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Books CCAR Press

The Art of Storytelling: Rabbi Zoë Klein on ‘Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon’

Congregational rabbi and acclaimed author Rabbi Zoë Klein discusses writing Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories, the unique nature of short stories, and how illustrations interact with text.

What inspired the creation of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories?
Each of the stories in the book has a unique origin and source of inspiration, but the collection as a whole was inspired by all the short story anthologies I’ve loved. The first such collection I was given was when I turned eight, Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sanburg. From there, I remember the terrifying Yellow Fairy Book keeping me up at night with its spells and blood puddings, and as I got older, such collections as Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and Occult by Joachim Neugroschel, A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz, Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories by Sandra Bark, Rachel the Clever by Josepha Sherman, Collected Stories by Cynthia Ozick, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander all captivated me. And each week, preparing to teach Torah by reading countless commentaries and divrei Torah is itself a lifelong study of powerful short stories!

Can you share a bit about your writing process?  
For me, the smallest part of the writing process is the act of typing out the words. A large part of the process is research, and an even larger part is staring into space while the thoughts churn. Behind every story is a thick file of notes, musings, articles, essays and ideas. I spend a lot of time in the research stage, studying and collecting details. To write “The Magic Word” I listened to dozens of linguistics podcast episodes. I study and research until the characters start to create themselves. I have trouble doing what many writers do, which is finding an hour or two a day to write. I need six to eight hours to fully immerse into each new world. So I write on my day off, or when there is a quiet weekend, when I can nest up and delve.

This book is structured in three parts. What can readers expect from each section?
The eight stories in the first part, Candle, are anchored in Jewish text and tradition. Some take place during Biblical times and others are reminiscent of fanciful Chasidic stories. The eight stories in the second part, Feather, take place in the modern world. The characters may remind you of people you know or of yourself. These stories wrestle with relevant issues, many through adventure and quest. The six stories in the last part, Wooden Spoon, each take us on a deeper more mystical journey, presenting inklings of new theologies. But I do encourage readers to skip around and bounce from section to section in whatever order you like!

You are also the artist behind the book’s illustrations. What role do they play in the reading experience?
Each illustration brings to life a detail of a story, but none of them are of the protagonists. For example, the half-melted snowman illustration for the title story is just a tiny detail in that story. But when the details of a story feel dimensional and alive, hopefully, the rest follows. The characters become fleshed out in readers’ imaginations. The playful drawings give that imagination a little tickle.

How does Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon differ from your previous books?
Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon, as a collection of short stories, is vastly different from Drawing in the Dust, a novel. Short stories are an economy of words, and so there isn’t the luxury that a novel has of long descriptive passages and thoroughly explored internal monologues. Rather, a lighter brushstroke is necessary to convey a sense of place. Plot twists and character arcs need to have a smaller turning radius while still feeling natural.

Which of the stories are especially meaningful to you?
This is such a hard question! I feel like my answer would be different depending on the time of day, the weather, and the zeitgeist of the moment. But if I had to answer at this particular moment, I would say “Shalom Bayit” is especially meaningful. I don’t feel as if I wrote that story. Isaac and Mateo, the main characters, don’t feel fictional. In fact, when I read it I feel grateful to them for coming to me. Their story seems so real that I can picture them stepping off the page and changing the world. “JEW” is also deeply meaningful to me, as I’ve always been fascinated by the word “Jew,” how it’s been maligned throughout history, and how it is redeemed. I love “Lace Theory” for how it presents a new metaphor for our interconnectedness. “The Flying Insect Café” is so dang fun. “Shades and the Rock on the Grave” is a favorite of mine. And I have this little love affair with “The Goat Keeper” story, which I have been writing and returning to for decades.

Rabbi Klein is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Rabbi Zoë Klein has served Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California, since 2000. She pursued the rabbinate out of a passion for ancient texts, mythology, liturgy, and poetry. Rabbi Klein is the author of the novel Drawing in the Dust; the children’s story The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of ChallahThe Scroll of Anatiya; and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Poetry Torah

The Challenges of Writing Modern Midrash: Alden Solovy on ‘These Words’

Liturgist and poet Alden Solovy discusses the inspiration behind These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, his writing process, and his hopes for the book’s impact.

What inspired These Words?

