Joan Nathan's Foods of Israel

Joan Nathan’s Foods of Israel

Cultural Jews
“I’m culturally Jewish.” How many times have I heard this? Too many to count. What does it mean? It means different things to different people. The common thread is, “I don’t believe in God.” Let’s not even go into what “God” means; let’s jump right to what does “cultural” mean? For the non-Jewish partner this can be like a visit to a nonexistent country – a series of no statements. No God, no ritual, no prayers, no spirituality, no belonging. The non-Jewish partner may begin to believe that this means we can have an American home – but then the Jew adds some more Nos – no Christmas, no church services, no carols that include Jesus. Now “cultural” sounds stingy and flavorless.

The Jewish partner may try to explain Jewish culture. If it’s a meeting between me and the couple this is often when the Jewish partner turns to me and says, “You know, Jewish culture.”

So what the devil is “Jewish culture?” First the bad news, it comes from Jewish religion. There is no food, music, art, dance or even language that is universal to all Jews everywhere. What is universal is the religion of Judaism. BUT! Now the good news, where ever Jews went on the planet they took their religion and adapted it to the host country, creating a Jewish version of that place – i.e. Jewish culture. So you have the Jewish culture of Mexico and the Jewish culture of Morocco and so on – each with their own food, music, language, etc.

So when the Jewish partner says, “I’m culturally Jewish” there’s a lot to explore.

What country or countries does the Jew in question come from? I met a man a couple weeks ago who was born in Iran, his family moved to Israel when he was a little boy and then to the US when he was a teen. So he has multiple languages, foods, music, etc. to share with his soon to be spouse.

My sister-in-law’s family came from Tunisia. The family was expelled when her parents were young adults and fled to France. Her wedding to my Ashkenazi brother-in-law included arab, French and American elements. The food, all kosher, was middle Eastern at one of the banquets and French at another. Her parents speak three languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and French plus few words of English. The bridal parties included belly dancing and henna. My sister-in-law thinks American Jews eat too much “white food!” Bagels, challah and gefilte fish all horrify her. Why have a fiddle when you can use a drum?

What is YOUR Jewish culture?
Begin by exploring your roots. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi – that is, originating from Eastern Europe and from a community that spoke Yiddish. Go to the Jewish museums, music festivals, art & food fairs and find the elements that represent “Jewish” to you. That’s your Jewish culture. It will probably include Klezmer music, bagels, Yiddishisms, and images of bearded men dressed in long black coats. None of this would be culturally appropriate for my sister-in-law but it will be for the majority of American Jews.

Eastern European Jewish Food

Eastern European Jewish Food

Buy recordings of old Jewish comedians – and new/young ones. Talk about why the jokes are funny. Don’t assume that everyone gets the jokes you get. (I was at a Jewish conference a few years back and there was a Jewish comedian entertaining us. We were roaring. The young Hispanic facilities man sat by handling the sound with a placid expression. Finally the comedian turned to him after a wonderful bris joke and said, “So, you getting any of this?” “No,” smiled the man.)

Visit the local Jewish museums.

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley
Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St, San Francisco

100 Jewish films

One of the easiest ways to learn is by watching a film. The fantastic San Francisco Jewish Film Festival comes every year and screens films at locations all around the bay area.

Or just go rent an old film and watch it with an interpretive eye. Try to explain the details.
The Producers
The Frisco Kid
The History of the World: Part one
Fiddler on the Roof
Prince of Egypt
An American Tail
The Chosen

Old black and white Yiddish films like The Dybbuk or Yidl Mitn Fidl.

Modern films from around the world.
Being Jewish in France
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation
The Infidel

And Check out the site, Rabbi at the Movies for more ideas.

All of these can start conversations about what it means to be Jewish, for the most part, without a religious component. Religion exists on the sides of some of these films, just the way it hovers on the side of the lives of cultural Jews.

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I’m reading a wonderful book, The Mathematician’s Shiva. Of course, it’s about Jews – but also other Russians, Poles, Americans, scientists and more. I love the underlining Jewishness of the characters and I really love that it is not about the Holocaust. There is so much more to Judaism than misery and murder.

The Mathematician's Shiva

The Mathematician’s Shiva

Which leads me to the topic of cultural Judaism. What does it mean to be culturally Jewish? It can mean the books you read (see book groups below in the events). It could be the movies you see (films below). It could be a hike with other Jews and non-Jews or going to the Jewish Heritage Night at the Giants or the A’s. It could be hanging out at the pool. Hearing a lecture on God and science. But it does mean learning and doing Jewishly infused things. I’ve collected a number of them below. If you have an idea to add, please send it to me. If you have a favorite Jewish themed book or film, tell me about it. I’ll share it with the rest of our gang.

