Recommendations for a lifetime of reading

When I graduated from high school, my mother made a special present for me. She wrote to our relatives, my former teachers and lots of people who had known me over the years and asked them for book recommendations. Then she presented me with a book of book lists as well as a small bookshelf with used and vintage copies of many of the recommended titles.

She’s not here to see my daughters reach this milestone, and so I’m doing my best to fill in. I sought out book lists for Sophie, who graduates this year, from our relatives and friends and even a few of Sophie’s favorite teachers going back to second grade.

They made many excellent and at times surprising suggestions, from the Bible to “Slaughterhouse Five” and from “Lolita” to “Feminism is for Everybody.” Though I asked people to select five titles, some gave me just one or two. My mom’s best friend from junior high provided a list of 23 books!

With such an open-ended request going to people whose personal and professional interests range broadly from painting to rocket science, there wasn’t a lot of overlap. Seven books appeared on three lists. They include five novels, a memoir and a self-help book:

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

“Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann

“The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz

Ten novels appeared on at least two lists: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, “The Long Walk” by Stephen King, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan and “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

Four other books came up twice: “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle and “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer.

Here’s my list, along with the note I wrote to Sophie:

My parents taught me to read (family lore says at age 2, but let’s agree that it was early) and nourished my love of reading throughout my childhood. I’ve tried to do the same for you and Charlotte.

I remember holding you on my lap to read books like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle before you were even able to talk. When you were a toddler, we memorized more than a few of your favorites, including “Moo, Baa, La La La!” by Sandra Boynton. When you were in kindergarten, I took you to check out books like “Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus” by Barbara Park from the library down the street from our house.

I always enjoyed reading aloud from books like “Knuffle Bunny” by Mo Willems when you and Charlotte were little. You two used to bring me stacks of books to read together at bedtime. When you were a bit older, we took on some bigger read-aloud projects. I loved cuddling up with your warm little pajama-clad bodies while we read “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” on the couch or in the big bed.

Your dad and I were so proud when you began to read longer, more complex books. You plowed through the Harry Potter series while you were still in elementary school and fell in love with Greek mythology as you read the Percy Jackson books. Later on, you and I had our disagreements over books like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” which (somehow?!) didn’t make you cry.

I hope reading will continue to be a source of entertainment, information, joy and escape for you throughout your whole life. You’re finishing high school, but your life as a reader has only just begun. Books can teach you to cook, to repair things around the house, even how to be a better friend and parent and partner. They will help you do meaningful work, travel and change the world. I look forward to talking with you about whatever you’re reading for the rest of our lives.

It is VERY hard for me to come up with just a few books that I think you should read. These are some titles that have stayed with me:

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. I return to this book over and over because it is packed with lessons about life and love and money and family. It will reveal something different to you at age 18 than it does at age 28 and so on. An actual masterpiece.

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book shifted my understanding of what it means to be Black in our deeply flawed country. I think it should be required reading for Americans, along with several other books that have helped me in my continuing journey to become an anti-racist.

“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. Possibly my favorite apocalyptic fiction ever, though you know I love lots of books in this genre. Bubbe read “Station Eleven” at least three or four times, so I know it was a favorite of hers too.

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. This memoir, written by a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his early 40s, will challenge you to rethink what you believe about death and about how to find meaning in your life. It’s a beautiful, important book.

“How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman. My favorite cookbook changes all the time, but this is one I come back to over and over.

Other favorites of mine include “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henríquez aren’t easy to read, but they’re good examples of fiction that can help you understand the struggles of people whose lives are quite different from your own.

On the edge of something new

One day in late spring, our schedules seemed to go from zero back to something like their pre-pandemic level of work-and-swimming-and-trumpet-and-school-and-synagogue-and-meetings and, well, you get the idea. It feels like we’re on the edge of something new, with all four of us vaccinated and Sophie about to graduate from high school! Check out our Year in Review for a little update about us and our favorite books and movies.

Eric’s 2021 Movie Battle Royale

Eligibility: Must be action hero with badassery. No superheroes allowed. No non-humans allowed. Bonus points in the seedings for those whose movies appear often on cable TV. Fights to the death can include weapons and must be on the higher seed’s “home field” unless the higher seed is a drifter who was born to walk alone (i.e. Jack Reacher). Winners in bold.

