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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 222 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 (222 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,299 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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
This volume is commonly given to Jewish Confirmands, and with good reason. It covers, in a compact and well-written fashion, Jewish history, religion, and culture. There are 15 parts: 1) Bible, 2) The Second Commonwealth, the Mishna, and the Talmud, 3) Early Medieval Period: Under Islam and Christianity, 4) Late Medieval Period, 5) Modern Period--Western and Eastern Europe, 6) Zionism and Israel, 7) The Holocaust, 8) American-Jewish Life, 9) Soviet Jewry, 10) Antisemitism, 11) Jewish Texts, 12) Jewish Ethics and Basic Beliefs, 13) The Hebrew Calendar and Jewish Holidays, 14) Life Cycle, and 15) Synagogue and Prayers. This volume is much easier to read than an alphabetically-organized encyclopedia.

The author is a member of the Modern Orthodox movement (which combines traditional Talmud study with secular study). His work treats quite fairly the three largest denominations of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), but the section on Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionist Judaism is rather weak--a much better summation is given by Emanuel S. Goldsmith in the Preface to Dynamic Judaism (pp. 15-30). Humanistic Judaism isn't treated at all.

The typography is very good; I found just two typos (p. 345, "statue" instead of "statute"; p. 364, "Orthodox rabbits" instead of "Orthodox rabbis"). The index is fine, but there is no glossary of terms. One glaring omission in the history section is a table of famous, accomplished Jews in the areas of mathematics, science, engineering, business, philosophy, music, and sports. (The history section is really very gloomy and disturbing; it ignores the lives of many high-achieving and happy Jews.) Leon Trotsky is covered, but Ayn Rand isn't! The section on theodicy discusses supernaturalism and atheism, but not transnaturalism.
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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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