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What’s on Rabbi Marder’s Bookshelf?

Beth Am Library Column

In case you haven’t heard, Rabbi Janet Marder loves books. All kinds of books. Fiction, literature, history, philosophy, theology, poetry, science fiction, memoirs, biographies: the list goes on and on. For over two decades, the Beth Am Library Committee has counted her among our most vigorous supporters. She is also our most loyal patron (we have the library cards to prove it) and her love of learning and reading has lifted our community in countless ways.  

As a team whose mission is to drive and support engagement with Jewish books and resources, we are so very grateful to her for those gifts. And if we were good and gracious Jews, perhaps we’d just say thank you and leave it at that. But we are curious bibliophiles, which carries with it an element of greediness, so instead… we asked her for one more gift: a short list of books about Jews and Judaism that have been significant to her in the course of her life and work. She accepted our invitation, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect response. So here’s a peek at a few items on Rabbi Marder’s bookshelf (listed in no particular order), along with a few words from her about the influence of each in her life.

The Earth is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, and The Sabbath
by Abraham Joshua Heschel
I read this slim volume during my first year of rabbinic school, mostly sitting on a balcony in Jerusalem. It powerfully shaped my sense of how one could convey Jewish ideas in poetic and compelling language. I cherish all of Heschel's writings, and have spent much time with Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, the collection of his essays assembled by his daughter, the scholar Susannah Heschel.

My Michael
by Amos Oz

An early and pathbreaking work by this extraordinary Israeli novelist that helped spark my ongoing love affair with the study of literature as a window into Israeli culture. In addition to novels such as Black Box; his magnificent autobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness; and the more recent Judas,  I also recommend his late volume of wonderful short stories, Between Friends.

Twenty-One Stories and A Simple Story
both by S.Y. Agnon

My senior thesis in rabbinic school was a study of two seminal Hebrew novels, one of which was A Simple Story by S.Y. Agnon, the only Israeli to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. When I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UCLA I became fascinated with Agnon's work and spent a lot of time studying his collected stories, which interweave traditional Jewish material with a profoundly modern sensibility.

The Lover
by A.B. Yehoshua

In college I had the great good fortune of studying modern Hebrew with Gila Caspi, sister of the renowned Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua. I discovered his novels and stories (especially "Facing the Forest" in The Continuing Silence of a Poet: Collected Stories) in rabbinic school and was captivated by his penetrating psychological analyses in works such as The Lover, Five Seasons, Mr. Mani, and The Journey to the End of the Millennium.

The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader
ed. Arthur Hertzberg

This was my introduction to the roots of Zionism – a magisterial collection of classic writings, along with the penetrating analysis of the 20th-century scholar and rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.

The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933
by Amos Elon

A brilliant historical study of the rise and fall of Jews in Germany by an Israeli journalist and author who also wrote The Israelis: Founders and Sons. I read The Pity of it All before our Beth Am trip to Berlin, and have continued to ponder its insights ever since.

Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History
by James Carroll

A fascinating study of the Church's 2000-year-long battle against Judaism, recounted by an eminent Catholic priest who is now a powerful voice for reform. Most poignant for me was the realization that this ancient, tragic enmity was far from inevitable.

Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Today
by Arthur Green

Arthur Green's works, including this re-imagining of Jewish mysticism for the 21st century, have always stretched my theological thinking.

A History of the Jews from the Babylonian Exile to the Establishment of Israel
by Solomon Grayzel

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this work, which was the first specifically Jewish work I read in college when, on something of a whim, I signed up for a Jewish history course. There are much better one-volume Jewish histories out there now (including works by Paul Johnson and Simon Schama), but this was the first book that sparked my interest in Judaism as an adult, ultimately leading me to apply to rabbinic school.

And here’s some good news about these books from Rabbi Marder’s bookshelf: they’re also on your bookshelf! Because all of the books she mentions here (and many more) are available to borrow from the Beth Am Library, which is open whenever the Beth Am office is open. Stop in and check it out! Questions? The Library team is always happy to help connect you with Jewish books, films, music and other resources: email

Mon, November 30 2020 14 Kislev 5781