BELT topics

Working backwards, here is a list of topics we’ve covered, some in more depth than others. Some I even remember what we discussed.

  • Hershel of Ostropol and other Jewish (and maybe secular) tricksters
  • Jewish celebratory foods – what is served at weddings, on holidays, …
  • The dark side of gift giving – re-gifting, unwanted gifts, stories
  • Interfaith marriages
  • Assimilation, mixed marriages and the future of the Jewish people
  • Hanukkah for grownups
  • The Akedah
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Tale of Three Wishes and related folktales
  • “Even Higher” – its origins, different versions, Yiddish literature
  • Sins of the Fathers / Rebellious Sons / Personal Responsibility
  • Jewish superstitions
  • Horses in Jewish literature
  • Eicha / Lamentations
  • Elie Wiesel
  • Learning Talmud with the Oven of Akhnai as an example (by the Rabbi)
  • “It is not in Heaven”: Rabbi Eliezer and the Oven of Akhnai
  • Stumbling blocks
  • Fences
  • Containers
  • Shavuot
  • Jewish Genealogy (by a participant)
  • Connecting to Jewish ancestors
  • Conversos (led by a participant)
  • Israel
  • Yom HaShoah
  •  A Haggadah collection
  • Journey stories
  • Journeys – Benjamin 0 – III
  • Lilith and Eve
  • Elijah stories
  • Art and the artist – how much can you separate great art from despicable artists?
  • Chelm stories
  • A Cloak for the Moon
  • Reb Zusya stories
  • Rabbi Nachman’s “The Turkey Prince”
  • Rabbi Nachman’s “The Treasure” and related stories from Rumi, the Arabian Nights, and England
  • The Sarajevo Haggadah
  • The Aleppo Codex
  • About Face – Panim, Goffman, …
  • Jewish time
  • Numbers
  • Letters – the alef bet
  • Jewish folktales
  • “The Challot in the Ark” and its variations
  • Shavuot stories
  • Ruth
  • Jewish superstitions
  • Children’s Picture Books about the Holocaust
  • The Golem
  • The witches of Ashkelon
  • Marilyn Hirsh’s Could Anything be Worse? and variations
  • Esther
  • Sarah and Hagar
  • Introduction to BELT (November 14, 2013)


I am no longer at Temple Israel.

TILT has morphed into BELT (Beth El Library Talks) and a small group of people meet on a nearly weekly basis and we discuss books that I choose on various topics that they frequently choose. Children’s picture books feature as prominently as I can manage.

This blog is no longer meant to publicize a synagogue library. It is meant to help me organize and share my musings on books and random stuff. The title change relieves me of any obligation I once felt to post weekly.

I changed the format and will change it to something more to my liking SOON!

Uh, I feel I should end this in some inspirational way, but ….

Reading Eicha for Tisha B’Av

In observance of Tisha B’Av, which is next Tuesday, July 16, TILT will explore Eicha (Lamentations):

  • the structure of the five chapters of the book,
  • the trope used for chanting it—the most beautiful of all the tropes, in my opinion,
  • the rules and customs of fast days and the days before,
  • the calamities that have occurred on this day,
  • the concluding verse of the Shabbat Torah service,
  • and more,
  • including the text of Lamentations.

The Temple Israel Library has several copies of the five megillot / scrolls, most with some commentary either before each book or at the bottom of each page.

Check them out!

It was the best day, it was the worst day

Birthday in Kishinev by Fannie Steinberg shows the joys and dangers of growing up Jewish in Russia.

While there is comfort in the main character and her immediate family surviving and thriving, the horrors of a pogrom are described briefly, but in enough detail that I would not recommend this for young children. [SPOILER] After the pogrom is over, a cousin explains, “The Cossacks murdered Kalman and his entire family. We . . . Their bBirthday in Kishinev coverodies were . . .” He stopped to dry his eyes. “It wasn’t possible to have separate funerals. We had to have one family funeral.” [p. 75]

The book starts with a lovely party to celebrate Sarah turning 12 and being seen as a potential bride for a young scholar. But that night, Sunday, April 6, 1903, the Kishinev pogrom starts. Yarina, a Russian woman who works for the family rescues them and even promises to try to kill Sarah’s father if the peasants discover Sarah’s family. The pogrom is so terrible that leaders of other countries ask the Tzar to stop it and he does—which shows that worldwide outrage can affect change. Sarah wonders why the Russians want to get rid of the Jews, but nonetheless won’t let them leave. Someone tells her that they want the boys for the army, but that’s not why.

