Asterisks (*) by a title indicate that they are good "starter" books.
There are 4 sections to this page:
A Current Book (or two) recommended by our readers
Books our local rabbis have suggested for those seeking to convert
A section on Jewish novels
Book Suggestions for those considering or studying for conversion
Want to ask questions about these books or add your own suggestions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We want to share with you the list of 10 Great Introduction-to-Judaism Books from the website My Jewish Learning.
(especially good for getting started)
One of our readers suggests A History of the Jewish Experience by Leo Trepp as a good first book for those curious about Judaism. She says, "I found the book really helpful. he book is in two parts one is a look at the Jewish History experience from the biblical history to WWII; the second part of the book talks about Jewish thought and traditions."
The book is published by Behrman House, a terrific Jewish educational publisher. This book is written for a 9th grader and older, which means that it is a very easy read for adults. (Just what we like!)
The publisher says of the book:
Not so much a history of the Jews as a history of the Jewish experience, this is a must-have book for anyone wishing to understand modern Judaism.
This comprehensive work includes prayers and practices, values and traditions, ideas and hopes, culture, faith, and great moments in Jewish history. Rabbi Trepp provides a masterful overview of Judaism that is at once historical and personal.
Read more about the book on their website.
The publisher has this to say about the book:
A window into the Jewish understanding of God throughout
history and today—written especially for Christians
In Jewish Scripture—Christianity's foundation—God's presence is everywhere: in nature, in history, and in the range of human experience. Yet the Torah, Maimonides, and 4,000 years of Jewish tradition all agree on one thing: that God is beyond any form of human comprehension. How, then can Judaism be so crowded with descriptions and images of God? And what can they mean to the ways Christians understand their own faith?
In this special book, Rabbi Neil Gillman guides you through these questions and the countless different ways the Jewish people have related to God, how each originated and what each may mean for you. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, or even Jewish, this nuts-and-bolts introduction will both answer your questions—and stimulate new ones.
Being Jewish with a casual foundation in formal Judaism, the author journeys through a year of Jewish holidays and observances to delve into history and forge a path to contemporary meaning. Before each event, she did research and conducted interviews to give herself a full preview, including meeting with experts from a wide array of perspectives. Then, at each actual event, she set her notebook aside and let herself enter into pure experience. At times reverential, joyful, serious, skeptical, thoughtful and -- sometimes simply exhausted -- she emerged from her yearlong immersion with a deeper appreciation and respect for these ties that bind the People Israel. This book is an illuminating and provocative journey through a year of Jewish events.
I read My Jewish Year a couple of years ago as part of my explorations. It remains one of my favorites, and it gave me a lot of ideas that I'm still examining.
Review by Elisheva Mayim
These are books our local rabbis suggest for those seekers interested in converting to Judaism.
For those just getting started on their learning, Rabbi Sarah Wolf Weissman of Beth Am recommends Living Judaism by Wayne Dosick.
Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland recommends these two books for people just learning about Judaism:
To Life! by Harold Kushner for "Why consider Judaism? or what is cool and interesting about it."
How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg for "How" and "What" Judaism is like.
Rabbi Janet Marder of Beth Am in Los Altos often recommends that conversion students read To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.
Rabbi David Wolpe: In 1993 the East Bay Jewish community offered a program titled, Why Be Jewish?. Its focus was to answer the questions that interfaith couples and those interested in conversion have about participating in Judaism. Our keynote speaker was Rabbi David Wolpe. A year later, stimulated by his experience at the conference and the responses to his talk, Rabbi Wolpe wrote a small book titled, Why Be Jewish? whose three chapters are: To Grow in Soul, To Join a People, To Seek God. This slender book is worth reading.
Rabbi Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham recommended reading one or more of these books when preparing for the High Holy Days.
Entering the High Holidays: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and Themes by Reuven Hammer
This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew
Moments of Transcendence and Yom Kippur Readings, both of which are collections of inspirational thoughts and prayers by Dov Peretz Elkins
Meditations for the Days of Awe by Dov Peretz Elkins
Rosh Hashanah and /or Yom Kippur: Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers Anthologized from Talmudic and Traditional Sources by ArtScrol; Mesorah
Rosh Hashanah Anthology or Yom Kippur Anthology by Philip Goodman
Days of Awe by Sfas Emes
by Helene Wecker
This absorbing novel is a mix of historical fiction and magical realism, combining both Jewish mysticism and Arab folklore, in turn of the century New York. The story of the chance meeting of Chava, a golem, and Ahmed, a jinni captured in human form - how they relate to each other and react to the outside world. It's multilayered and beautifully written, about creation and art, love and what it means to be human.