Dough showing at the SFJFF

Dough showing at the SFJFF

Building Jewish Bridges will again be co-presenting some films at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I know for sure one of them will be Dough. Take a look at it on their website.


Alfresco Shabbat (Burlingame)
Tot Shabbat Playgroup (Pleasanton)
Kumzits Shabbat! (Oakland)
Torah with Soul (San Rafael)
Poolside Sundays (Palo Alto)
Sneak Preview: 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (San Rafael)
Men’s Book Group at Beth Am (Los Altos)
Saturdays Unplugged: Brazil-Flavored Family Fun (San Francisco)
A Scientist Looks at God (Los Altos)
Havdallah Hike in Redwood Park (Oakland)
Story Shabbat (Pleasanton)
Giants’ Jewish Heritage Night (San Francisco)
Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night (Oakland)
Congregation Beth Emek Open House (Pleasanton)

Alfresco Shabbat
Join us for special Shabbat evening services under the summer sky. We’ll begin in the Misle & Sosnick Families Foyer at 5:30 p.m. to enjoy some delicious wine and hors d’oeuvres. Then, we’ll move outside for an alfresco service in the Wornick Family Courtyard. We’ll finish with finger sandwiches and Oneg Shabbat treats. Come see how the prayer experience is enhanced when our voices are carried on a gentle summer breeze!

Dates: Fridays, Jul. 3 to Aug. 28
Time: 6:00 pm
Place: Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Dr., Burlingame

Tot Shabbat Playgroup
Tot Shabbat, a playgroup geared toward young children (ages birth to toddler) and their parents or caregivers, meets Friday mornings. Activities include free play along with Shabbat or Jewish holiday-themed craft projects, play dough, and parachute play.

Date: July 3 and Every Friday
Time: from 9:30 to 11:30am
Place: Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Court, Pleasanton

Kumzits Shabbat!
Join us for this lively Erev Shabbat Kumzits (“come sit”) Family Service around the firepit. Yes, there will be s’mores!

Date: Friday, July 3
Time: 6:30pm
Place: Temple Sinai, in the Upper Courtyard (you can see it from the parking lot), 2808 Summit St., Oakland

Torah with Soul
Whether you are a Torah veteran, or completely new to Torah, all are welcome. Shabbat by Shabbat, we will study the weekly parsha, based on the first year of the triennial cycle. Additionally, time permitting, we’ll continue our study of the Book of Psalms. On the third Saturday of each month, weather permitting, Torah with Soul becomes Torah on the Trails, where we take a short hike on a local trail before studying Torah surrounded by nature. To be added to the Torah with Soul and/or Torah on the Trails email lists, please contact Molly at

Date: July 4, and most Saturdays, contact Molly at 415.479.3441 to make sure before you go.
Time: 9:15 am
Place: Rodef Sholom, 170 No. San Pedro Road, San Rafael

Poolside Sundays
Join us all summer long for the best poolside parties in Palo Alto! Meet your friends or make new ones while relaxing on our spacious outdoor deck. Entertain the kids with water games, arts activities, a bounce house and sports activities led by our enthusiastic J-Camp counselors. Poolside Parties are FREE for OFJCC Center Members. Non-Member guest passes may be purchased.

Dates: Every Sunday, for the July 5 schedule look here
Place: Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

Sneak Preview: 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
See clips of this year’s upcoming festival highlights, peek “behind the scenes”, learn how the films are selected, and discover the history of the largest Jewish film festival in the world!

Date: Wed, July 8
Time: 7:00 pm
Place: Osher Marin JCC, 200 N San Pedro Rd, San Rafael
Cost: Free!

Men’s Book Group at Beth Am
In July, the Beth Am Men’s book group reads All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. The blind girl, Marie-Laure, and her father flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo to save a valuable museum piece. Werner, an orphan in a mining town in Germany, develops a skill for repairing radios. The Nazis recognize this talent and send him to track the French Resistance. He winds up in…. Saint-Malo! Join us to discuss this fascinating historical novel set at a critical time for European Jewry.

Date: Thursday, July 9
Time: 4:00pm
Place: Beth Am Library, 26790 Arastradero Rd, Los Altos Hills

Saturdays Unplugged: Brazil-Flavored Family Fun
Live music, fun for the kids and caipirinha cocktails for the big people. It’s Saturdays Unplugged and July’s version features the amazing Fogo Na Roupa Brazilian Carnaval Ensemble. Enjoy the rest of Shabbat.

