A middle-aged woman walked into J. Levine Judaica, a Midtown bookstore, one recent afternoon, looking for an inspirational gift for a friend with cancer. Owner Danny Levine pointed her to the self-help section. The customer chose one of the "Small Miracles" books, with many Jewish stories, by Brooklyn authors Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal.
The woman said someone profiled in one of the books reminded her of her friend.
The woman, Levine says, spent "a good 15, 20 minutes" reading many stories in many books.
On the shelves of Levine’s store are a growing number of books, aimed at Jewish readers, with short vignettes and uplifting messages.
In the style of the decade-old, best-selling "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series, Jewish publishers are producing similar books with a Yiddishe tam. And all the books are selling.
"9-11 is the reason," Levine says. With a faltering economy, and American soldiers fighting in the Middle East, people feel psychologically vulnerable. "We’re living in a real messed-up world," he says. "People are searching."
Some find their answers in print. "The stories are just amazing," reflecting tales of wisdom and bravery and survival, Levine says of the Jewish books’ financial success. "They are very low-priced … $9.95 or $10.95."
New titles in the last year include "Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul," edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, and "Small Miracles to Warm the Jewish Heart": "Small Miracles for Families" is to come out this summer.
Four similar books have appeared in recent months:
# "Matzoh Ball Soup" (iUniverse), a collection of personal stories, poems and rabbinical sermons, edited by cousins Oliver Kramer and Joshua Kramer.
# "The Director" (Mesorah Publications), stories of "everyday miracles" in the lives of South African Jews, by Aryeh Taback.
# "Zorei’a Tzedakos: Contemporary Stories of Divine Providence" (Feldheim Publishers), tales gathered by Brooklyn psychotherapist Meir Wikler.
# "Chicken Soup to Warm the Neshama," self-published by Brooklyn writers Pesach and Chana Burston. "We’re trying to fill a void," says Chana Burston. "There’s a yearning for spirituality, for guidance."
She and her husband originally printed their book, a collection of anecdotes and sayings they’d heard and recorded for years, as a gift for guests at their wedding in Buffalo two years ago. Responses to the book were so positive, requests for copies were so overwhelming, that they decided to put out a better-edited version, finding a printer, and arranging distribution at 60 Jewish bookshops around the country.
Their new book features a more-showy cover (a color photograph of a bowl of chicken with Hebrew letters steaming from the broth), a glossary (for readers unfamiliar with some of the cited rabbis or Hebrew terms) and some personal comments after the stories ("Stick up for what’s right, even if you’ll stick out," following a story titled "Conformity.")
"I always found stories to be a brilliant way of learning," says Chana Burston, a teacher, who with Pesach is training to serve as an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement.
All their stories, Pesach says, have "a bottom line," with the intent of leading readers to take a specific action or improve a specific character trait. "The stories are a means to an end … mussar [an ethical lesson] disguised in a subtle way."
"It’s doing very well," Chana says. "We have volume two on the way, God willing." (People with stories for the book can reach the Burstons at 718 735-6696; submissions@ChickenSoupNeshama.com.)
This new crop of books brings readers the same lessons that charismatic speakers delivered to listeners in years past. "In previous generations," Wikler says, "people also needed inspiring stories." Then there were maggidim, itinerant preachers who exhorted in Eastern Europe in Yiddish. And there were mussar books, Hebrew tomes about ethical behavior.
Today, he says, "not everyone has access" to those sources’ language or concepts.
Today’s authors of Jewish self-help books are replacing the maggidim and mussar books, Wikler says. "In some way, we are following in their footsteps."