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A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 5/28/21

Last Shabbat evening I presented my 14th annual Avi Awards for books I’ve read in the past year. It’s quite an eclectic collection. Some books are entertaining, others are educational. Subject matters range from American history, politics, biology, biographies, portrayals of Asian identity both domestic and abroad, and lastly a provocative work of Jewish theology.

Here are the books with brief comments:

Everyone has one, but few know how it works. Bryson’s informative and witty overview entertains and educates.

An insider’s view of the first impeachment in January 2020. It seems like ages ago that it took place, what with the November election, the January 6th insurrection, the second impeachment trial, and the ongoing divisions in our country. If Swalwell writes a sequel, perhaps he will entitle it Infinity War.

Born a slave, escaped to freedom, rose to be the leading orator of his age. Fearless in advocating for the liberation of his people, this biography is important not only for its impressive depiction of this complex individual, but also for understanding the connection between Douglass and the issue of racism in today’s America.

A professor at San Francisco State University, Dollinger upends the conventional view that Jews and Blacks were once close allies but the rise of militant Black leaders in the 60’s severed that relationship. He posits that Black nationalism continued to influence American Jews. It’s an intriguing thesis. I was not convinced by the evidence but I will keep an open mind to the possibility.

I read this book for two reasons. The author was my rabbinic thesis advisor and I have the deepest appreciation for his scholarship. The second reason is that Leo Baeck taught my rabbi, Wolli Kaelter, when he was a rabbinic student in Berlin. I feel, to some degree, an inheritor of Baeck’s teaching. Rabbi Baeck’s erudition and personal courage in response to Nazism are inspiring.

The book is on the NY Times best seller list. I read it hoping to gain understanding into the Asian American experience. I found it disappointing. It read more like a series of scripts for television episodes than a novel with narrative dynamism.

I’m so glad a friend recommended this book to me. It is an exquisite portrayal of a world I do not know. Set in the 20th century, this work of fiction focuses on the experiences of Koreans living under Japanese oppression. While deeply rooted in time and place, it conveys the universality of family, love, betrayal, and reconciliation.

All of my adult life, I’ve accepted the thesis that Yud Heh Vav Heh is the unpronounceable name of God. Sameth’s slim yet highly researched book explodes this concept and presents a mind-blowing argument that the Tetragrammaton is a code that, when read backwards, reveals God as a dual-gendered, male-female deity. This is the most provocative work of Jewish theology I’ve read in ages. I look forward to rereading it.


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