Seedings:

  1. John Wick
  2. Robert McCall (The Equalizer)
  3. John Rambo
  4. Jason Bourne
  5. The Bride (Kill Bill)
  6. Jack Reacher
  7. Christian Wolff (The Accountant)
  8. Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible)
  9. James Bond (Daniel Craig era)
  10. John McClane (Die Hard)
  11. Dalton (Roadhouse)
  12. Bryan Mills (Taken)
  13. Lee (Enter the Dragon)
  14. Dirty Harry Callahan
  15. Maximus (Gladiator)
  16. Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday (Tombstone)

Round 1: Upper Draw

  • John Wick (1) vs. the Earp Brothers (16)
  • Ethan Hunt (8) vs. James Bond (9)
  • The Bride (5) vs. Bryan Mills (12)
  • Jason Bourne (4) vs. Lee (13)

Round 1: Lower Draw

  • The Equalizer (2) vs. Maximus (15)
  • The Accountant (7) vs. John McClane (10)
  • John Rambo (3) vs. Dirty Harry (14)
  • Jack Reacher (6) vs. Dalton (11)

Round Two: Upper Draw

  • John Wick (1) vs. Ethan Hunt (8)
  • The Bride (5) vs. Jason Bourne (4)

Round Two: Lower Draw

  • The Equalizer (2) vs. John McClane (10)
  • John Rambo (3) vs. Dalton (11)

Semifinals:

  • John Wick (1) vs. Jason Bourne (4)
  • The Equalizer (2) vs. John Rambo (3)

Championship: John Wick (1) vs. John Rambo (3)

The Battles at a Glance

First-Round, Upper Draw: Featured Matches

The Bride vs. Bryan Mills: Bryan Mills is upset. He believes a 12 seed is too low, thanks to how many times “Taken” has been on TV, along with his high kill count. “If you give me a higher seed, that’ll be the end of it,” he warns the selection committee. “I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” The dad of the year should be more concerned with the sword-toting Bride in front of him. Instead, he seems more focused on his flip phone and hearing back from the committee members. This is not the time to lose one’s head — which Beatrix Kiddo takes care of with one swing through the neck. On to the quarterfinals: The Bride

John Wick vs. the Earp Brothers: The Earps sneak into the field thanks to “Tombstone’s” seemingly nightly showings on TV. But the Boogeyman isn’t going to be intimidated by Wyatt’s “You tell em I’m coming and hell is coming with me” antics. The Earps are too slow on the trigger to beat Wick, who has proven that he can ride a horse and still kill. Wick disposes of them quickly, much to the delight of onlooker Curly Bill Brocious (“well, bye,” he says). But wait! Who is that emerging from behind the saloon? It’s Doc Holliday! The inebriated Doc, seeing three Wicks, can only utter an “I’m your huckle …” before Wick slams his head against a whisky barrel and finishes Doc with a bullet. On to the quarterfinals: John Wick

First-Round, Upper Draw: Other Matches

Jason Bourne vs. Lee: Is the great Bruce Lee underseeded? Bourne is no match early on and takes body blow after body blow from the martial-arts icon. But Jason knows how to get out of a mess and drive recklessly, so he flees his French flat with Lee trailing behind. Bourne gets in the Mini Cooper, puts it reverse and runs over Lee. Bourne “escapes” to Round Two, much to the chagrin of Pamela Landy. On to the quarterfinals: Jason Bourne.

Ethan Hunt vs. James Bond: Spy vs. spy in the 8-9 matchup! Hunt gets the better of Craig-era Bond, thanks to a Q face mask that catches Bond off-guard. There’s no antidote for the poison that Hunt/Q gets JB to drink. Hunt reveals himself just before Bond dies and receives a nod of approval from Luther Stickell, who tearfully reminds everyone just great an actor Jack Lemmon was. What does that have to do with the battle, you ask? Absolutely nothing! On to the quarterfinals: Ethan Hunt

First-Round, Lower Draw: Featured Matches

John Rambo vs. Dirty Harry: Old Man Callahan has never been this much over his head. He isn’t tracking down some street punks who are feeling lucky. He’s facing John J. Rambo, who — much to the dismay of Vietnamese, Soviet and Burmese fighters — lives “day by day.” Harry is forced off the streets and into the woods to seek Rambo. It’s no surprise to Rambo emerge from the bushes with a survival knife and make Harry’s day, so to speak. On to the quarterfinals: Rambo

Jack Reacher vs. Dalton: Reacher, as we know, has no home. So he elects to confront Dalton on the opponent’s home turf: The Double Deuce bar in Jasper, Missouri. Ever the confident one, Reacher decides to fight Dalton hand-to-hand, no weapons, no pool cues. Both men are a bloody mess before Dalton pulls out the little guy’s throat and screams the name of his next opponent — “Rambooooooo!” On to the quarterfinals: Dalton!

