Jewish Self-help Books Flood the Shelves This Holiday Season

Got a question?

Rabbi Jennifer Krause has the answer: Keep asking questions.

“I want to help people trust their ability to come up with the answers that fit their own lives rather than depending on the one-size-fits-all answers that others give them,” says Krause, a New York rabbi whose first book, “The Answer: Making Sense of Life One Question at a Time” (A Perigee Book), is scheduled to hit the shelves Oct. 2.

Krause divides her self-help book into seven chapters, each of which addresses a universal “why am I here” question. It’s action oriented: Written exercises at the end of each chapter encourage readers to identify their personal needs and obstacles.

“Use your ‘highlighter,’ ” she urges on page 166. “What stirs your heart to action? What will you ‘walk the line’ for?”

Although her book is aimed at the general reader rather than a specifically Jewish audience, Krause says this method of self-improvement, which relies on conversation that emerges from questions, is deeply Jewish.

“I’m not giving people answers,” she says. “I want to reintroduce the power of the questions themselves.”

“The Answer” is part of the hugely popular and still-growing genre of personal growth literature that has spilled over into the world of Jewish publishing with a vengeance.

“Self-help books are very much a function of the age,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the rector of the American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles and author of “The Way into Tikkun Olam,” published this spring by Jewish Lights Publishing. “People are focused on themselves, and it’s not seen as narcissistic.”

Written frequently by rabbis or Jewish educators, Jewish self-help books range from those that advocate a return to religious observance to ones based loosely on Jewish values. What they share is the aim of using these spiritual or psychological tools to set an ethical path aimed at improving one’s life and the world at large.

“There are no clear-cut halachot,” or Jewish laws, on how to feel better about oneself, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author of a string of best-selling books about Jewish wisdom. “It’s not like the laws of keeping kosher. You’re looking to advice that’s strewn throughout Torah, throughout Talmud.”

Stuart Matlins is the publisher of the Vermont-based Jewish Lights, which has been putting out this genre of literature for years.

“The difference is not in the availability of the material suddenly but the increased interest in it,” he says.

It’s no coincidence that many of these books appear in late summer or early fall, right around the High Holy Days — a period when Jews traditionally are engaged in self-reflection. Krause says she didn’t plan for her book to come out during Sukkot, but nevertheless considers the timing “bashert,” or decided by heaven.

Jewish Lights this fall is publishing “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham Twerski, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and psychiatrist who has written dozens of books about spirituality and self-esteem.

Twerski, who developed many of his ideas as medical director of The Gateway Rehabilitation Center he founded in rural Pennsylvania, posits a definition for spirituality that has little to do with God or Jewish theology.

For him, being spiritual is developing one’s human capabilities to the fullest, “to be the best we can be, to exercise all the qualities and traits that are unique to humankind,” Twerski says. And only by reaching for that spiritual development can one be happy, he concludes.

Like Krause, Twerski writes about actual exercises for the reader, from being nice to someone against whom you hold a grudge to mowing the lawn for your father. The reader is encouraged to keep a journal to record these deeds.

“Remember, you are not doing this for someone else,” writesTwerski, who now lives in Monsey, N.Y. “You are doing this to improve your character, to be more spiritual, to be a happier person.”

Like many other authors of Jewish self-help books, Twerski takes the universal human desire to be happy and shows how it is intertwined with doing good — which means, doing Jewish.

Even more clearly aimed at High Holy Days reading is “God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth” by Ron Wolfson, an education professor at the American Jewish University and co-founder of Synagogue 3000, a synagogue renewal initiative.

First published by Jewish Lights last October, the book has caught on among rabbis and teachers this year as a foil for High Holy Days programming. Some 12,000 copies have been printed, which Matlins says testifies to the popularity of the genre as well as “God’s To-Do List.”

Some rabbis are devoting their Rosh Hashanah sermons to the book, asking their congregations to read it during the 10 Days of Awe — the book is divided into 10 chapters to facilitate that use — and coming together as a group afterward for discussion.

Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn of Temple Emanuel in Winston Salem, N.C., will speak on “doing God’s work” for his Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon. He has ordered 300 copies of Wolfson’s book to hand out to his 250-member congregation.

“Everyone will take a book and, hopefully, read a chapter a day,” Strauss-Cohn says. “On Yom Kippur afternoon it will be one of our discussion topics.”

Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Westport, Conn., is going further. Not only is every family being given a copy of the book, Rabbi Bob Orkand says he will ask them to “reflect on what it suggests and develop a contract of what they are willing to do in the coming year to be ‘one of God’s angels.’ ”

Orkand says the congregation has never done a project of this scale.

Rabbi David Levy, director of Jewish life at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., is building his weekly lunch-‘n’-learn sessions for the entire academic year around the book — 10 months, one chapter a month.

Each month he hopes students will plan an event in the Student Center calling on their fellow students to “be an angel” by perhaps setting up a phone bank and asking passers-by to “take two minutes and call your mother.”

The lessons in these Jewish self-help books are universal, say the authors and those planning to use the books for programming.

“We’re not going to be jumping into doing lots of ritual mitzvot,” notes Strauss-Cohn, emphasizing that his congregation is Reform. “But living ethical lives is something we can all get behind.”

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