The Book of Jewish Knowledge- A multifaceted exploration of the teachings, observances, and history of Judaism by The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
Raise your hand if you remember The Book of Knowledge or the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Book of Knowledge, in its little two shelf oak bookcase, sat in my bedroom, well read with covers well worn. It provided esoteric facts for those dreaded assigned essays on the important export crops of Bolivia (not sure why I needed to know that), or the demise of the British Commonwealth of Nations, or dog breeds (not assigned but useful in our houseful of pets- canaries (“Birdbrain”- self explanatory), cats (“Loopy”- ditto), and dogs (too numerous to mention)). It taught me “touch typing” on an old, manual, clickety clackety typewriter.
Which brings me to this book review and this fabulous compendium- The Book of Jewish Knowledge- a multifaceted exploration of the teachings, observances, and history of Judaism. The book consists of five sections- Jewish History, Jewish Teaching, Jewish Practice, The Jewish Year, and Lifecycle Milestones- with each section divided into subsections and topics. From Abraham to Sarah, Moses and the Exodus, David and Solomon, the medieval era to the modern state of Israel, all are richly detailed and annotated, beautifully written for the layman and the expert.
“Our section on Jewish History presents some of the signature events in the four-thousand-year trajectory of the Jewish story, and their significance in the words of their actors and observers.” One such observer is Mark Twain, who noted: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of…” Interspersed with the written history are timelines and family trees, photos of antiquities and colorful relics, modern photos of these historical sites; one in particular caught my eye- a picture of “Jabal Musa (‘Mount Moses’) in the Sinai Peninsula, believed by many to be the Biblical Mount Sinai where Moses received the Torah.” It is a gorgeous mound of golden rock, glowing yellow in the reflected sunlight.
Another section is Jewish Practice, focusing “on a number of precepts that stand out as hallmarks…prayer, charity, Shabbat, the kosher dietary laws, and the ‘signifiers’ of Jewish identity- mezuzah, tefillin, and tzitzit.” Again, a richly annotated section filled with commentary from noted authorities, details of festival joy, photos of menorahs glowing and matzahs baking. Lifecycle events are next- weddings (“A Roman princess asked R. Yosei ben Chalafta: ‘In how many days did G-d create the world?’ Said he to her: ‘In six days.’ Said she to him: ‘And from then until now, what does He do?’ Said he to her: ‘He sits and matches couples.’”), bar and bat mitzvahs, work and retirement, taharah (readying the body for burial) and burial.
One page in particular is notable- page 377 contains a recipe for cheese blintzes, along with a most appetizing picture of said blintzes topped with sour cream and blueberry sauce. During the height of the pandemic, when Shavuos was celebrated without friends or family and shopping was limited, I ordered a small iron frying pan and blintz ingredients- I was determined to duplicate my mother’s cheese blintzes for our solitary yomtov meal. My mother would pour a very thin batter into the greased iron skillet, hold the hot skillet handle with a striped dish towel, swirl the batter and, after only a minute or two, would flip the now bubbling and set batter onto another dishtowel, repeating and piling and then filling those perfect circles with a sweet farmer’s cheese mixture. Her blintzes looked like the picture on page 377- mine resembled a poor facsimile thereof. But the blueberry sauce was amazing!
This is a true “coffee table” book, one you will reference time and again for facts both current and archaic, for timelines and charts, for museum quality reproductions of jugs and vessels and relics and paintings, for the joy in the holidays and those gorgeous cheese blintzes. Enjoy scrolling through this much appreciated, hard bound resource!
Randy Rubinstein lives in Sharon, Massachusetts. Randy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org