First-Round, Lower Draw: Other Matches

The Equalizer vs. Maximus: Despite the overwhelming physical presence, Maximus is no match for Robert McCall. The Equalizer surveys the room for 30 seconds and then kills the big man with a map of Rome, a letter opener and Miles Whitaker’s paint brushes. On to the quarterfinals: The Equalizer

The Accountant vs. John McClane: Two competitors who prefer to lurk from a distance, McClane is able to draw Christian Woolf out to a high-rise building by confusing Woolf: telling him that he is like a son and should marry Liv Tyler. When Woolf realizes that this doesn’t add up, McClane pushes The Accountant out the window to a Gruber-esque death. On to the quarterfinals: McClane

Second Round, Upper Draw

John Wick vs. Ethan Hunt: Give Hunt credit for taking the offensive again, sneaking into a sleeping Wick’s room in his rebuilt home by hanging from a single cable. Luckily, JW is woken by his loyal dog and kills Ethan with a copy of the book on his nightstand: The Assassin’s Guide to Continental Hotels Around the World by Winston Scott. On to the semifinals: J-Wick

Jason Bourne vs. The Bride: Beatrice thrives against low-level criminals and henchmen, along with distracted killers like Bryan Mills. “Low-level” and “distracted” aren’t used to describe Bourne, a highly trained killer who easily disposes of The Bride (once he gets the sword out of her hands) by knocking her out and blowing up the building. On to the semifinals: J-Bourne

Second Round, Lower Draw

The Equalizer vs. John McClane: Tough matchup for McClane, who has to go into the darkened HomeMart to track down McCall. John is never able to get a good, clear shot at The Equalizer, who emerges from the dark to kill the cop with a hedge trimmer, paint-sample cards and a rip blade — and then have a calming cup of tea. On to the semifinals: The Equalizer

John Rambo vs. Dalton: Like John McClane, Dalton suffers when he loses the “home-field advantage.” Without the comforts of the Double Deuce, Dalton is forced to enter the woods of Rambo. We know that Dalton is multi-talented, so he attempts to lure Rambo out for some hand-to-hand combat by singing a verse of “She’s Like the Wind.” Sorry, Dalton — Rambo is more of a Survivor fan. He’s heard enough and shoots Dalton with his crossbow. Not even Old Red Webster and friends can save Dalton now. On to the semifinals: Rambo

Semifinals

John Wick vs. Jason Bourne:

Bourne is inspired by the sneak attack of Ethan Hunt in the last round. But he can do it better: He knows how to find someone’s hotel room. Jason enters the Continental and barges into Wick’s room for a Perkins-like offensive. Bourne and Wick conduct an exhausting 15-minute battle that sees both men bloodied and battered. Despite numerous noise complaints, they even fall through several levels of glass. Nobody goes through glass like Wick, who finally ends the Bourne saga with a glass shard to the eye. On to the finals: The Boogeyman.

The Equalizer vs. John Rambo:

The crowd goes crazy when Rambo gets on the walkie-talkie and vows to give McCall “a war you won’t believe.” The Equalizer decides not to push it and instead tries to talk some sense into the big man, offering to buy Rambo a hut in Burma for simply walking away. Bad move, Bob. Memories of the Far East only antagonize Rambo, who brings out the big gun — a grenade launcher — to end the book on The Equalizer. On to the finals: Rambo.

Battle Royale Final:

John Wick vs. John Rambo: As the lower seed, Rambo has to come into the city to face Wick. We would advise the local sheriffs to let JR pass through without incident! The urban area is advantageous for Baba Yaga, who may have struggled to take out Rambo in the jungle or the woods. Initially, Rambo’s booby-traps and explosives can’t take down Wick, so the pair go head-to-head without weapons on the Continental roof. The stronger Rambo seemingly throws Wick off the roof to his death. But no! Wick survives the fall somehow and stumbles away. A stunned, defenseless Rambo heads the street and grabs Wick, who stuns the veteran with a knife to the abdomen, followed by a gunshot to the head. There’s just no killing Jardani Jovonovich! A victorious Wick staggers away in search of the Continental doctor, as a mysterious figure walks behind at a distance. Could that be Frank Castle, aka The Punisher? Champion: Jonathan Wick

The sound of the shofar

It’s that time of year: I’m the shofar chauffeur for the next few weeks as Sophie fulfills her duties as our congregation’s baalat tekiah.

