Feeling drawn toward Judaism after having grown up in a different religion (or no religion whatsoever!) comes with a lot of questions. What exactly do I need to know in order to become and feel Jewish? What do those Hebrew words mean? What’s up with that holiday I’ve never heard of? Wait, what happened in Spain in 1492, and why on earth didn’t they teach us about this in school???
As I started my own path to Judaism, I realized almost immediately, as most converts do, how very much I had to learn. Three patient rabbis and a pack of Jewish friends filled in a lot of the blanks for me, but as a voracious lifelong bookworm, my biggest source of information were the stacks upon stacks of books the People of the Book have penned about the beautiful tradition that has defined their lives. While synagogues and Introduction to Judaism classes often come with their own reading lists (which contain amazing and informative suggestions!), it was in moving beyond these lists that I was able to delve deeper into the exquisite tapestry that is Judaism, and the dazzling array of ways there are to be Jewish.
These are some of the books that helped me along my journey. If you’re exploring Judaism and contemplating conversion, maybe they’ll help you, too.
A lot of classes recommend tried-and-true favorites; “Jewish Literacy” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and “Choosing a Jewish Life” and “Living a Jewish Life” by Anita Diamant are excellent starting points, but it was “To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking” by Rabbi Harold Kushner that first introduced me to the richness of Judaism. His descriptions of the holidays and lifecycle events, alongside his detailed breakdown of how different Jewish and Christian interpretation of the same scriptures can be, changed my line of thinking from, “Is there something here for me?” to, “I think this might be where I belong.”
“Why Be Jewish?: A Testament” by Edgar M. Bronfman expands upon Rabbi Kushner’s thinking and explores the benefits and beauty of Judaism from a more secular perspective. Bronfman didn’t consider himself religious, but he still recognized the importance of the lessons learned from Jewish writings and the participation in rituals and holidays. I found myself nodding along at so much of what he wrote. If you’re unsure of where you stand theologically but Judaism is still calling out to you, this is a gentle introduction to some earthly reasons why Judaism rocks so hard.
But it was Sarah Hurwitz’s masterpiece, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism” that had me sobbing buckets, taking pages of notes, and recognizing that this was home. I had never thought beyond the concept of God being an angry old man all-caps yelling in the sky, but her book taught me how much deeper Jewish thinking goes. God as a process? God as what’s present between two people who are making a heartfelt connection? God as us??? My mind was blown over and over again, and it was what I learned in these pages that confirmed for me the existence of my Jewish soul. It wasn’t long after finishing this book that I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at a local synagogue. It’s that powerful.
Extra credit: If you’ve got the time for it, George Robinson’s “Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals” is a whopper of a tome that explains all the ins and outs of Judaism; if you’re pressed for time, “Basic Judaism” by Milton Steinberg is a spiritual overview by a deep thinker (don’t be fooled by its smaller size: Steinberg makes you work for every sentence!).
Fear not, fiction readers! Novels are absolutely a part of Jewish learning, and I’ve been fortunate to come across so many great ones (and don’t think you’re confined to the adult shelves, either; middle grade and YA authors pack an emotional and educational punch).
“As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg and “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant are two books that frequently (and rightfully!) show up on conversion reading lists, but “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks deserves a place there as well. Illuminating the story of the Sarajevo haggadah that had once been thought to be lost forever, Brooks brings her readers into the Jewish past in Spain, Italy and Bosnia (content warnings exist here for rape, torture, slavery and various other forms of violence). There was a lot of history here I hadn’t previously been familiar with and I found myself fascinated.
The Holocaust is a subject all converts must face, and many novelists have tried their hand at reckoning with the incomprehensible horrors of it. Two young adult novels that don’t shy away from the devastation but which make for moving reads include “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen and “What the Night Sings” by Vesper Stamper. Yolen sends a young teenager back in time to a Polish shtetl just before everyone is forced away to a death camp; Stamper combines art and language to paint a picture of the aftermath of World War II, with flashbacks to young survivor Gerta’s life prior to the Nazi devastation, illustrating the courage and strength necessary to find a way forward. I’m not sure there are words enough to adequately capture the heartbreaking loss and trauma of the Holocaust, but these two unforgettable novels provide an honest look at a painful topic.
Extra credit: Chaim Potok’s poignant coming-of-age stories of two young Jewish men and their fathers, and their very different practices and ways of looking at the world, bring 1940s Williamsburg to life in “The Chosen” and “The Promise.” Orthodoxy wasn’t my path, but these books taught me a lot about observance, Jewish thinking and friendship. Bring tissues.
When you don’t grow up Jewish and don’t have Jewish memories or traditions to fall back on, reading about how other Jews live makes for a great way to learn what your options are among the vast spectrum of living Jewishly.
After discovering some long-kept family secrets, a lot of things begin to make sense in Alison Pick’s life, a story she narrates in her conversion-specific “Between Gods: A Memoir.” Her path towards Judaism and eventual homecoming is an emotional one, fraught with twists, turns, and the questioning all of us on this journey are intimately familiar with.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg blesses Twitter with her big-T-and-small-t Torah teaching every day, and her memoir, “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion,” highlights her in-depth thinking in longer form. Having once been unsure as to my own relationship with the Divine, I was intrigued by her story of how a woman can shift from being an avowed atheist to becoming a rabbi and one of Judaism’s most influential voices. Her slow and steady exploration of beliefs and adaptation of practices inspired me to consider what I wanted for my own Jewish life, and her search for meaning mirrored my own. If you’ve ever questioned where someone like you could possibly fit in Judaism, Rabbi Ruttenberg’s memoir may provide some answers.
There are so many ways to live a Jewish life, and Marra B. Gad offers one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read in “The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl.” The racism she’s experienced in Jewish spaces is painful to read (and a good reminder of how much work we still need to do), but her story of caring for an elderly and horrifically racist family member at the end of her life reminds us to examine the actions we must take in order to make who we want to be a reality.
Extra credit: If you’re still trying to figure out what Shemini Atzeret is, or you’re looking for a more nuanced take on Hanukkah, nothing beats Abigail Pogrebin’s “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” And for a glimpse of the courage necessary to live a Jewish life that’s authentic and personal, “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman” by Abby Chava Stein is pure gold.
Those of us who have come to Judaism later in life or who have found ourselves a little Jew-curious are fortunate for the rich literary tradition that Jews have always been a part of, and the many books out there we can learn from. If you’re thinking that maybe the People of the Book are your people too, these books are an excellent jumping-off point for your further contemplation.
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