By Lillian Nattel
The publisher says: In stunningly vivid prose, and with a touch of her trademark magical realism, Nattel brings the fin de siécle city to life -- whores and rabbis, street vendors and artists, sweatshops and Yiddish theatre. Nehama and Emilia each arrive in London alone, naïve and full of dreams of independence.
Our reviewer says: This is a story of two women, emigrating from Eastern Europe to London in the 1880s, whose lives cross briefly on their separate paths. They each suspect they're irredeemable and unworthy of love, yet they manage to find a place in the world. Beautiful descriptions without being overwrought, with interesting history and commentary on assimilation and social mobility.
The Art of Jewish Living
by Dr. Ron Wolfson
From the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, 1990. This set includes books on Shabbat, Hanukkah, and Passover with hands-on instructions, many illustrations and anecdotes. This is an excellent resource for the whole family to read, enjoy and use as a guide to practice. They are now available from Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont.
Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community
Edited by Noach Dzmura
This is a series of essays, the first of its kind, about the Jewish transgender community. Lots to think about, especially about identity. A must-read for all of us.
by Milton Steinberg
This is the basic text and has been for decades. You can get it used for a couple bucks. Should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
Becoming a Jew
by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
An excellent resource, and it has so much info, you might get overwhelmed. Rabbi Lamm breaks it down for you to understand.
"It's conversational but covers many topics in depth." Recommended by a local Jew by choice.
Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards and Paths to Conversion
by Jennifer Hanin and Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben
In The Netherlands there are no books for people like me, who are interested in becoming a Jew. None whatsoever. So I have been reading a few books like this one, Becoming Jewish in English. What I like about this book is that it is written for absolute beginners like me. American conversion is a bit different from Dutch conversion (which I think is so much harder!), but I do find the information in this book useful. I found the glossary especially useful. What I miss in the book is a chapter about conversion for people like me, whose partner is an atheist. Another thing: I always like to read about other people’s conversion so a few more stories about the conversion process would be nice. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, and I have read it more than once. It is a very user-friendly book that covers basically all topics about Judaism. Readers who like Anita Diamond’s books will probably like this one too.
The Book of Jewish Values
by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
A day book examining 265 Jewish values. My all time favorit book on ethics - covers the gamut of mitzvot. This is a favorite book of mine and something I always give as a bar/bat mitzvah gift.
*Choosing A Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for their Families and Friends
by Anita Diamant
A detailed description of the conversion process that offers celebration suggestion and discusses the creation of a meaningful Jewish identity following conversion. As a prospective convert I found this book to be an excellent resource. It's a very easy read. The author's tone is warm yet pragmatic, conversational yet informative. She begins the book with a summary of her own journey in reclaiming her Jewish identity and traditions as well as her husband's conversion experience. The book covers all the topics an Intro to Judaism class should cover; importantly, it also addresses some of the more intimidating aspects of conversion: choosing a rabbi, immersion in the mikvah, appearing before a beit din, and acceptance by the community-at-large. After reading this book, I am far less intimidated by the conversion process, and I am grateful for it. I just purchased a copy for my parents to help them understand my desire to convert.
I really liked this one. Very user-friendly.
Choosing a Jewish Life is a book which offers the person contemplating becoming Jewish and/or the Jew by Choice an easy-to-read overview of questions and answers pertaining to this process. It is written in a non-technical style from a rather liberal viewpoint, but certainly contains much of the necessary information from each of the Jewish perspectives. The author includes a “Converts and Conversion” bibliography as well as a brief glossary.
She states that “You Cannot Be Jewish in Isolation.” As the reader examines each section of this book, it will become apparent why that is true and why the Jewish life is an extraordinary personal decision.
Potential converts now have the opportunity to become well acquainted with the many aspects of living a Jewish life with books such as this one which were not readily available before the 1990s.
by Lydia Kukoff
One of the first books written on conversion to Judaism. Offers basic information about Judaism and covers issues that arise with parents, children, and within the Jewish community.