It’s customary for Jews to hear the shofar almost every day in the Hebrew month of Elul, when it serves as a sort of wake-up call urging us to engage in this period of introspection and repentance.

This has become a special part of Sophie’s connection to Judaism, but the mitzvah is actually *hearing* the shofar, not being the one to blow the horn. We recently recorded Sophie blowing the shofar in two of the traditional patterns at Hickories Park in Owego, on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

To my white friends

A note to my white friends:

I’m thrilled to see so many of you posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram about racial justice and police brutality. Some of you took another step and joined Black Lives Matter protests during the past week.

Perhaps you’ve spent years examining your racial privilege, working on acts of antiracism and committing your time and money to lift up black lives in your community and beyond. If so, awesome. You probably don’t need to read the rest of what I’m going to say here.

If you’re less experienced talking about racism, don’t understand why I talk about it so much — or if you think posting more Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is going to fix the system, this is for you.

I know this feels overwhelming. I know some of you may feel blameless. You think you aren’t overtly racist. Maybe you had your own struggles along the way to where you are now. You feel you earned your good job/nice house/college diploma on your own merits.

It’s time to take a deep breath and start learning. When I say learning, I do not mean calling up a black friend and crying. I do not mean wistfully listening to speeches from 1968. I do not mean sharing a cute picture of the Obamas, either.

Get yourself some books, for starters. My suggested reading list would include:

This will be hard. You will recognize yourself in some of the “what not to do” elements of the books. You will notice that you serve on committees without a single black voice at the table. You will cringe thinking back on a conversation you had with someone about Malcolm X.

Keep going.

Next up, continue decolonizing your bookshelf with fiction. If empathy is a muscle, perhaps these will give it a good workout. I am not recommending To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help or any novel that sets up a white person as the hero. I’m talking about books by black authors, both well established and brand new. Toni Morrison is a great choice here, but you can also try some new fiction such as:

Getting uncomfortable?

Take out your credit card. Donate to a bail fund. Find black community groups working near you and support them. Seek out black-owned restaurants and other businesses.

Follow black journalists and activists on Twitter or Facebook. Look up Color of Change, Black Lives Matter and other organizations working to foster social change. Pause for a moment before you share a news story or video and ask yourself: Who is being served here? What narrative am I building?

Listen more than you speak. When someone says something that you find rude or surprising, that’s a moment when you can grow. Go Google things when they seem unbelievable. Maybe a piece of information has been debunked; maybe your whitewashed high school history class got it wrong and you never realized it.

After this, it gets better but also harder. You will have a bit of data, a few anecdotes, some foundation from which to speak. Talk to your racist uncle/aunt/cousin/grandparent. Speak up at work when the next committee is forming, and demand a seat at that table for your black colleague, even if it means you don’t get to join the group. Go to a march and shout: No justice, no peace!

You will still make mistakes. You need to keep going anyway. Keep reading, keep questioning, keep talking to your white friends about whiteness. Resolve to have honest conversations about race and racial privilege with your children.

Now you might be ready for that phone call. Check in on your black friends, not for praise and not to cry, but so that they can cry. You’ll be ready to listen.

Accidental pioneers in the land of the zoom-mitzvah

We began planning for the day when our daughter would become a bat mitzvah about two years ago. The occasion called for intense Hebrew study as well as a large celebration. A DJ was hired, a photographer booked. We went shopping for a dress and mailed invitations to more than 150 friends. Arrangements were made for an ice cream truck to pull up at the synagogue. It was supposed to be a Big Deal in the life of our family.

Then a global pandemic struck, and suddenly only a fraction of our preparations made sense anymore.

Early on, Charlotte said she wanted to go ahead with the day if we could still be in the sanctuary and if her grandparents could attend. What about the party? She understood it might be small, or perhaps get canceled. It was a good reminder that the religious ceremony is the whole point of the day, not a mere prelude to doing the Cha-Cha Slide. (My childhood rabbi wrote a book called Putting God on the Guest List, and there were moments when it seemed God would be the only one on this guest list.)

Hebrew lessons moved to FaceTime and Zoom once schools closed. We canceled the photo booth, then the DJ, then finally the caterer.

As synagogue president and a Zoom nerd (thanks to my day job), I began assisting with the livestream of our Friday night services from Temple Concord, the Reform congregation in Binghamton, N.Y. Quickly, Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell figured out ways to share prayers and other readings effectively for online worship. As the weeks passed, we both got better at managing the mute/unmute buttons and sharing our screens.

