8 Books for 8 Days. (Chanukah is coming!)


Chanukah is approaching and I am interested in hearing from folks;  what are your top 8 books for this Chanukah?  Based on feedback, I will be posting a list of “8 Books for 8 Days (of Chanukah)”. So please share the books you suggest. They don’t have to be connected to Chanukah but…they ought to be great books with Jewish content. So, what have you been reading?What have you loved reading lately? I look forward to hearing from you!  Please post your choices here on the Awesome Book Blog. Thanks

The Talmud as an App? Wow.

artscroll gemara I work with some of the editors “behind the scenes” of the new ArtScroll Talmud App.  I have seen them labor for a long time on every detail of helping put this App together. I was finally given a brief tour today of the App and it is simply amazing.  The written Talmud may be the most linked, non-digital book ever written. Small footnotes and symbols throughout the text and the commentaries direct the learner to an endless wealth of source text, commentaries, legal opinions and much more.  So the fact that a digital version of the Talmud exists is not surprising at all.  And this is not the first one. But watching this Talmud app in action is really extraordinary. There are so many links to important material as well as translations to English when needed.  It seems to have the user in mind.  I hope it will only help those who want to further their Jewish learning.

In the wake of the conversation here last week about the challenges facing Jewish publishing, seeing this App shows there is a lot of creativity out there and a willingness (and ability) to use technology in the service of the Torah and Jewish learning.  I know many feel that this weakens the learner,  takes away the motivation to learn Aramaic and really struggle with the text. There is a lot of truth to that. At the same time, it is hard (impossible?) to avoid technology and the desire to be where people “are at”. It will be interesting to see how this develops and how much a part (and in which ways) of Jewish life this sort of digital learning format will become.

Is something hurting Orthodox Jewish publishing?

kids reading
If we want books, we need publishers. Right?

I met today with the CEO and Editor in Chief of a well regarded publisher in NY (where else?). Their market is primarily the Orthodox Jewish English speaking market – probably mostly North America and Israel.

These fellows have been in the business for decades and really know their stuff.  The CEO raised a question which I found very interesting.  It was something like this:  “If the Orthodox Jewish community is growing at the rapid rate everyone says it is, and everyone is “having 9 kids, who then go and have 9 kids, why are we often selling less books than we did 20 years ago? What is cannibalizing Jewish publishing?”

Good questions. This CEO pointed to some culprits which, in his opinion, are responsible for sales shrinking for at least some titles:

1. The incredible success of Orthodox Jewish publishing.  Success might be a problem in this case. Over the past few decades there has been an explosion in the number of  books published with Orthodox readers in mind.  There are so many new titles, reprints and classics that an average consumer can’t buy them all.  So even if more books are being purchased these days, others will be getting left at the store and in bigger numbers than in the past when there were less choices.

2. Libraries – many people are using the library for getting new books rather than purchasing them. While not a new phenomenon, the impact seems greater than in the past.

3. The “new” Orthodox Jewish media – in the Orthodox Jewish English reading “world” there are now 2 hugely popular weekly magazines which didn’t exist 10 years ago (Mishpacha and Ami) and  a large, almost national newspaper, Hamodia,  (in addition to scores of local papers). One can argue about exactly which magazines and newspapers people are reading – but the massive growth and popularity of this media is self-evident.

As the CEO put it “the magazines are packed with news, stories and the serials which keep a family busy and talking for days and they cost about $5….so why buy a book? It is content, content, content.  But not from books.” In the general market, content which “substitutes” for books is more of the on-line variety.  But the impact on the publishing world may be similar.

It has become a truism that for Orthodox Jews, who do not use computers or e-book readers on the Sabbath or most holidays, there will always be a place for books. Yet,  if magazines are filling the need for reading content, and libraries can provide books for free to those who want them – what happens to book publishing?

