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Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History Hardcover – April 26, 1991

4.7 out of 5 stars 121 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 1988, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin undertook a mission to heal "Jewish ignorance," an affliction whose symptoms include the ability to name the three components of the Trinity, coupled with an inability to explain mitzvah. Telushkin's contribution to the cure is his wide-ranging, entertaining Jewish Literacy. First published in 1991, Jewish Literacy contains almost 350 entries on subjects ranging from the Ten Commandments to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Entries are numbered (for easy, encyclopedia-style reference) and organized topically (to smooth the experience of reading each page straight through). And the revised edition contains several new entries (including articles about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the vice-presidential nomination of Joseph Lieberman) as well as numerous corrections, enlargements, and updates. One might expect Rabbi Telushkin's project of inspiring Jewish literacy to be overly earnest, but the author's understated wit adds considerable levity to most entries. The entry on "Sodom and Gomorrah," for instance, ends this way: "A number of years ago, some Israeli promoters of tourism suggested transforming the modern city of Sodom into a tourist haven with casinos, nightclubs, and even strip shows. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel sharply demurred, warning that there was nothing to prevent God from destroying the city a second time. The plan was dropped." --Michael Joseph Gross

From Library Journal

Traditionalist Rabbi Telushkin ( The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism) presents 364 brief explanations of the most important concepts and topics concerning Judaism, Jews, and their history and culture. Each entry runs from one to three pages in length. Basic religious terms, ethics, historical events, religious texts, Jewish personalities, and more are covered in a lively, popular style. A useful feature is that each entry is followed by a short bibliography of further readings on the subject. Despite the occasional superficiality of its coverage, this book is a useful introductory course for Jewish and non-Jewish "illiterates" from teenagers on up. A useful addition for general Judaica collections.
- Robert A. Silver, Shaker Heights P.L ., Ohio
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1 edition (April 26, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688085067
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688085063
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #117,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, spiritual leader and scholar, is the acclaimed author of nine other nonfiction books, including The Book of Jewish Values, The Golden Land: The Story of Jewish Immigration to America, and Jewish Literacy, the most widely read book on Judaism of the past two decades. He is a senior associate of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, serves on the board of the Jewish Book Council, and is the rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Synagogue for the Performing Arts. He lives with his family in New York City and lectures regularly throughout the United States.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A Rabbi once joked to me about learning about Judaism. He noted that some folks promote their religions by giving out pamphlets from fold-up tables. He noted, "If someone asked a Jew about Judaism, he'd have to do this," and he plunked down a stack of about 10 books on his desk with a loud whack.
That's how it gets after 3500 years, I'm afraid.
Well, here it is for your perusal; Judaism between two covers. It's not complete, but it's pretty much the best damn overview of Judaism that I have ever seen. It's well-written, concise, informative, and thorough. There is very little authorial agenda in the book, and he clearly tries to treat potentially hot "political" issues (such as the divisive "Who is a Jew" issue) as even-handedly as possible (Telushkin is an Orthodox Rabbi). Further, the book is laid out in such a way, like encyclopedia entries, that a person looking for information on a particular topic--such as the Jewish take on Jesus, say--can find it quickly and easily.
If you are interested in learning about Judaism at all, or if you are a Jew yourself who wants a good starting point for educating yourself, I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
This encyclopedic tome is wonderfully readable, filled with fascinating insights for Jews and non-Jews. It's not a book to read in one sitting, but it is written so clearly and enjoyably that I have found myself picking it up frequently, reading through a half-dozen entries, and have gradually worked my way through the book.
One of the things I like most about the book is how it mixes the familiar and unfamiliar; covering topics that I think I know about, confirming some of my recollection but pushing me to understand things in new ways. For example, in the discussion about the ten commandments, Telushkin discusses the significance of not taking god's name in vain -- he points out that this is generally misinterpreted. He posits that the appropriate interpretation is that the "shall not" refers to acting in the name of god when one is doing something ungodly (i.e. doing bad things while claiming to be a representative of god). This is, in a sense, "ranked" as worse than murder. I thought this was very eye-opening.
I've found the combination of history, biography, religious studies, and Jewish trivia to be very good reading. Numerous times I've read a section and turned to my fiance with a "you've got to read this." My understanding of Judaism is definitely better for the reading, particularly Judaism in the context of a mostly Christian society. I highly recommend this book.
(By the way, I bought this very cheaply in the discount section of a local bookstore, so you may want to look around before making your purchase. But it would be worth the full price, even if you can't find it for less.)
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've been looking in vain for the right balance for years. So many "catch-up" books on Judaism are filled with abstrusse, over-complicated talmudic esoterica that made no sense. And on the other hand, many of the books aimed at people with less learning in Judaism were pitched too low, they assumed no knowledge whatsoever - they'd take pages and pages to explain that passover was about the exodus from Egypt, and you'd learn very little else. This book, on the other hand, is a marvel. It's filled with memorable quotes, and perceptive and balanced commentary. It's a great read, too - Rabbi Telushkin is a natural writer (has several works of fiction under his belt). For the first time, I feel I've come away from one of these books actually REMEMBERING and UNDERSTANDING large chunks of the history and philosophy it traverses. I'm very greatful, because I've been through about fifteen books in the past that either left me bored out of my mind or lost and frustrated or just feeling blank! Thanks Rabbi Telushkin!
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Format: Hardcover
Through a series of short entries, Rabbi Telushkin explores hundreds of issues in Jewish religion, culture, law etc. This book makes a study of Judaism accessable to people who have little background. A major caveat is that when discussing halacha (Jewish law), this book is a very good guide but is not authoritative. The authorities are the original sources and time honored commentaries on these sources. Nonetheless, in this first of many books in this format, Rabbi Telushkin provides more than a mere overview of Judaism .. he actually provides a fair amount of depth. This book can be read through from cover to cover as part of a systematic study of basic Judaism or it can be used as a reference to look up specific information. I recommend this book, even to those who are already well versed in judaism.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a truely wonderful book. It is a great reference work with information about just about anything Jewish you can think of yet it is a good read. Most reference books are very dry (how interesting can a several paragraph entry about a topic be) yet as with everything he writes Rabbi Telushkin makes this a very interesting book.
It is a must for non-Jews and Jews who aren't well educated in Judaism who want to know more. It has entries on scores of topics to give a short overview of most of the important people, events and ideas for Judaism. Even for educated Jews this can be a good reference work, and it is an enjoyable read.
Rabbi Telushkin is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who studied under some of the greatest minds in late 20th century Orthodox Judaism (at Yeshiva University) so he knows his subject. However, he is a liberal minded Orthodox Jew who treats the liberal movements in Judaism in quite a fair, balanced and non-judgemental manner. He never talks down to you when you read no matter what you previous knowlege of the subject or point of view.
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