book here and ask your friends to borrow it, check the library, check the local used or new bookstores. Part of the idea of the web is enabling people to get 'hold of resources. If purchasing it from the nice folks at helps, I'm happy to take a cut, but that's not why this page is here. [back]

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