The language of Torah, its richness and nuance, begs not only for exploration, but for celebration in poetry. Throughout Jewish history, Torah has been our single greatest writing prompt for scholars, mystics, poets, musicians—all of us.

This is your fourth CCAR Press volume. How does it differ from your other works?

The previous volumes provide poetic liturgy. This book combines expository writing with poetic interpretation of Torah. I explore seventy words of Torah with deep dive essays into each word, followed by a poetic midrash inspired by that research.

What was the most challenging part of writing this volume?

Switching back and forth between left-brain Torah study and right-brain poetic interpretation was a constant challenge. What challenged me most, however, was the research. Each word is a universe, spectacular in depth and meaning. I felt compelled to keep learning and learning about each word.

How did you select the words in the book?

My selection process was more art than science. I began with a set of 120 words that interested me, supplemented by words suggested by friends. From there, the words themselves guided me to add, remove, or replace them, prompted by my explorations.

How did writing this book impact you?

Writing These Words was a profound and transcendent experience. I experienced what I can only describe as a “Torah trance” mind state. Intense. Beautiful. Challenging. Frightening. After the book was completed, I then faced my first post-writing melancholy. Later, rereading the book in print, I found an unprecedented joy and elation having written a volume of modern Torah midrash—I didn’t know that was in me. 

How do you hope These Words will impact readers?

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if reading this book inspired others into their own journeys of exploring words of Torah? I hope the book will be used in Torah study, for writing sermons, as part of interfaith dialogue, and as a source of readings used in worship. Most of all, I hope the book inspires more poetry rooted directly in learning Torah.

Alden is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, and These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

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Books CCAR Press

Stories and the Power of Transformation: Rabbi Zoë Klein on ‘Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon’

Rabbi Zoë Klein is the author of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses what inspired the collection and how readers can make the book their own.

On the night before Passover, it is traditional for families to hide pieces of bread in a ritual called b’dikat chameitz (searching for leaven). Children search for crumbs with a candle and use a feather to sweep them onto a wooden spoon, all of which are then put in a paper bag. The paper bag with the items inside is burned the following morning, signifying that the home is ready for the holiday to begin.

I have always loved the candle, feather, and wooden spoon. While not on par with the royal flush of seder plate sacred symbols (shank bone, bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, and egg), in their own gentle way, they indicate that we are ready to begin this story of freedom. For me, they represent the process of storytelling. First comes the light of an idea, then the quill with which to write it down, and at last it is ready to be spooned out and shared.

I also love that all three objects are fairly mundane. Candles are common. You can find feathers amid fallen leaves and weeds. And there is probably a wooden spoon floating around everyone’s cookware. Judaism is about elevating the mundane to the sacred, helping us transform mindless action into mindful intention. Stories have the same power of transformation. The famous Jewish story of a person scattering feathers from a pillow and then fruitlessly trying to gather them all back together becomes the simple but effective tool to transmit the important value about speaking kindly and not spreading rumors.

This collection’s first part, “Candle: Stories That Shine New Light on Tradition,” explores Jewish texts and teachings from new vantage points. The second part, “Feather: Modern Stories That Take Flight,” explores identity and relationship through a modern Jewish lens. The characters in these stories may remind you of people you know or yourself. The final part, “Wooden Spoon: Stories That Stir Food for Thought,” mixes story with philosophy in an attempt to taste the transcendent.

The stories in this collection are intended to be shared, interpreted, and discussed. In the same way that musicians use their artistry and unique style to make a known melody their own, you are encouraged to adopt and adapt these stories, add your voice, and make them yours. Judaism has an extraordinary oral tradition evolving from generation to generation, with each new storyteller adding flavor, color, and texture.

You are a storyteller, with your own voice and experience to add.

At the end of each story in this collection, there are a number of questions designed to encourage self-reflection, conversation, and engagement. So take a candle (or a reading light!), a feather, and a wooden spoon and search these pages for morsels, parables, and words of Torah. And keep telling your stories.


Rabbi Zoë Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California. Rabbi Klein is the author of Drawing in the Dust: A Novel (Gallery Books, 2009), The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah (Apples & Honey, 2017), The Scroll of Anatiya (Wipf and Stock, 2009), and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon (CCAR Press, 2023). Her poems and prayers are used in houses of worship around the world.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Reclaiming Prophetic Judaism: Rabbi Barbara AB Symons on Her New Book, ‘Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah’

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah, discusses the origins of the volume, the process of creating it, and what she hopes it will bring to the haftarah canon.