The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism
By Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz
Exposes and challenges the common assumptions about whom and what Jews are, by presenting in their own voices, Jews of color from the Iberian Peninsula, Asia, Africa, and India. Drawing from her earlier work on Jews and whiteness, Kaye/Kantrowitz delves into the largely uncharted territory of Jews of color and argues that Jews are an increasingly multiracial people.
*The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism
by Benjamin Blech
Embracing the Covenant: Converts to Judaism Talk About Why & How
by Rabbi Allan Berkowitz and Patti Moskovitz
This was written by Patti Moskowitz, a Bay Area educator who works with people as they study towards conversion. She lives in San Mateo and is currently taking students through the rabbis with whom she works. The stories in this book are from local Jews by Choice.
Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals
by George Robinson
Please note: A rabbi contacted us to say that there are numerous errors in this book. He has contacted the publisher who is in the process making corrections for future editions and in the online version.
4 different reviews:
I've read this book twice and I use it continually as a reference volume. It was the first book my rabbi told me to read when I said I had some interest in converting to Judaism. The book is occasionally a bit thickly worded, but the upside of that is that there is a good amount of detail for those who want to know the nuts-and-bolts. All in all I would say it's been an invaluable resource to me. I have even been known to pick some random section of Essential Judaism to read before bed when I'm between books.
I absolutely loved Essential Judaism. I found it easy to ready and it basically gives an excellent overview of what Judaism is. It is great for a person who is inquiring, but it is also good for those who already have a basic understanding of Judaism. I've read it cover-to-cover; however, it is good for looking up specific topics regarding Judaism. I think it should be part of any Intro to Judaism course. It is a great resource.
Essential Judaism is a comprehensive but easily accessible overview of a pretty massive subject. He goes through the basics...the prayers, practices, and holidays of Judaism, but he also dives into the texts, philosophy, and current events. I strongly recommend this book for those pursuing/considering conversion. It covers so much and it's a pleasure to read!
We used that book in my college World Religions-Judaism class. I found it slightly more thorough and academic than other 'intro' guides; it's perfect for people starting to consider Judaism who are readers, thinkers, pretty sure they're going to convert, but I wouldn't recommend it to, say, family wanting to learn about my religion. It generated lots of class discussion split on whether Reform point of view or Orthodox Judaism heavy; I say Reform but no malice to Conservative or Orthodox. It is great at Tanakh, worship services; slightly weaker on lifecycle; not as great on chagim, too much Kabbalah.
Exploring the Prayerbook II: Special readings through the Jewish Year
I have finally found a book that is exceptionally helpful, at least for me, who likes to know why things are done: "Exploring the Prayerbook II" by Ehrlich and Shekel. Simple explanations about what Rosh H and YK actually are, for instance. I keep saying "oh, now I get it!" Goes through all the year, Purim, festivals, etc. Wonderful. Plus, has Hebrew.
The Everything Judaism Book - A Complete Primer
by Richard Bank
Very user friendly.
The Everything Torah Book
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays: Complete Menus, Rituals and Party Planning Ideas for Every Holiday of the Year
by Marlene Sorosky
Everything from setting the Shabbat table to braiding Challah. Includes photos, clear directions and helpful timing tips for making a big holiday meal. Good explanation of why certain foods are significant for various holidays. Author lives in Danville, CA.
Finding a Home for the Soul
by Catherine Hall Myrowitz
A collection of interviews with people from diverse backgrounds on their search for meaning and eventual conversion to Judaism.
Finding God: Selected Responses
by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme
If you are interested in learning what is the Jewish view of God (or even if you THINK you know what is the Jewish view of God but haven't read this book!), then Finding God: Selected Responses is an easy but fascinating read. In 13 short chapters, it covers how some of the great Jewish thinkers have thought about God over the last 2,000+ years. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down!
Gates of Shabbat
Written for those seeking to understand the significance of Shabbat, this book breaks down the elements of Shabbat into easy-to-understand sections. The Gates of Shabbat is organized into three sections: Observing Shabbat, Readings and Meditations, and Taking the Next Step. Observing Shabbat provides essential information about Erev (evening) Shabbat and Shabbat Day, both at home and in the Synagogue. Readings and Meditations includes prose and poetry for study in home observance. Finally, Taking the Next Step includes a mitzvah definition, prayers, and songs, with sheet music.