We discussed how it seems clear (to us, at least) that it is in the public interest that  publishers bring out books.  Is it possible to encourage consumers to consider and get behind this? Can consumers become supporters of book publishing because they see it as a good thing, sort as some people “support the arts”?





Natan Sharansky, Jeremy Barkan z”l and Jewish Heroism

Last night I had the sad honor of attending a program in memory of Jeremy Barkan z”l the late husband of dear friend Lisa Barkan. Jeremy passed away after a number of heroic medical struggles leaving behind a legacy of kindness, idealism and optimism.

Jeremy Barkan z”l

Lisa invited Natan Sharansky to speak and it was a deeply moving experience.  I have heard him speak a number of times and he is a regular in the news so I was unprepared be so impacted by Sharansky’s talk.  Soon after his release from Soviet prison I was at his first public lecture to students and  it was quite an “event” but I do not recall his speech being very strong. In fact I remember barely understanding his English.

Last night was different.

Natan spoke of being in a KGB prison facing a potential death sentence. He described the KGB efforts to break his will and his decision to remain spiritually free even if he was locked in a Soviet dungeon.  He connected his experiences to the decisions of Jeremy to stay positive, upbeat and to live life to the fullest despite harrowing experiences.

He explained that becoming an active Jew in the USSR was more than just a dissident act, it was joining the chain of Jewish history. His life was now more than just a career and physical survival in the rough reality of a communist state, it now had significance that went beyond his own personal existence.  Sharansky explained that his decision to stay free and not submit to KGB threats took on important meaning. He sensed  that his behavior with the KGB could have great impact far beyond his own personal life.

Those words rang loud and true.

His heroic acts, his statements and those of his wife were calls to me and many friends to live beyond our personal interests.  Reading the book Sharansky published in freedom, Fear No Evil was of great import to me and thousands of others.  The details of the book revealed how heroic he had actually been.

Fear No Evil. Read this book and share it widely!

Many times I have brought up Natan Sharansky’s name with young guests we have hosted.  I am always still surprised that most of them don’t know who he is.  They also know very little (if anything) about the heroic struggle of Soviet Jewry. It is sad and not because of some nostalgic sense of “gee, the kids today don’t know anything.”  It is because heroes  offer guidance and shed light on what is really important in life. It is because not knowing about this struggle and these people means they are missing out.

How many Jewish heroes are there today?

Jewish newspapers today are filled with lists of Jewish leaders or innovators changing the world in one way or another and hi-tech success stories in Israel fill many hearts with pride. Who knows how hard it was for the folks at WAZE to insist that Google not close down their Israeli office as a condition for sealing a deal. It is inspiring to see people standing up for something good and looking beyond their own good fortune.

And yet, it is different.

Jeremy Barkan z”l was a hero for his family and his community. He influenced and touched an incredible number of people professionally, Jewishly and personally.  He is an inspiration and an example.

Sharansky is a hero of a national scale. And there are many other heroic Jews who fought the Communist system as well. He and his fellow fighters for Jewish freedom are of a different era and level of sacrifice. I hope the suffering of the Communist system will never return and never squeeze humans to the point where many break and others produce heroic lives.  At the same time, I hope the examples of lives and decisions such as those of Natan Sharansky will serve as inspiration for more people.  Especially for people who don’t realize that heroes like Sharansky are walking the streets of Jerusalem, maybe even right past them on a Shabbat afternoon!

People don’t have to be in KGB jails to live meaningfully. But inspiration and knowledge are important to living such lives.  Books such as Fear No Evil  can be important tools to getting there.

The Top 50 Hebrew Books of All Time – In Honor of Book Week (from Makor Rishon)


In honor of Israel’s Book Week, the popular Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon  published results of a reader poll of the top 50 Hebrew books of all time.  The poll was run via their weekend magazine (so hip it hurts)  Motzash  which means “Saturday night” in a slangy sort of way. The poll picked many books which, in my opinion,  quite simply had to be on the list. But, as is the case with such polls, more recent titles seem to slip through to the top.  I can’t help but think  this is a case of recent literary memory winning over books read years ago. As always, “out of sight, out of mind”.