Date: Saturday, July 11
Time: 3:00 pm
Place: San Francisco JCC, 3200 California St., San Francisco
Free & Open to Everyone

A Scientist Looks at God
Taught by Rabbinic Intern Adam Lutz
Knowing the evils that occur in the world, how can God be all powerful, all knowing and all good? Come find out how a scientist (and soon to be rabbi) tries to create a Jewish belief system that reflects our experience in the world and honors God at the same time. Learn about Adam Lutz, our summer rabbinic intern from Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Date: Sunday, July 12
Time: 10:00am
Place: Beth Am, Conference Room, 26790 Arastradero Rd, Los Altos Hills

Havdallah Hike in Redwood Park
What a lovely way to wind down your Shabbat with a gentle stroll in the redwood forest , a spirited Havdalah service in a meadow, followed by a light snack and a chance to shmooze with others. Join the Green Committee of Temple Sinai for a peaceful close to Shabbat.. Please bring a snack to share if you are able..

Date: Saturday, July 18
Time: 5:30pm
Place: In the last parking lot of Redwood Park: 7867 Redwood Road, Oakland
Questions? Please contact Richard Hart at richard.p.hart at gmail dot com

Story Shabbat
Story Shabbat is geared toward families with children ages 3-6. During this special Shabbat celebration, children are introduced to Shabbat in an age-appropriate service which includes music and a story, followed by a snack and craft project. Siblings are welcome. For more information about Story Shabbat, contact Lisa Kama (925.461.3591).

Dates: July 25 and August 29
Time: 10:30am
Place: Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Court, Pleasanton

Giants’ Jewish Heritage Night
Giants vs. Brewers
Join the Bay Area Jewish community and Congregation Sherith Israel at the Giants’ annual Jewish Heritage Night. As you may know, CSI always has a huge section on Jewish Heritage Night. Your ticket includes a seat in the Jewish Heritage section, a limited-edition Giants Kiddush cup, and admission to the Jewish Heritage Night pregame party in Seals Plaza from 5 – 7 pm.

Date: Monday, July 27
Time: Pregame Party: 5 – 7 pm; First Pitch: 7:15 pm
Place: AT&T Park, San Francisco
Cost: Bleacher seats $35/ticket
Details on the Giants’ website

Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night
This season’s fifth annual Jewish Heritage Night on Tuesday, August 4 is all new. The pregame event will take place in the spacious Eastside Club. All participants that purchase a special ticket through the link below will be able to attend the pregame event, as well as enjoy a traditional food item and receive an exclusive A’s Jewish Heritage giveaway item. As an added bonus, August 4 is one of the A’s Chevy FREE PARKING Tuesdays.
For more information, please contact Jeff Perlmutter at 510-563-2250 or
Please note, you must purchase a special ticket for this event to attend the pregame event in the Eastside Club and receive the giveaway item and food item.
Pregame event in the Eastside Club
Exclusive A’s Jewish Heritage giveaway item
Traditional Jewish food item
Chevy FREE PARKING Tuesdays

Date: Tuesday, August 4
Time: Game starts at 7:05, Jewish festivities at 5:30pm
Place: Oakland Coliseum, Oakland

Congregation Beth Emek Open House
Whether you are new to the area or just new to Beth Emek, we invite you to educational programs for all ages. Meet Rabbi Larry Milder, Education Director Judith Radousky, and Preschool Director Melinda McDonald. Take a tour of the building and visit our sanctuary and classrooms. Light refreshments will be served. Congregation Beth Emek is an inclusive Reform synagogue with an open and participatory atmosphere. We welcome all people on their Jewish journey.

Sunday, August 9
Time: 10:00a to noon
Place: Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Court, Pleasanton
For more information, call the synagogue at 925.931.1055

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In the 1990’s, glory days of Interfaith Outreach, the American Jewish community was intently focused on successful approaches to teaching Judaism to children from interfaith homes. In their 1996 book, I Went to My Cousin’s Crispening, Margie Zeskind and Sheilia Silverberg were among the first Jewish educators to help Hebrew school teachers deal with the new elements that students from interfaith families were bringing into the classroom. Their approach was a compassionate and insightful one. Their book was funded by an Orthodox Jew through his foundation, The Jim Joseph Foundation.

Books published in the last 10 years have leaned towards personal narratives rabbinic viewpoints on intermarriage. Hopefully, more funders will have the insight and wisdom to support books that take a scientific approach to this emotionally charged issue.

Cousins Crispening

I Went to My Cousin’s Crispening
by Margie Zeskind & Sheila Silverberg
This publication uses the S.A.G.A. Approach (Sensitive Alternative for Guiding Affectively) to address educators as they deal with teaching children in the most formative years of their lives, recognizing that they are “connected by a heartstring” to everything they’ve known and experienced. Jewish values are never compromised, rather the opportunities are explored to extend Jewish learning.
This book is available from the authors. Contact Dawn Kepler to get further information.

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Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret feels solidly set in 1970, the year of its publication. The interfaith issues are, by now, stereotypical – the Christian family that disowns their daughter for marrying a Jew and the distracted Jewish father who has no interest in religion and is usually at work. If you give this book to your child be sure to reread it yourself and be ready to point out how times have changed.