This is a first novel by a retired woman who took a creative writing course; she writes well and the book does not feel amateurish. Sarah’s family is very observant and Ms. Steinberg explains many of their rituals and actions. When they hurriedly flee their home, Sarah’s parents grab a prayer book, candlesticks, prayer shawl, and Bible. Sarah would have said tallis, not prayer shawl, and siddur, not prayer book, but the audience for this book is not that familiar with her world. I was surprised that men and women danced together at the birthday party, but I think Orthodoxy has become stricter than it was then.

A Bar Mitzvah book

Bar Mitzvah : A Jewish Boy’s Coming of Age by Eric A. Kimmel is a worthwhile book for learning more about the ceremony and Judaism in general. I think it belongs in a synagogue library, especially one used primarily by a religious school.

The book provides a good basic description of Judaism for non-Jewish or less observant guests at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. It is also great for the Bar Mitzvah boy himself. I especially like the two or three page recollections of the event by a variety of men, including Mr. Kimmel and his father (?).

I learned some things: “As if to emphasize the idea of thirteen as a special age, medieval legend tells us that many important biblical figures began fulfilling their destinies when they reached the age of thirteen. Abraham rejected idol worship when he was thirteen years old. At thirteen, Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn from his father, Isaac. Jacob’s son, Joseph, was sold into slavery in Egypt when he was thirteen. Thirteen-year-old David slew the Philistine giant, Goliath. Solomon, David’s son, became king of Israel when he was thirteen years old.” [p. 11] Not only do these commentaries put a new spin on the behavior of these men, but Dr. Kimmel finds a different way to describe being thirteen for each of them. Jacob seems less culpable if he has only recently become responsible for his actions and is used to trusting what his parents, especially his mother, tell him.

Another thing I hadn’t considered: “The practice of reading from the Torah goes back to at least the fourth century B.C.E., when the priest Ezra led the exiles back to Israel from Babylon. Reading a religious book aloud was a revolutionary idea for its time. The priests of other religions jealously guarded their sacred texts. Only priests or those studying to be priests could read them.” [p. 66] The Jewish approach to reading the Bible is in the middle of the extremes of limiting access to texts and believing everyone can understand the text just by sitting down and reading it.

TILT – what’s happening


TILT is now looking at the weekly Torah portion. In theory we look at the portion to be read the following Saturday, although some trips to visit my grandson and family have pushed us back a week. This week, March 20, we looked at two portions to catch up: Vayikra and Tzav—the first two parshiot of Leviticus (1:1 – 8:36).

Over the past few months, we have read most of Exodus and I’ve shared a lot of what I found in The Midrash Says – The Book of Sh’mos by Rabbi Rabbi Weissman. I’ve also used The Five Books of Miriam: A Women’s Commentary on the Torah edited by Ellen Frankel. Everett Fox’s translation of The Five Books of Moses is another favorite source. And I recommend Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus. We try to use as many different translations as there are participants since translation is commentary. I stress that there is no one “right” way to interpret the text, while showing what the rabbinic tradition has read into and pulled out of the text.

For example, last week (March 20), I explained that men gave their jewelry to make the golden calf, but the women refused to do so, not out of vanity but because they did not approve, and so, in recognition of their piety, Rosh Hodesh (the day celebrating the beginning of each Jewish month) became a women’s holiday. Someone pointed out the minor problem that this is not to found in the Biblical text. She was not convinced by the fact that the Hebrew text says the men gave their jewelry, since Hebrew uses the masculine plural to mean both men and women. And I’m sure there are other instances where tradition insists that women are included when the text says men. This led to a discussion of the Oral Torah and the Written Torah and their relative value in Jewish tradition. I love that the text is a living and growing entity.

Reading Esther

In honor of Purim, TILT (Temple Israel Library Talks) on Wednesday, February 27, at 1:30 pm in the Temple Israel library will focus on Megillat Esther (the book/scroll of Esther).

Every year I notice something new. This year I’ve noticed that there are two parties held by the king at the beginning of the book and two parties held by Esther at the end. Also, there’s an awful lot of asking other people for advice and I’m not sure it’s all for the best.

What have you noticed?

Please share.

And Happy Purim!