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Become a Jew in 28 Easy Books: My Conversion Reading List

Update (4/4/11): You can now explore my annotated conversion reading list and find out what post-conversion Judaica I’m reading now by visiting my Goodreads profile. When you’re done here, I invite you to click through there!


With my mikveh appointment less than three days away, I thought this would be a good time to share my conversion reading list. Considering how central study is to the Jewish faith, it shouldn’t be a surprise that study is a central part of a Jewish conversion journey. Ordinarily with Reform Judaism, conversion candidates attend a four-month Introduction to Judaism class and/or follow a reading list required by their rabbi–in addition to a year (more or less) of regular attendance at worship services, participation in congregational life, adoption of Jewish ritual and holiday observance, and regular meetings with their rabbi.

I followed a somewhat different path. On Thursday when I emerge from the mikveh, my journey from beginning to end will have lasted nine months. While I’m very involved in my synagogue (a regular worshipper, a member, and proposed for the board of our Brotherhood), my rabbi and I met only a handful of times. My favorite Orthodox blogger, Chaviva Galatz, once joked about me saying, “The neshama (spirit) is strong in this one!” I’d agree, and because of that, I created my own study list.

It was an easy thing to do. For the most part, I followed my nose to titles that I felt would satisfy whatever overwhelming, burning, yearning curiosities I had about my about-to-be-adopted faith at a given moment, as long as my overall selection of titles included fundamental Jewish learning and my rabbi and I felt like I was progressing or, better, applying what I was learning in real life.

Since September, I’ve read 28 Judaica (Jewish-themed) titles, or approximately 7,000 pages (and skimmed through several more.) Three of them–the top three–were transcendent works that I’d recommend to anyone considering joining the Jewish people. Only one I felt was little more than a waste of time. (Guess which one.) I’m a big believer in LMGTFY, so I’ll let you run your own Amazon searches for more information on these works, should you so desire.

However, if you’re a Chicago local like I am, know that I found–and checked out–every single title as a circulating book at the Chicago Public Library. Most of the titles I found at the main Harold Washington Library Center in the Chicago Loop. In fact, the Judaica section there is so large (picture a suburban supermarket aisle filled with Jewish books from one end to the other), I’ll continue to haunt it for years to come. Others I found in the small but strong Judaica section at CPL’s Sulzer Regional Library in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Now on to the list, in semi-chronological order…

  1. Why Be Jewish? (David J. Wolpe)
  2. The Sabbath (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
  3. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History (Joseph Telushkin)
  4. God Was Not in the Fire (Daniel Gordis)
  5. Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism (Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin)
  6. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Anita Diamant)
  7. Embracing the Covenant: Converts to Judaism Talk About Why and How (Rabbi Allan L. Berkowitz and Patti Moskovitz)
  8. Every Person’s Guide to Judaism (Stephen J. Einstein and Lydia Kukoff)
  9. The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (Daniel B. Syme)
  10. American Reform Judaism: An Introduction (Dana Evan Kaplan)
  11. Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (Douglas Rushkoff)
  12. For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith (Harold Schulweis)
  13. Judaism in America (Marc Lee Raphael)
  14. The New American Judaism (Rabbi Dr. Arthur Blecher)
  15. Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service (Reuven Hammer)
  16. Hillel: If Not Now, When? (Joseph Telushkin)
  17. On Judaism (Martin Buber)
  18. Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (Mark Washofsky)
  19. Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)
  20. Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul (Shimon Apisdorf)
  21. Every Person’s Guide to Purim (Ronald H. Isaacs)
  22. Kosher Nation (Sue Fishkoff)
  23. God Was in this Place & I, I Did Not Know (Lawrence Kushner)
  24. Make Your Own Passover Seder (Rabbi Alan Kay & Jo Kay)
  25. Taking Judaism Personally: Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life (Judy Petsonk)
  26. Service of the Heart (Evelyn Garfiel)
  27. Witnesses to the One: The Spiritual History of the Sh’ma (Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler)
  28. The Synagogue in America: A Short History (Marc Raphael)

And counting.

Categories: Books and Words JEWISH CONVERSION

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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23 replies

  1. I just found this list. I’m in my first high holy days season, several months into my conversion work, and as a huge reader (it’s part of what I love so much about Judaism!) this list is a gift. Thanks!

  2. Interested to learn, now seven or more years after conversion, how the studying and practice are going. Teaching a conversion class here, and would like to hear your perspective. Todah rabah!

  3. Thank you for the list. I will be giving it to some friends that I just met that are seeking Judaism! Mazel Tov on your conversion, Benjamin! You are helping some Texans in a small town.