What was the inspiration for Prophetic Voices?  

In synagogues, as a faculty member at URJ camps, and at the URJ Biennial, I came to the realization that we were not hearing from the prophets. My own rabbinic education also lacked such focus, even though we in the Reform Movement spoke of “Prophetic Judaism.” It was an issue beyond Jewish literacy; it was an issue of not being called to action. At a conference run by the Religious Action Center in 2018, the final (brilliant!) session was an offer to take the microphone, share an idea about social justice, and invite others to join you for an hour to work on it. Over the following year and a half, on and off, our small group continued to work on it, and that eventually led to my proposal to CCAR Press.

Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? 

Many things! I learned about the history of the haftarah cycle and how the term “Prophetic Judaism” came to be. I was reminded how the haftarah has the flexibility to connect to any part of the Torah portion, which is an invitation for creativity. I learned how much insight contributors can share in a mere 250 words, and I was exposed to many of the alternative texts for the first time. 

What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? 

With 179 contributors, there were a lot of emails! Because of the skills of the CCAR Press team, who were the professionals, the most challenging part for me ended up being helping potential contributors understand what this book was seeking to accomplish.

How did you determine which additional Jewish American holidays would receive haftarah readings?   

We had an open call and gave the examples of Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pride Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Juneteenth, and Mother’s/Father’s Day. Forty-two holidays ultimately appeared in my inbox, characterized by authenticity, passion, insight, and vulnerability.

How do you hope readers will use Prophetic Voices

I hope that it will bring the prophets and prophet-like voices beyond the bimah and the sanctuary into our daily lives. Each interpretation ends with a call to action. Some are direct, some are indirect, and some are questions, but overall the idea is to reclaim Prophetic Judaism as a verb.

The subtitle for this book mentions “renewing and reimagining” the haftarah cycle. What do you mean by that?  

“Renewing” refers to better understanding and finding relevance and inspiration from the prophets of the traditional haftarah cycle (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos). “Reimagining” refers to allowing haftarah, which means “conclusion,” to go beyond the N’vi-im (Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible to texts that deserve to be “between the blessings.” Those texts include verses from the K’tuvim (Writings)—such as Job and Psalms—and expand into Jewish texts from the Talmud, poetry across the ages, music lyrics, fiction pieces, official government declarations, speeches, and more. These not only conclude the Torah reading but punctuate it. Furthermore, the book offers three new haftarah cycles: the Omer cycle, the Elul cycle, and the Winter cycle (from Thanksgiving to Chanukah).

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville, PA, and the editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah (CCAR Press, 2023). Rabbi Symons and select contributors are available to visit communities for speaker events and lifelong learning classes. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.

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CCAR Press gender equality Torah

You Shall Not Defraud Your Fellow: A Haftarah for Equal Pay Day

Tuesday, March 14, 2023, is Equal Pay Day, marking how far into the year women need to work to earn the same amount as men earned in 2022. Rabbi Liz P. G. Hirsch, recently named incoming executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, shares her contribution to Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah: a contemporary haftarah reading—WRJ’s 2015 “Resolution on Pay Equity”—and accompanying commentary for Equal Pay Day. In addition to alternative readings for the traditional haftarot, Prophetic Voices includes new haftarot for each Shabbat, holiday, and many events on the American Jewish calendar.

From “The Women of Reform Judaism Resolution on Pay Equity,” 2015

Given the profound injustice of unequal pay, Women of Reform Judaism reaffirms its com­mitment to achieving pay equity and calls upon its sisterhoods to:

  1. Urge the swift adoption of legislation that would provide women who face sex-based wage discrimination with a straightforward, accessible path for recourse, including but not limited to:
    • Barring retaliation against workers who disclose their wages, so that workers can more easily determine whether they face wage discrimination, and
    • Ensuring the right to maintain a class action lawsuit, providing women with the same remedies in court for pay discrimination as those subjected to dis­crimination based on race or national origin.
  2. Work with synagogue leadership to enact just compensation policies for clergy and staff at all levels, or, where they already exist, to ensure that these policies properly guide the compensation, interviewing, hiring, firing, and promoting of clergy and staff.
  3. Implement sisterhood or congregational programs to empower women with tools to address pay inequity they may face in their professional lives outside the synagogue.
  4. Take a leadership role to advocate for pay equity in their Jewish community and in their broader local community by forging partnerships with Jewish, other faith, and secular organizations in those communities.