Regardless, this is an worthwhile list and many of the titles have been translated into English. For those interested in improving their Hebrew or becoming more familiar with the cultural context of Israeli life,  try to read in Hebrew! If you are relatively fluent, keep a dictionary nearby and look up a few words here and there or use the context to help you and “lo yikre klum” as they say in Hebrew….nothing (bad) will happen!

A look at the top five:

First place is  Our Holocaust by Amir Guttfreund.   A prize winner, a mega-bestseller.  Historical fiction which offers an inside look at how the holocaust touched (touches) so much of Israeli life.

Second place is  Tale of Love & Darkness by Amos Oz. Bestseller translated into over 20 languages! Autobiographical, first published in 2002.

Third:  Adjusting Sights by Haim Sabato.  A bestselling game changer in Israeli literature as it is historical fiction/memoir written by a Rabbi. Gently weaves religious references and sources into the dramatic story of yeshiva students called up to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Fourth: Uri by Esther Streit-Vertzel  (this is a classic children’s title)

Fifth:  “Guy Oni” – Valley of Strength (sounds much better in Hebrew).  It has been translated into English by The Toby Press.  Written by Shulamit Lapid (mother of Israel’s latest political star Yair Lapid), this title has become an Israeli classic telling the story of early Zionist pioneering through the journey of the young Fania. This was rare as women were often written out early Zionist history. Lapid has helped rectify this.

Focus on Book Week in Israel: No snobs. Top authors writing for children.


Book Week Starts in Israel.

Book week has started in Israel.  The inevitable newspaper articles are starting to appear and I’ll post what I think is interesting when & if I see it.  Jessica Steinberg writes in The Times of Israel about some of Israel’s bestselling authors who write children’s titles as well as adult literature.  As always, Jessica offers a “top 5” – this time:  the top five reasons these authors write children’s books.

The article begins:

“There’s that moment in the day, particularly for parents of small children, when the frenetic activity calms down and that small child, or sometimes more than one, cuddles up, resting head on shoulder for the bedtime story. It’s a nighttime ritual that’s repeated the world over — and, clearly, during the day as well. But it is that evening reading, the bedtime story that’s often handled by the parent returning home from work, that has impressed several generations of Israeli novelists.”

Read the full story here.



Book Week in Israel – Coming Soon to a City Square Near You!

Tel Aviv’s Logo for 2013: Year of the Arts

The annual book fest which sweeps Israel cities starts this year on June 5.  Officially known as “book week”, thousands upon thousands of people crowd these outdoor book sales which are a celebration of reading and vivid proof that books are far from gone from modern society.
According to Wikipedia this annual tradition began as a one day event in 1926.  This year it will be spread over 10 days which is appropriate since my last count shows at least 10 Israeli cities hosting fairs including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Beersheva and more.


65 Books for 65 Years. Celebrating Israel. With Books, Of Course.

Celebrating Israel through books makes perfect sense.

Books have played a huge role in the history and daily life of Israel. The founders of the modern state set out their ideologies in books, and people all over the world have fallen in love with the vision and reality of Israel while reading books.

Scores of people have nominated their favorite Israel books. The focus was on English language books (and translations from Hebrew). After compiling the votes in a sophisticated matrix algorithm which only big time social media gurus understand and which I am not at liberty to share, I am pleased to offer you:

65 Books for 65 Years: Celebrating Israel Through Books.

The winner is:

1. Exodus by Leon Uris.

The Exodus

While living in Israel will make this book seem like the ultimate kitsch this book ignited the hearts and imaginations of millions around the world. Many credit the awakening of Soviet Jewry in the 1960’s to the risky, underground reading of Exodus by Jews in the USSR.


