Summer Reading | Congregation Beth Am

Summer Reading

"Summer time and the living is easy…" Time to sit and read in your backyard, in the mountains or on the beach. Looking for a good title to pick up? Need some suggestions? We asked some special people around Beth Am to share their favorites for adults, teens and children.

For adults, Rabbi Janet Marder suggested Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. A New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2017, the book takes as its starting point Abraham Lincoln’s profound grief at the loss of his young son, Willie. Moving from that historical fact into the realm of experimental fiction, the author imagines events and experiences during the course of one evening with Willie’s soul in the bardo, a term from Tibetan Buddhism describing the transitional state after death. Although not explicitly Jewish in nature, the book grapples with universal themes that also resonate strongly with the Jewish tradition: life, death, loss, grief, memory and moving forward.

Rabbi Sarah Weissman's picks are If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir, by Ilana Kurshan, and A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, by Ruth Calderon. (Both books are in the Beth Am Library.) Of If All the Seas Were Ink, Dara Horn, author of The World to Come, says, "In this deeply personal and often hilarious story, Kurshan shows us how the Talmud's thousands of strange and demanding pages, read at one page a day for seven years, become a conversation about how best to live one's life." Rabbi Jill Hammer, author of The Book of Jewish Days, has noted that reading A Bride for One Night is especially rewarding because, "Calderon's retelling of tales of the Talmud will be healing for those who have felt pushed to the Talmud's margins and exciting for those who have loved Talmud's gift for a good story."

The chair of our Library Committee, Lorri Ford, is looking forward to reading The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman. (Coming soon to the Beth Am Library.) Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust history, the book tells the compelling story of the Paper Brigade, a resistance movement in what was once a preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning – Vilna, Lithuania, often referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe” – whose members fought to preserve Jewish texts for future generations. Lorri plans to read this book in conjunction with Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia by Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova, a photo essay and catalog of Dojc’s photo exhibition of decaying books found in the forgotten schools and synagogues of the decimated Jewish communities of Slovakia. As the book’s description eloquently puts it, Dojc “treats the books as survivors, the last witnesses to what had been a thriving culture.” (Lorri is also pretty sure that the summer will involve reading that Lincoln in the Bardo book in preparation for an upcoming practicum year as a bereavement counselor at Pathways Hospice.)

For those looking to get a head start on Beth Am’s adult education theme for the year (Judaism and Nature), Lorri suggests The Overstory by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. A beautifully written novel that explores the intersection of humans and trees on the planet we share, and what meaningful stewardship of environmental resources means, Powers explores themes that join spirituality, nature, and social justice in the context of a compelling set of interlocking stories. Hailed as a masterpiece by many, the book describes itself this way: “There is a world alongside ours — vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.”

Beth Am Librarian Diane Rauchwerger chose Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, by Naomi Levy. (Available in the Beth Am Library.) When Rabbi Naomi Levy came across a poignant letter Einstein wrote to a grieving father, Rabbi Robert S. Marcus, she began a search to connect the missing pieces. In her account of that search, Rabbi Levy shows us all how to find our own unique souls and how to connect to the whole universe.

For young adults, we asked Library Madrichah Sarah LaFetra, to suggest one of her favorites. She came up with two, one fiction and one non-fiction. For fiction, The Storm, by Donna Jo Napoli is the story of a young girl stowaway on Noah's Ark. There is adventure, suspense and romance. For non-fiction, Sarah recommends Do You Dream in Color? by Laurie Rubin. Rubin tells her story of challenges and triumphs as she struggles to become an opera star in spite of her blindness.

Librarian Diane Rauchwerger could not resist recommending her favorite young adult fiction title, The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz. After the death of her mother, Joan runs away from the family farm where she has no opportunity for an education but will only be a slave to her father and brothers. In the city, she becomes the hired girl for a Jewish family. Although she still has to work hard and doesn't understand the strange customs of the family, her life changes for the better in this caring environment. (All the young adult titles are in the Beth Am Library's collection.  Both The Storm and The Hired Girl are Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.)

Do you have a child age 8-13? Librarian Diane Rauchwerger recommends:

The All-of-a-Kind Family series, by Sydney Taylor. The Sydney Taylor Book Award, presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, is named after the author of this series. The award is given every year for books that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.

Children will also enjoy The Six-Day Hero, by Tammar Stein, a Sydney Taylor Honor book in 2017. The story brings to life the experiences of a young boy, Motti, living in Israel during the Six-Day War.

Is your child a fan of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? The Beth Am Library has two picture books, for all ages, about this remarkable woman: I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Stacy Innerst.

Two more excellent picture books, both Sydney Taylor Honor Books, are:  

Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. Akiva is just a poor shepherd living an ordinary life until he falls in love with Rachel. Rachel thinks he could become a great man of learning – but Akiva can't even read! Is he too old to be a scholar? Or can he follow the example of the water in the nearby brook?

A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson. Ezra Jack Keats was born in Brooklyn, New York to a family of struggling Polish, Jewish immigrants. His dream of becoming an artist did not seem like a realistic one, but he grew up to illustrate the book The Snowy Day, which became the winner of the Caldecott Medal, and the first mainstream book to feature an African-American child.

This is just a taste of the many titles in the Beth Am Library and beyond. Come in and find the perfect book for your summer reading.

Congregation Beth Am
  • 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
  • (650) 493-4661 Contact Us

We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).