You Shall Not Defraud Your Fellow

Rabbi Liz P. G. Hirsch

Not unlike our Jewish holidays, Equal Pay Day is not fixed to one calendar date of the year. It moves according to the specific calculations of the wage gap each year. Black Equal Pay Day, Latina Equal Pay Day, and Native Equal Pay Day are consistently later in the year, emphasizing the wider wage gap due to greater pay discrimination faced by women of color in the United States.

As the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism notes, “Equal Pay Day is not a holiday to celebrate, but rather a day we use to bring attention to the ongoing injustice of pay discrimination in the United States . . . mark[ing] how far into the new year women must work to receive in wages what their male counterparts earned in the previous calendar year.” The haftarah reading for Equal Pay Day is an excerpt from the Women of Reform Judaism’s 2015 “Resolution on Pay Equity.”

Our values, principles, and resolutions are the roots of the Reform Movement. With our text, we affirm our sacred commitment to gender equality and economic justice.

There is much work to be done. According to an analysis by the National Part­nership for Women and Families, as of March 2020, “women in the United States are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men.” The resolution first calls upon us to take a legislative strategy, supporting current bills and policies that work to reduce the gender wage gap. We can look to the work of our Religious Action Center for the most current legislation in need of our advocacy. Significantly, the resolution also requires us to hold up a mirror and examine the policies and practices of our own institutions to ensure we are modeling pay equity in every way. To that end, seventeen organizations have joined together to form the Reform Pay Equity Ini­tiative, which is developing best practices for addressing the gender wage gap.

As we learn in the Holiness Code, the heart of our Torah, “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13). May we work toward a day when all people are paid equally and justly.


Rabbi Liz P. G. Hirsch is the incoming executive director of Women of Reform Judaism. She currently serves as rabbi of Temple Anshe Amunim, a Reform synagogue in Pittsfield, MA, and is the founding cochair of RAC Massachusetts. Rabbi Hirsch has contributed to The Social Justice Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2021) and Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Poetry Torah

From Imposter to Midrashist: Writing ‘These Words’

These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!

So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.

Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.

When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.

In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”

These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah is available for pre-order at thesewords.ccarpress.org.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

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CCAR Press

Meet Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, CCAR Press Editor

CCAR Press’s Editor, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, provides a glimpse into her new role and past experience, recommends some of her favorite CCAR Press books, and shares some of her other interests and hobbies.

Tell us about your job as CCAR Press Editor. What is your role at the Press?
As the new Editor at CCAR Press, I am working as part of a team focused on producing books that both support Reform communities and reflect the ideas, theologies, congregations, and clergy of those communities. I have the opportunity to work with our incredible members and ensure Reform rabbis’ voices are uplifted, and I serve as a developmental editor of our books to help the clarity and impact of those voices.

What attracted you to CCAR Press?
In so many ways, working at CCAR Press feels like a homecoming. I was a writing major in college and worked as a rabbinic intern for two years at the URJ Press under Rabbi Hara Person, now Chief Executive of the CCAR. In just the short time I have been at CCAR Press, I have been deeply impressed with the Press staff and their commitment to our mission and incredible knowledge base. To put even more icing on this very sweet cake, the staff of the CCAR has been gracious, welcoming, and encouraging.

You were previously the rabbi at Temple Sinai in West Houston. How does your experience as a congregational rabbi inform your editing approach?
Servings as a congregational rabbi for the past eighteen years in both small and large congregations has given me a unique perspective and insight into the nitty-gritty details of how rabbis and congregants might use our books. I feel quite lucky to have not only my personal experience as a congregational rabbi, but also the many voices of colleagues and congregants, shaping my approach.