2. The Tanach (The Bible), – by G-d.  

While Exodus may get the adrenaline going,  readers want to know there is a clear reason behind all the drama and thus The Tanach was a clear second place winner.

3. O Jerusalem, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre –  This is a page turner telling the dramatic story of the establishment of Israel in 1947/48 while looking through the prism of events in Jerusalem.

4. Six Days of War, by Michael Oren – before he was Israel’s ambassador to the USA, Oren was a successful academic and author of one of the most popular accounts of the miraculous 1967 Six Day War.  Readers experience the frayed nerves, doubt and fear of Israel’s leaders and people before the war as well as the exhilaration of victory. Hard to put down.

5. Adjusting Sights, by Haim Sabato – A translation of the huge Israeli bestseller “Tium Kavanot” A Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Sabato wrote a piece of fiction (closely matching the event of his experiences fighting in the Yom Kippur War) which sold thousands of copies and brought together Jewish tradition and literature in a fashion which mesmerized readers from every part of Israeli society (and the sales proved it!). Adjusting Sights was a game changer on the Israeli literary scene as it opened up the publishing world as a possibility for young religious writes such as Michael Sheinfeld.  Rabbi Sabato has other books on the 65 for 65 list as well.

6. Start-up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer – This book has sold probably a million copies and has been translated into just as many languages. Looking at how a small, poor country surrounded by enemies became an engine for technology development and economic success this book presents a story and ideas which have become an article of Israeli faith and the envy of countries across the globe.

7. The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner – A “tell all” about the inner workings of Israeli leadership from someone who worked closely with every prime minister in Israel for over 30 years. A huge bestseller soon to be a move, this book is filled with idealism, humor, drama and humanity.

8. Dawning of the Day, by Haim Sabato – another winner – the book that launched the writing career of this bestselling author.

9.  Works by Yehuda Amichai – one of Israel’s most beloved poets.

10. The Revolt, by Menachem Begin – a personal account by the former prime minster of Israel, of the Jewish resistance to British rule in pre-state Israel.


11. My Life, by Golda Meir 

12. Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948,  by Zipporah Porat  – a junior year abroad which turns into participating and witnessing the War of Independence in 1947/48.

13. Tuvia in the Promised Land, by Tzvi Fishman 

14. A Tale of Love & Darkness, by Amos Oz  – Could this list have been complete without him?

15. The Zionist Idea, by Arthur Hertzberg 

16. Raquela, by Ruth Gruber – mentioned by a number of voters, this book seems to have impacted many.

17.  Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha by Moshe Lichtman – a bit of a pleasant surprise. The author was one of my first clients.  Looking at each week’s Torah portion with an emphasis on the role the Land of Israel plays, this book is a unique educational tool for anyone.


18. The Source, by James Michener

19. Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky – who says there are no heroes today? A man who sat 9 years in jail for wanting to leave communist Russia for Israel.  A classic, must read. I always find it surprising how many people I meet today who don’t know who Sharansky is.

20. Listen World Listen Jew, by  Meir Kahane 

21. The Best of Kishon, by Ephraim Kishon

22.  Diary of Hannah Senesh– this iconic poet parachuted behind enemy lines in a doomed effort to free Jews from the Nazi monster.

23. The Israelis, by Amos Elon

24. Letters to an American-Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic, by Hillel Halkin – many college students stayed up late at night reading this classic as they formed their own vision of the importance the land of Israel would play in their life. (at least I did.)

25. Heroes Hustlers Hard Hats and Holy Men, by Zeev Chafetz

26. The Battle for Jerusalem, by Abraham Rabinovich

27. The Letters of Yoni Netanyahu, by Benjamin and Ido Netanyahu – the brother of Israel’s current prime minister was a bona fide hero and is a part of Israeli history due to his role in the rescue of Jews from the hands of Palestinian terrorists who hijacked their plane to Uganda.