Charlotte, meanwhile, was adjusting to online school and continuing to work remotely with her Hebrew tutors. She still had to write a speech, too. I was concerned that continuing the bat mitzvah preparations put her under extra strain, but she was eager to reach this milestone and said she’d also feel stressed if she had to continue tutoring indefinitely.

With a few weeks to go, plans solidified for a “zoom-mitzvah” with just 10 people in the sanctuary. Our local paper featured Charlotte on its front page in a story about how the pandemic was affecting religious observances this spring. We began testing different technology in the space and thinking about an entirely different set of logistics. Where do we place cameras? How do we get the sound right? Who will act as moderator/usher/producer for the Zoom session? Can we show the montage as part of the livestream?

In the end, we had three laptops on the bima and placed a fourth a few rows back in the pews. (The sanctuary isn’t set up for livestreaming.) We bought an external microphone for the bat mitzvah girl, who was less likely to project her voice than the rabbi or cantorial soloist. A family friend signed on as our Zoom director for the morning. My aunts agreed to read the English of the Torah and haftorah portions from their home in Florida when it became clear that they couldn’t attend in person.

Here’s the full service, recorded via Zoom.

With those details in place, we had a little time to think about extras. We bought a big “Mazel tov, Charlotte” yard sign that doubled as a photo prop. The bright purple yarmulkes stamped with our daughter’s name and the date were mailed with cards indicating our change of plans. We hand-delivered party favors to Charlotte’s BFFs and encouraged people to take a selfie the day of the bat mitzvah to share with us. We confirmed arrangements with a photographer, who agreed to document the day, even though it was quite a different job than the one she was originally hired to do.

Our friends and our community showed up for us in ways large and small in the days leading up to the bat mitzvah. Charlotte’s music teacher delivered exotic flavors of ice cream one night. A friend who’s a talented seamstress created a set of color-coordinated masks for everyone attending the service. Charlotte received her first delivery from a florist, thanks to one of my closest friends from high school. Two different Jewish moms ensured we had home-baked loaves of challah for shabbat dinner and Saturday morning. A colleague created amazing balloon arrangements and brought them to our house.

We found a local baker who delivers “COVID cakes” and made plans for a delivery back at our house after the bat mitzvah. When it looked like the weather was going to cooperate, we arranged for a picnic lunch (with individually wrapped meals) and invited the grandparents and two families we’re close with to join us. They set up camp chairs in our yard with lots of space between them and we all got to visit for a little while and enjoy seeing each other outside of a Zoom-sized box.

I worried throughout the planning about the virus-related risks inherent in any gathering, even one as small as this. Our sanctuary is large, but we’d be indoors and there would be some singing. My mother, who has been isolated since early March, would be exposed to more people that day than she had been in months. It was hard to see my father and brothers, who live out of state, and not hug them. People might need to come into our house to use the bathroom, which I knew would be an odd moment after months of not letting anyone outside our family inside.

There were losses, both large and small. The joy of having all of my favorite people in one place for a day: gone. The idea of what we’d look like with new outfits and fresh haircuts and manicures: suddenly unimportant. Seeing Charlotte lifted on a chair while dozens of people danced the hora with us: just impossible.

In the end, the day was nothing like we imagined — and still pretty wonderful. The grandparents were able to travel. Charlotte smiled as she read from the Torah and led us in prayer. The technology worked. Friends who wouldn’t have been able to attend in person dialed in from as far away as Nairobi and London. My husband gave an amazing speech. The rain held off just long enough for a picnic lunch.

My heart is full.

Pictures from the bat mitzvah, featuring lots of selfies as well as professional photography by Samantha Rigo.

Rachel’s recommended reading

I read about a book a week. Want some recommendations for reading during your unexpected downtime? I primarily read literary fiction and nonfiction. Recent favorites below with links to mini-reviews.

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Our whole family loves to read! Here’s Charlotte curled up with a book a couple of years ago.

Fiction

The best new book I read last year was “All This Could Be Yours” by Jami Attenberg, about a family living in the thrall of a violent, selfish, criminal man. Review here. 

I also loved “Fleishman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Lots of hype, yes, but it’s as good as you’ve heard. Feminist manifesto tucked into a compelling novel! Mini-review here.

I’ve heard it said that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. “The Dutch House,” Ann Patchett’s latest novel, explores that idea with some interesting embellishments. Review here.

