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Jewish relationship books

by: Marcus J Freed - Last updated: 2007-06-19

Holding Hands

Looking to get a Jewish perspective on Jews and relationships? From Kabbalah to Yiddish gangsters, Marcus J Freed takes a look at the five essential books for your home library.

God in Our Relationships

“It is possible to infuse every moment of life with meaning – from the routine act to the once-in-a-lifetime situation”, explains the book God in Our Relationships. The author of this comfortable read is Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, an American minister who has taken the complex teachings of the Viennese theologian Martin Buber and interprets his philosophy in the light of everyday relationships.

The heart of Buber’s work is the ‘I Thou’ relationship, where spiritual seekers are encouraged to connect to God in a way that is personal. Ross highlights the difficulties of spiritual connection in today’s age – be it email, fax or the constantly ringing mobile telephones – and frames the contemporary discussion in the light of Hasidic spiritual masters. This deserves a place on anyone’s bookshelf!

God in Our Relationships – spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber – Rabbi Dennis S. Ross (Jewish Lights, Vermont: 2003) Price: £7.76/ $16.95

The Power of Kabbalah

“Kabbalists tell us that a human being’s desire is desire for Light”, explains Yehuda Berg in The Power of Kabbalah. ”Light is everywhere…light is infinite. Boundless.” This leads us to a question, he continues, which is; “If people are the essence of desire, and the universe is flooded with Light, what’s standing in the way of our everlasting happiness? ANSWER: A curtain”.

Berg’s paperback is a full introduction to the basic concepts of Kabbalah that focuses much more on the universal self-help aspects rather than the religious aspects. Although it doesn’t have footnotes or referenced sources, there are some clearly presented concepts that provide a user-friendly gateway to Jewish mysticism. The author takes you through the biggest problems that can cause depression and negativity and draws upon kabbalistic tools to offer solutions and practical suggestions.

The Power of Kabbalah, Yehuda Berg (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 2004) Price: £8.99
The Flame of the Heart

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is one of the Jewish world’s posthumous superstars. Although he has been dead for over 200 years, his name is scrawled in graffiti all over Israel since he became the focus and namesake of the spiritual revivalist Na-Nah-Nahman sect. So what’s all the fuss about?

The Flame of the Heart is a translation of the prayers that were written down by Rebbe Nosson of Breslov, who was the closest disciple and personal secretary of the Hasidic mystic. This is unlike any prayerbook you will find in a synagogue as it has readings with titles like ‘Unity in Diversity’, ‘Praying in the Fields’, ‘Living with Mindfulness’ and ‘Finding God in Everything’. This book is a challenge to the most seasoned of worshippers and is the religious equivalent of taking a car off-road and down the side of a mountain; you might recognise the language of the writing, but the experience is completely new.

The Flame of the Heart  - Prayers of a Chasidic Mystic – Reb Noson of Breslov (translated and adapted by David Sears with the Breslov Research Institute)  (Jewish Lights, Vermont: 2006)  Price: £12.99

Jewish Meditation

Jewish Meditation is a classic text that introduces the ancient tools for spiritual connection in a practical way. Although Aryeh Kaplan passed away in 1983, this edition was published in 1995 and has become an indispensable handbook to thousands of people. Kaplan’s gift is to combine intellectual rigour with a gentle and accessible writing style, which is a winning combination.

“People are often surprised to hear the term ‘Jewish Meditation’”, explains the author at the start of the book, and he continues to surprise and delight throughout. His introduction methods such as a Hitbodedut and his explanation of simple techniques that can be practiced on the train or whilst waiting in line at the shops make this book a must-have.

Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (Shocken Books: New York, 1995)
by Aryeh Kaplan. Price: £10.95

Tough Jews

This crazy volume makes it into my top five books on Jewish spirituality if only because it shows the absolute antithesis of every value the Bible promotes. The full title of Rich Cohen’s brilliantly researched work is ‘Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams’, and tells the story of the people who dominated the organised crime market before Italians hoods came to power.

Cohen’s writing is tough, compelling and challenging. Tough Jews is self-conscious in the challenges they present: “Jews themselves have suppressed the memory of Jewish gangsters. It was once seen as a major community problem. There were conferences. Now, less than two generations later, even Jews find the idea unbelievable. They have kept before them the image of Holocaust: Never forget. Never forget when you were victims. They have pushed aside the image of the gangster: Forget. Forget when you were bullies. When I tell old Jews about this book, they change the subject’ (p130).

This is the only book where you get the story of the Jewish gangster who was thug during the week but refused to kill anyone on Shabbat. Go figure.

Tough Jews, Rich Cohen, (Vintage Books, USA:1999) Price: £7.99