Do you have a favorite CCAR Press book?
This is truly an impossible question to answer! If you looked at my library, you would see that my traveler’s edition of Mishkan T’filah is so well-loved that the binding is broken! I am deeply grateful for and impressed by the innovation and inclusion of Mishkan Ga’avah and the ways I’ve been able to use it as a queer woman and a rabbi supporting queer congregants. I also love InscribedAlden’s books of poetryOpening Your Heart with Psalm 27, the Omer book and cards, and the Torah commentaries. Also the Sacred series. And Mishkan HaSeder. Well, you get the picture—I am an equal opportunity book lover!

How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I love being surrounded by nature, whether that is taking care of my plant babies, exploring a national park, hiking in a state park, or camping under the stars. I read a lot, bake a lot, and love playing board games. Most of all, I love spending time with my family—my wife, Joy; our three amazing kids; and our three crazy dogs.


Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford joined the CCAR Press team in July of 2022. She is a longtime member of the CCAR Press Council and a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020). A graduate of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Rabbi Villarreal-Belford was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and holds a doctorate in Pastoral Logotherapy from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

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CCAR Press Poetry

A Memoir in Poetry: Writing ‘Longing: Poems of a Life’

In this CCAR Press interview, Merle Feld, author of Longing: Poems of a Life, discusses her creative process, what sets Longing apart from her previous work, and what she hopes readers will take away from her pieces.

What inspired the creation of Longing?

It started with a single poem, “In the corner,” my earliest recollection. The entire book unfolded from that memory. It’s an innocent poem, the voice of a very young child, maybe age three. But then in the poem that follows, the child recalls memories which are painful, terrifying, anything but innocent. This first section of the book is the most difficult, because nothing matches the helplessness of a child.

How did you select which poems to include in the book?

As many more poems came to me, I eventually realized that the book had a shape—childhood; then adolescence, a treacherous time for a girl; young love, learning as a couple how to fight, pick up the pieces, grow together. A series of poems re-engaging with the four-day vigil as my mother was dying; poems capturing a succession of cherished friends, for me an endlessly fascinating and important subject. Next, some tales of the small town in which I’ve lived for the past twenty-six years. And finally, many facets, faces, of aging. In the end it turned out I’d written a memoir in poetry.

Longing engages with both painful and joyous moments from your life. What was it like to revisit these experiences?

The book is an ongoing conversation with myself that I hope will provoke conversations in my readers. I’m still in the midst of that exploration: though a book has gone to press and is out in the world, the inner conversations continue. I learn from my writing, find new wisdom, perhaps more peace, but the next question is not far behind. And after a rest, the next poem. Especially meaningful in this process are the many accounts of how Longing has fostered deep introspection and connections for readers, that the poems inspire them to reflect on their own life stories. Not why I wrote the poems, but why I published them.

What makes Longing different from your previous books?

Longing opens a vista acquired from decades of experience through the eyes and heart of a mature person seeking discernment, healing, summoning unprecedented courage. The parallels with and contrasts to my first book, A Spiritual Life (SUNY Press 1999; revised 2007), are striking. The voice in those poems is that of a young woman, grounded in home-making, child-making, questions of career, creativity, and nascent activism, but above all, joyously celebrating her newly reclaimed Jewish identity and vigorously advocating for feminist changes, many of which are normalized in our current realities. In a way, the two volumes bookend one another.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

We are capable of tremendous resilience.

Listen, to others and to yourself.

Notice if you are inexplicably sad, or angry—find help and be courageous.

You don’t know the stories that have shaped another person: be respectful, gentle, kind.

Little children matter.

In the end, each day is gratitude.


Learn more and order the book at longing.ccarpress.org. Watch the video of the book launch, featuring a conversation between Merle Feld and Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive.


Merle Feld is an acclaimed poet, playwright, educator, and activist. Her previous works include her memoir A Spiritual Life and a poetry collection, Finding Words.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Unpacking the Bible’s Simple Truths: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘The Book of Proverbs’

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this Q&A, he discusses why he chose to write about Proverbs and what readers can learn from the book.


You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avot and Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?  

I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.

Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.

Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume? 

Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.

Did writing this book change any of your perspectives? 

My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.

Which proverb did you find most meaningful?

The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018), The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020), and The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary (2022). The books are available separately or in a discounted bundle.

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CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Benjamin David on ‘Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation’

Rabbi Benjamin P. David of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, shares insights on editing Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices?
There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.

Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? 
I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.

What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? 
It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?  
I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.


Rabbi Benjamin P. David serves Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi David is available to teach on topics in Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.