Summer Reading!

News and Views

Make your books your companions; let your cases and shelves be your pleasure-grounds and orchards. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices.
—Judah Ibn Tibbon, Tzavaah

A few summers ago, I shared my 11th grade tale regarding “summer reading”, and so I won’t regale you with repeated tales at this time as we turn the calendar to June.

However, as we Jews are known as “People of the Book”, and as many of us see the summer as a time to catch up—on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan or en route to some sunny destination—on the books that have been gathering dust on our shelves during the busy months of winter and spring, I wanted again to share some recommendations with you all about some wonderful potential additions to your reading list for the summer.

Rabbi Akiba: Sage of the Talmud by Barry Holtz

This wonderful entry in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” biography series does a fantastic job of capturing all that is important about the teacher, person, and legend who is known as Rabbi Akiba. Akiba was one of the leading Jewish figures at a monumental moment in our history: he lived as our sacred Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and as the rabbinic community created a new way for us to remain true to our heritage. While this lovely little volume is a great way to become acquainted with one of the major figures of Jewish history, in this rabbi’s opinion it also serves as one of the best introductions to the major themes of Judaism out there today.

(((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

Jonathan Weisman is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other papers, whose Jewish identity was never of great significance to him until anti-Semitic trolls began to pester and paper his pages with bile and hate. Weisman’s captivating book not only provides an incredible description of the rise of the alt–right in America, but also evaluates the role of social media in our current cultural and political discourse. Importantly, the book also ends with a call to action for all of us in the Jewish community.

High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen

Cabrini Green is the lead character, and our beloved Jenner Academy for the Arts is a constant supporting presence, in this new history of our neighbors five blocks west of Chicago Sinai Congregation. Austen’s book is an incredible account of how our city intentionally built a divide between the wealthy Gold Coast and the poor people purposively placed into neighborhoods cyclically known as Little Hell, Cabrini, and ultimately Cabrini Green. Austin provides a frank and personal account of life in that neighborhood through the century of its existence, and also argues strongly for why all of us should stop seeing ourselves as the Gold Coast and Cabrini, and instead to think of our wider area as a united near North Side.

Pogrom by Steve Zipperstein

The pogrom in Kishinev was a seminal event in its time, whose memory has faded over the centuries since it took place. In an account that is gripping while remaining academic, Zipperstein places the Kishinev program in its historical context, and explains the many legacies it has left. With dexterity, the book connects themes as varied as typologies of suffering, the impact of new media, and the historical longevity of short-lived events. Connecting the dots from Bessarabia to the State of Israel as well as the founding of the NAACP, Pogrom is a most interesting read.

The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills by David Ansell

Dr. David Ansell has brought his intelligence and passion to important careers at Cook County Hospital, Sinai Hospital, and—most recently—Rush Medical Center as well. What Dr. Ansell has seen in his years as a clinician (and soldier of social justice) is what he so accurately describes as “the death gap“. The harrowing and true premise of his book is that, depending on where you live on a 5 mile stretch of Ogden Avenue running north and south, your life expectancy can vary as much as 20 years. The years you will live are determined by where you live. This powerful book is a must-read for all Chicagoans to understand how disparities continue to work and play in our city.

The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al-Samawi

The saga of a political prisoner trying to escape the advance of Al Qaeda in Yemen—the tale of a Sunni Muslim trying to escape a Shiite advance only to be saved through Facebook by Jews and Christians scattered all over the globe—is a story that defies belief. We at Chicago Sinai Congregration were honored this spring to have Al-Samawi share his story in our sanctuary. Soon, the producers of La La Land and the screenwriter for Moonlight will turn his ordeal into an epic motion picture. Until that date arrives, the true yet seemingly unbelievable account of how one person was saved by so many, across lines of race, class and color, is a wonderful and encouraging read for the summer.

These books are the ones that have most spoken to me during the past year. If you choose to read any of them, I’d love to hear what you think about them. And, if you choose not to read them, I hope you tell me what wonderful books have crossed your path this summer. In either case, I do wish everyone a summer of relaxation, restoration, and reconnection with the things that are most important to us. I’m looking forward to having us all together for the High Holy Days once summer has faded into memory.

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