The Handbook for Jewish Living
by Kerry Olitzky and Ronald Isaacs
The How To Handbook for Jewish Living and The Second How to Handbook for Jewish Living
by Ronald H. Isaacs, Dorcas Gelabert and Kerry M. Olitzky
Everything from how to bend during Baruch Atah Adonai, complete with illustrations, how to dance the Hora, how to wave the Lulav, how to hang a mezuzzah. The whole deal. EASY and accessible. I use these all the time when I need a quick answer - or have forgotten something I once knew and need a refresher. Good, quick reference book for those weird, nagging questions that can become huge obstacles/challenges when you're new.
How to Keep Kosher: A comprehensive Guide to Understanding Jewish Dietary Laws
by Lise Stern
How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household
by Blu Greenberg
This has been a terrific guide - even though my family is not Orthodox, it has helped me understand a broad range of customs/practices. Has recipes, step-by-step guides for lighting candles, celebrating holidays, saying blessings, keeping kosher.
The Jewish Book of Why - Volumes 1 and 2
by Dr. Ron Wolfson
I go to this for the out-in-left-field questions I have. If you read nothing more than these books, you'd have a good basic handle on why a lot of stuff is done that seems completely irrational on the surface.
The Jewish Holidays - a Guide and Commentary
by Michael Strassfeld
250 pages. Very comprehensive. Answers the "whys" behind the reason for the holiday customs.
Jewish Holidays All Year Round
by Ilene Cooper
All the major holidays with beautiful illustrations for children (or newbies). Even things like a good kugel recipe inside.
The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living
by Daniel B. Syme
Explains the "why" of major Jewish rituals from the birth of a child to the Jewish wedding, bar and bat mitzvah, Jewish divorce, confirmation, and the holidays. Ideal introduction to Jewish family living. From Union of Reform Judaism press. A good basic book.
Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History
by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
If I could recommend a book to anyone wanting to learn more about Judaism, I would choose this one. Telushkin goes through the Bible, through Jewish history, through Jewish ethics and traditions in an easily digestible style. I would look forward to my daily BART commute because I enjoyed reading this book so much.
Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice
by Mark Washofsky
Initially I had a hard time getting into this one. I think I needed to learn more about the fundamentals of Judaism first. Now I'm really enjoying it. Washofsky clearly defines Reform practice, highlighting its progressive nature while respecting and upholding the benefits of Jewish religious pluralism.
The Jewish Way
by Rabbi Irving Greenberg
Not for the beginner, but loved by some. Library Journal said of it: Diverse, non-linear material precludes its easy use as a handbook... The chapters on each major and minor holiday are crammed with facts, anecdotes, and personal reflections...
by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
When, if ever, should lying be permitted? If you've damaged a person's reputation unfairly, can the damage be undone? Is person who sells weapons responsible for how those weapons are used? If the fetus is not a life, what is it? How, as an adult, can one carry out the command to honor one's parents when they make unreasonable demands? What are the nine biblical challenges a good person must meet?
A richer source of crucial life lessons would be hard to imagine.
Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families
by Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper
A great place to start! Diamant and Cooper go through Jewish customs and holidays at a beginner level. They speak to anyone looking to learn more about Judaism (non-observant Jews, those seeking conversation, non-Jews with Jewish grandchildren), so it's incredibly accessible. I love this book.
Lovesong: Becoming a Jew
by Julius Lester
A must have for Jews of color! Mr. Lester's journey resonates with everyone. Lester, son of a black southern Methodist minister, writes of the eventful odyssey that culminated in his conversion to Judaism. The private journey was often at odds with his public life. As writer, radio commentator in New York and college professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lester's outspoken and unconventional views often angered blacks as well as whites, and placed him in a political and philosophical fray between blacks and Jews.
My Jewish Year - Celebrating Our Holidays
by Adam Fisher
160 pages, large type, illustrations, photos. Geared for kids - but good for beginners.
Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism
by Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin
On the Doorposts of Your House: Prayers and Ceremonies for the Jewish Home
by Chaim Stern
Edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv
Twenty-one essays by all kinds of men and women involved in Jewish life -- principals, rabbis, and those who are secular -- tell us what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and Jewish. Consider this a place to go if you're gay and considering dipping your toe into the Jewish world.
by Abraham Joshua Heschel
This book is beautifully written. It describes time from a Jewish perspective. He writes "the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time." This encompasses what Judaism means to me. It is a sanctuary in my life that I celebrate each week. Shabbat to me was the most accessible way to start living a Jewish life in Jewish time.
This book outlines how Judaism's time-honored rituals function as personal, meaningful sources of comfort. Diamant guides the reader through Jewish practices that attend the end of life, from the sickroom to the funeral to the week, month, and year that follow. There are chapters describing the traditional Jewish funeral and the customs of Shiva, the first week after death when mourners are comforted and cared for by community, friends, and family. She also explains the protected status of Jewish mourners, who are exempt from responsibilities of social, business, and religious life during Shloshim, the first thirty days. And she provides detailed instructions for the rituals of Yizkor and Yahrzeit, as well as chapters about caring for grieving children, mourning the death of a child, neonatal loss, suicide, and the death of non-Jewish loved ones.
by Arthur Waskow
Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1982
Describes and discusses the holidays of the Jewish calendar. Not a beginner’s book. After you have a grasp of the holidays and understand the difference between the Torah and the Talmud, this book is a window into how the holidays were practiced when the Temple stood and how they have evolved theologically.
by Kerry Olitzky and Ronald Isaacs
Everything from how to bend during Baruch Atah Adoni- complete with illustrations, how to dance the Hora, how to wave the Lulav, how to hang a mezuzzah. The whole deal. EASY and accessible. I use these all the time when I need a quick answer - or have forgotten something I once knew and need a refresher.
The Second Jewish Book of Why
by Alfred J. Kolatch
by Stephen Wylen
This was one of my "primer" books, a great way to start with explanations I could understand as a beginner. Many Jews by Choice I know say they started with this book, and that it's their favorite.
This is the class text for a number of introduction to Judaism classes taught by Reform rabbis.
The Tribe of Dina, A Jewish Women's Anthology
Edited by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz
In richly diverse essays, stories, memoirs, poems, and interviews, the contributors to this collection affirm the depth of Jewish women's participation in Jewish life and give strength to feminist struggles in the Jewish community.
by Herman Wouk
First published in 1959 this classic Orthodox approach addresses God, the holidays, Jewish home practice, synagogue life, kashrut, Jewish law today and more.
By Alan Lew
I read this book in preparation for my first High Holidays as a Jew and it is FAAAAAAANTASTIC. I love the way he writes, so profoundly, and then brings it back to reality with comparisons like baseball (which I love!). He says something like "a year in Jewish life is like baseball. You start at home (Rosh Hoshanah) and then you spend a year going through the holidays and the year is like 'circling the bases' and at the end of the year, you're home again, but you aren't the same person as when you left." (Which is so true). I was worried the book might be too heavy, but it's not. It's amazing. And he talks very much about forgiveness and even forgiving oneself. I could go on and on and on. WOW.
To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life
by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin
From the publisher: This indispensable volume has long been acknowledged as the classic guide to the traditional Jewish laws and customs as they apply to daily life in the contemporary world. The unique treasury of practical information and daily inspiration has long been acknowledged as the classic guide to the ageless heritage of Judaism—Jewish attitudes, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish law.
What Is a Jew?
by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer
This book is written in a Q&A format, easy to navigate and understand.
Recommended by Miriam Eliana, "My rabbi recommended a book that I absolutely loved. It was a quick read, written in a conversational tone (versus academic) and it answered a lot of my questions in quick mini-chapters. It is called: What is a Jew? by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer. I would highly recommend this one as a first read."
By Robert Schoen
If you have very little background in Judaism but were raised in a Western culture, American, English, French, etc., this book is a great starting point to understand Judaism. It is explained from a culturally Christian viewpoint. If you can’t find it in your local bookstore or library, you may request it through the interlibrary loan program in the USA.
by Harry Gersh
A basic education in the ritual observance of the Sabbath; the festivals, feasts, and fasts of the Jewish calendar; and the major events of a Jewish lifetime, as marked in the synagogue and the home.