28. The Zig Zag Kid, by David Grossman

29. The Poetry of Rachel  

30. The Gilboa Iris, by Zahava Englard

31. The Hope, by Herman Wouk

32. The Glory, by Herman Wouk

33. 1948, by  Benny Morris

34. Coming Together Coming Apart, by Daniel Gordis

35.  But Seriously, by Sam Orbaum

36. Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal, by Laura Ben-David

37.  Israel, by Sir Martin Gilbert

38. Coming Home, by Sybil Ruth Zimmerman

39. To Dwell in the Palace, by Zvia Ehrlich-Klein

40. 90 Minutes at Entebbe by William Stevenson

41. The Founding Fathers of Zionism, by Benzion Netanyahu  – by the father of….

42. From the Four Winds, by Haim Sabato

43.  Battleground – Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, by Samuel Katz

44. The Pomegranate Pendant, by Dvora Waysman

45. The Blessing of a Broken Heart, by Sherri Mandell – a tragic story told by the mother of child killed by terrorists (his friend was also killed).  Israel was stunned into silence by the brutality of the murder.

46. From Time Immemorial,  by Joan Peters

47.  The Nehalel Siddur – a new prayer book filled with gorgeous images of Israel. Eye candy for the soul.

48.  Here and There in the Land of Israel, by Amos Oz

49. To The Skies – The El Al Story, by Arnold Sherman

50. The Pledge, by Leonard Slater

51. The Jewish State, by Yoram Hazony

52. For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People, by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

53.  Our Man in Damascus, by Elie Ben Hanan –  a classic story of Israeli heroism about the man who became part of the inner circles of Syrian upper ruling classes while he spied for Israel.

54. Operation Uranium Ship, by Dennis Eisenberg

55.  Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, by Aviezer Ravitzky

56. Pioneers in Palestine, by Hanna Barnett Trager (from 1923!)

57. A History of Israel, by Howard Sachar

58. Out of the Depths, by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau

59. Power, Faith and Fantasy, by Michael Oren

60.  Unbroken Spirit, by Yosef Mendelevich

61. The 28th of Iyar, by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

62.  The Yom Kippur War, Abraham Rabinovich

63.  The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six Day War, by Avraham Shapira

64.  A Tzaddik in Our Time, by Simcha Raz – the story of the “father of the prisoners” who looked out for the Jews  jailed by the British mandatory authorities while fighting for Israeli independence in one way or another.

65.  Forever My Jerusalem, by Puah Shteiner


Israel Independence Day: 65 Books for 65 Years.

Beit Maskit Jerusalem

Israel marks 65 years next week. In celebration, I am compiling a list of the 65 best books connected to Israel – a book about Israel, a story that takes place in Israel,  a book by an Israeli….fiction, non-fiction, a cookbook.  You get the idea.  You are invited to send in your best loved books. Tell us which books  impacted you, which helped you fall in love with the land or the books that made you realize how complex things can be. Or the ones you just love.

The list will be published on or about Independence Day.  Please post your  choices here and include name of book and the author.

Looking forward to seeing your choices.



Small print:  There is no guarantee that an entry will be included in the list.


“This is the only chocolate cake you will ever need to make” – Levana Kirschenbaum Speaks Truth

“This is the only chocolate cake you will ever need to make” – this is how Levana Kirschenbaum introduces her Chocolate Cake recipe in her recent cookbook  The Whole foods Kosher Kitchen.  I am posting this picture to show that Levana is probably correct. I made the cake (it was fun). We served it to adults, to kids, to chocolate lovers and others (there are actually such people) and well…….the picture is the proof. This cake was (is) amazing. It is rich, moist and doesn’t have that overly sweet taste that so many chocolate cakes have.

Full disclosure – I did publicity for this book. And to be frank – I didn’t get to test every recipe as I was promoting the book. As time goes on and I get to know the book even better, I appreciate it more and more. This book is a keeper and a worthwhile investment for yourself and the food lovers in your life. Seriously.

Thanks Levana!

Levana's Choc. cake