  4. Thank you so much. I will definitely check it out. Also, apologies for commenting on such an old post! I didn’t pay attention to the date before commenting.

    1. I do 🙂 Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life. It’s a great introduction. Another really central one to consider is Telushkin’s (enormous but easy-to-read) Jewish Literacy. Both books are on the syllabus of the URJ’s 16-week Introduction to Judaism course. Enjoy the journey!

  5. This is a great list! As somebody on the very edge of the beginning of a starting point on my own journey – I plan on stealing your entire booklist. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  6. The first book on Judaism I ever actually read from cover to cover is quite dated now, but I enjoyed reading it in the early 90s:

    “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish” by Christie Balka and Andy Rose

    1. Good question. Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred discusses the heaviness of myth and absence of historically verifiable fact the undergirds the Jewish story (a statement Reform Jews would agree with and Orthodox Jews might not.) His point is that because Judaism is based on myth talking about God is baseless, and suggests instead that Judaism is–and should be–nothing more than ethical humanism. Kind of a radical Reconstructionist Jewish position. His writing style is highly self-congratulatory and pompous, as if he’s delivering a new revelation from Sinai.

      However…as a Reform Jew my main response to the book as I was reading it was, “So what?” Also, “And?” and “Tell me something I don’t know, already.” Rushkoff seems to think that if you can’t prove the journey then you can’t prove God, which completely misses the point of faith–and Judaism. He’s very obvious in his disdain for spiritual aspects of Judaism, and writes as if his book is going to somehow blow the lid off of Judaism and change it utterly. Yawn.

  7. Now, did you ever get to a point where you thought, “Well, I know all I need to know, let’s move on from the ‘Introduction to Judaism’ books”?

    Because I reached that point after way less than 28 books…I’m just wondering if I’m being lazy! I mean, I feel like at a certain point you learn more by just going out and *doing* it than reading about it…especially with the holiday stuff.

    But anyway, since we’re talking about books, may I recommend one? The Essential Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz is fabulous!

    1. Laura, I did get to that point. I wanted to make sure I had a broad base of the basics, so themes of some of titles on this list were deliberately repetitive. Other titles, though, go deeper into specific topics, like prayer, spirituality, history (especially Service of the Heart, an amazing history of the siddur, or Jewish prayerbook for non-Jews reading this comment), denominational trends, and recognizing the sacred in the everyday.

      What’s interesting is I’m usually very ADHD (a condition I do have) about endeavors like this. I’m sure several of my friends have been waiting for the requisite three months of interest to end–and my Jewish journey along with it. In a way, longevity and the steady-ahead growth of my reading list (there is so much more Judaica I want to read!) have been personal clues that I’m on the right track.

      Thank you for the Steinsaltz recommendation. I was just thinking about a good Talmud book. I’ve browsed some Jacob Neusner works about the Talmud before, but to my mind he willfully grandstands too much in his scholarly writing to keep my interest–really, to stop me from rolling my eyes and closing the book!

      1. Oops, I also should have added, the “doing,” practical part of my Jewish learning came from my participation in Sabbath services specifically and congregational life in general, and from adoption and consideration of mitzvot (commandments.) I did a lot of “doing Jewish to learn Jewish.” In practical terms, that led to kosher-style eating, morning and evening prayers, and brachot before eating or drinking. Brachot (blessings recited before the taking in of food and drink) I find especially meaningful, because they allow me to express gratitude and awe throughout my day.

      2. “What’s interesting is I’m usually very ADHD (a condition I do have) about endeavors like this. I’m sure several of my friends have been waiting for the requisite three months of interest to end–and my Jewish journey along with it. In a way, longevity and the steady-ahead growth of my reading list (there is so much more Judaica I want to read!) have been personal clues that I’m on the right track.”

        Me too! I just passed my Year Marker, which is usually when I give up on things. I suspect that my friends are just starting to forget about my requisite year to end!

        I’ll have to find out more about that book, Service of the Heart; lately, the history of the siddur is really interesting to me.

  8. Thanks to this list, and a new friend who’s a convert, lesbian loves me once again! I, too, have only meet with my one-on-one rabbi a handful of times and while I do not have a date for mikveh, I have created my own reading list as well. We were talking last week and she rattled off a handful of books for me to read and I felt kind of like a jerk when I kept saying “Read that” “Read that and loved it” “Read it and didn’t like X, Y, and Z”, etc. We settled on me re-reading a few chapters in Finding God by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme.

    Congrats on your conversion!

    1. Erika, I’m glad to have been an inspiration to further study 🙂 I had a similar “already read it, already it” episode with my rabbi, too.

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