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Jews are only about two percent of this country's population, yet most large book stores have a significant number of Jewish books, if not a whole section on Judaism. Why is there such a proliferation of books on Jewish subjects? I think it is because literacy and intellectual curiosity are basic to Jewish life.
Books also can be doorways into Judaism. Often people who are considering conversion, or Jews who are exploring their heritage, ask me where they should begin their exploration. I make various suggestions depending on the person's situation, but my suggestions always include something to read.
Fortunately, we have many choices! Among these choices are a variety of books that fall into the "introduction to Judaism" category. These books span the same broad spectrum as Jewish life itself, from the most general to the most mitzvot, or commandment, observant.
Somewhat unique among these introductory books is Embracing Judaism by Simcha Kling and recently revised by his son-in-law Carl M. Perkins (The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, 1987, 1999). This book is explicitly oriented toward prospective Jews-by-choice. The first chapter, in fact, is "A Personal Story of Conversion" by Rachel Cowan. With a clear and economic style, Cowan describes her journey from her New England Protestant childhood to Jewish wife, mother and active member of the Jewish community. I think a number of readers will identify with her initial doubts and hestiations. Her candor helps us appreciate her growing sense of confidence as she goes through the conversion process. I especially appreciate her comment, "That which was at first awkward for me later became a passion." This is often true not just for converts, but for born Jews who are experimenting with Jewish ritual and increased commitment.
The second chapter also is geared towards potential converts. It is called "Jews By Choice: Then and Now." This chapter gives a brief history of conversion to Judaism and a general description of the conversion process. Subsequent chapters are similar to other introductions to Judaism in that they present a summary and overview of topics such as Jewish texts, theology, holidays and worship.
A special feature of this book is its emphasis on Jewish history. I think it is essential for all Jews, whether by choice or birth, to have some sense of the sweep of our people's history. However, this history is both long and complex, and many Jewish history books are too detailed for the casual reader, as well as, all too often, dry reading as well. I highly recommend the final four chapters of Embracing Judaism, which give an excellent historical overview of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the modern age, the State of Israel and Jewish life in America.
Embracing Judaism is published by the press of the Conservative movement, and reflects that movement's adherence to traditional observances. For example, the book includes an extended introduction to keeping kosher, and the wearing of tallit, or prayer shawls, and tefillin, black leather straps for the arm and head each with a small box containing a scroll upon which is written the Sh'ma prayer. The authors are to be praised for their balanced and unbiased description of variations on these and other traditional rituals as practiced by Reform and other liberal streams of Judaism. However, occasionally this is not the case. As a small example, the practice of pidyon haben ("redemption of the first born") is discussed on page 125, without mention that this ritual is rarely performed in a Reform setting. Although this is a small complaint, I feel it is important to minimize the confusion new learners have about different practices within Judaism's variety of movements.
A knowledgeable Jew should be familiar with a basic set of Hebrew words that describe Jewish rituals, customs and values. To that end, this book uses Hebrew terms fairly generously. This, too, is fitting with its orientation toward Conservative Judaism.
Some potential converts with whom I work are a bit overwhelmed by numerous Hebrew phrases and the details of home ritual or synagogue practice. For them I recommend The Jewish Home, A Guide for Jewish Living by Daniel B. Syme (UAHC Press, New York, 1988). This book emphasizes Jewish holidays and life-cycle events from a Reform perspective. Its question-and-answer format makes it an accessible and clear reference.
Another excellent introduction which the book jacket claims "[spans] the spectrum of liberal Jewish thought--Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, unaffiliated, new age and secular" is Living A Jewish Life by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper (HarperPerennial, New York, 1991). In addition to discussing holidays and life-cycle events, this book covers aspects of the Jewish community (such as service organizations, camps, and day schools), texts, and new Jewish traditions of the past several decades. I use this book as a basic text for conversion students.
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of detail and observance is Rabbi Wayne Dosick's Living Judaism, The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice (HarperCollins, New York, 1995). This impressive book is among the most comprehensive guides to Jewish life. It may not be the right book for a beginner, but it would be a good resource for taking a learner beyond the basics. Interspersed among the more factual chapters, Rabbi Dosick's essays are a wonderful addition to the book. These essays are on topics such as good and evil, prayer, the yearly holiday cycle and the Holocaust. As an introduction to Jewish belief, these essays are alone worth the cost of the book.
For those who wish to go beyond these four books, I recommend the extensive and wisely-selected bibliography at the end of Embracing Judaism. Most of the books in this bibliography have been published within the past twenty years, so they are both contemporary and relatively easy to find.