How good is “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn? Real life will be a distraction until it’s finished. Perfect in these crazy times we’re living through! Review here.

If you have a stack of unread issues of The New Yorker somewhere in your living room, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy “The Grammarians” by Cathleen Schine. Review here.

“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead is spectacularly written and evidence that fiction can sometimes illuminate dark corners even more brightly than journalism. Mini-review online.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin is just as spectacular as everyone said: suspenseful, touching and, most of all, full of interesting questions about life, family, love and death. Mini-review. 

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones feels so true, so urgent that it’s like a story you’re hearing about two people who are friends of a friend. Mini-review. 

“The Female Persuasion” will resonate with women who have mentored or been mentored. Meg Wolitzer doesn’t just remember what it feels like to be in your late teens/early 20s; she *understands* the way that small-scale stuff can feel so very high stakes. Mini-review. 

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward really isn’t like any other novel you’ve ever read. Pieces of it will shock you with their violence and cruelty while other pages may make you gasp at their beauty. Mini-review. 

I read “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez in 2015, but I still think about it a lot. This is a love story, a reality check on the American dream and a very good read. Mini-review. 

 

Nonfiction/reference

If you write for a living (which I do), then “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” by Benjamin Dreyer is a must. It can be used as a reference book, but it’s so readable you can also just read from front to back. Review.

If you’re committed to racial justice and equality, I recommend “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s like taking a college seminar in the way racism has shaped American history and politics. So troubling and important. Review.

Susan Orlean writes so beautifully that I could get into any topic she cares to treat with a book. When I saw she was writing about libraries, I had high expectations. “The Library Book” managed to live up to all of them. Review. 

 

Consider this a call to anti-racist action

Rachel shared these remarks during Shabbat services on Jan. 17 at Temple Concord in Binghamton:

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us at the very beginning of the Book of Exodus. It’s an action-packed reading, with many details you may recognize from the Passover story.

A new Pharaoh comes to power, one who does not know Joseph. He enslaves the Israelites. Pharaoh orders all of the Israelite baby boys to be killed, but two midwives disobey him.

Moses’ mother puts her son into the river in a basket, and he is rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s household.

He flees to Midian after killing a taskmaster who was beating a slave, and there he marries Zipporah. God appears in the burning bush and tells Moses to free his people from slavery.

That’s a lot – and we’re not done yet!

Next Moses goes back to Egypt and, with his brother, demands that Pharaoh free the slaves. Pharaoh refuses.

In this reading, the midwives Shifrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill boys born to Hebrew women. They might seem to be the lowest of the low — women who are working in service of enslaved women — and yet they defy the ruler of Egypt.

As scholar Hannah Graham Pressman notes, in their refusal to obey Pharaoh, these two women assume a key role in the collective birthing of the people of Israel. “Fearing God rather than the political authority of the day, Shifrah and Puah are rewarded for their insistence on life rather than death.”

It’s interesting that this week’s portion features the first example of civil disobedience in the Torah and we’re reading it during a weekend when we honor the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

I like to reread King’s Letter each year around this time. In it, he quotes the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and other thinkers including Socrates. He also compares the unjust policies of the Jim Crow South to Germany under Hitler, noting that what is legal is not always what is right.

The letter also expresses King’s disappointment with white moderates. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” he writes.

I think there’s room for reflection in that statement for many of us, right up to this day.

Do we extend our support for just causes only when it is convenient? Do we critique the Black Lives Matter movement or athletes who kneel during the national anthem the way some white people criticized Martin Luther King’s efforts to end segregation?

My thinking about racial justice has been shaped by reading the work not only of Dr. King but also of modern activists such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me” and Ibram X. Kendi, author of the new book “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”

Kendi opens his book with a couple of crucial definitions:

He says a racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”

An antiracist, on the other hand, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

All of us, even members of so-called minority groups, may find that we have racist sentiments. We’ve lived all our lives in a society steeped in white supremacy, after all. Kendi says that it’s up to us to sift through these thoughts and to find ways to act in opposition to them.

We have to get past our feelings — including our wish that no one ever sees us as “racists” — and focus on our actions.

If we do, if we find a way to root out racist policies that perpetuate racial inequality, we can begin to undo the damage caused by voter suppression, mass incarceration, health disparities and opportunity gaps.

That kind of action and commitment could turn this new decade into the start of an anti-racist era in American history, an era worthy of Dr. King’s hopes for our country.