Are you There God Its Me Margaret
Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume


My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, published in 2013 is in every way more up to date. The interfaith issues are also intercultural and Tara’s family has made a choice to raise her Jewish. In fact her mother has converted. But, like all kids, Tara has a mind of her own and wants her religion to be HER choice.

Basmati Bat mitzvah
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula Freedman

Email me and let me know which books you like at

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sleeping child from British website

A prayer before bedtime
A Christian mom on this list told me that she was raised saying a prayer before bedtime. In thinking over the prayer she realized that there was nothing about Jesus, nothing anti-Jewish in it and began saying it with her own children. She loves having something from her own childhood that she sharing with her kids.

Here’s the prayer she uses:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray dear Lord my soul to keep
Please help me be the best I can be
Please watch over our family
Thanks for all you’ve give me; Please forgive me for all I’ve done wrong.

Note from Mom: “and then I go into specific prayers for people I hope feel better, etc.”

Which brings us to some questions I get, “Do Jews say a prayer before bed?” “Do Jews have a prayer for sick people?” “Do Jews believe in angels?”

The prayer traditionally said before bedtime is the Sh’ma. Cantor Ilene Keys, of Temple Sinai in Oakland and the mother of three, suggests this version of the Sh’ma before bed:
Blessed are You our God, who casts sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids. May You lay me down to sleep in peace and raise me up in peace. Blessed are You who illuminates the entire world with Your Glory.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
God of Israel, may Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me and Raphael behind me; and above my head the Presence of God, Sh’chinat El.

Who, you may ask are Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael? They are angels. Michael traditionally represents God’s love; Gabriel, God’s strength; Uriel, God’s light; and Raphael, God’s healing. There’s a lovely song about the Angels of Israel that I used to sing to my children when they were little. It has a sleepy tune and a reassuring message.

What about praying for sick people? Yes, congregations traditionally chant or sing a prayer asking for a complete healing after reciting the names of those who are ill, the prayer is called the “Mi Sheberach.”

There’s a small paperback book called,

    Thank You, God! A Jewish Child’s Book of Prayers

, that has brief prayers for children in English, Hebrew and transliteration. You can get it at your local Jewish bookstore or go online to the publisher, Kar-Ben Publishing at or call 800-452-7236.

There is a Shabbat CD for the little ones, Shabbat Shalom! Jewish Children’s Songs & Blessings for Shabbat
It is aimed at preschoolers and offers non-Jewish (and Jewish parents) an easy way to learn bedtime songs. It is from URJ Press. (That’s Union for Reform Judaism’s publishing arm.)

Shabbat Shalom CD from URJ

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Current culture seems determined to make weddings hellish. Bridezilla anyone? Add an interfaith component and you can make things confusing and difficult. But it doesn’t need to be that way. NOT AT ALL.

If you are marrying someone from a different religion and background there are some steps you can take to get off on the right foot.

1. Discuss what you want your home to be like after you’re married. If you have agreed that you’ll have a Jewish (or Christian) home it can be easier to concede some wedding traditions from the dominant faith for the sake of family peace in your ceremony.

2. Discuss how you want any potential children raised. Remember that this conversation is intended to develop a road map. No one truly knows how they will raise their child until that child is in their arms. And sometimes not even then.

3. With a picture of the future, now you can face the present challenge: the wedding.

4. Read one or more wedding books. I suggest these

5. Ask yourselves what you each want. Divide those items into 3 lists:
a) MUST HAVE or I’ll die
b) would like to have but I can negotiate
c) it’s a thought but I’m not attached to it.
Compare lists. Are you able to find common ground?

6. What are the things that feel like wedding custom to you and you want it – jump the broom? Break the glass? Light a candle? These are customs, not laws. See how many of these feel just fine to both of you.

7. Now is a good time to call me, Dawn, to discuss your MUST HAVES and we can see if they are do-able. If one of your must-haves is a rabbi to officiate, we need to discuss things like the time and day of your wedding. (Most rabbis will not officiate on the Jewish Sabbath.)

8. What are the hardest things to accomplish in an interfaith wedding with one Jewish partner?
a. Getting a rabbi to perform your wedding on the Jewish Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday)
b. Marrying in a church.
c. Co-officiation between Jewish and Christian clergy.
Are they impossible? No. But they do require more time to plan and I’m going to want you to be sure you know what you’re getting.

Call me! 510-845-6420 x11

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Lorenzo & me reading

Reading is the very best! Growing up the daughter of an independent bookstore owner meant that I got ALL the books I wanted! I also got read to at bedtime. Whether you’re Jewish or not, reading books to your kids provides an abundance of joy and a great pay off for both of you.

You spend time together, dedicated time.
You share stories, quotes, funny moments, expressions and ideas.
You both learn more about Judaism and it is completely effortless!
You improve your child’s vocabulary, grasp of ideas, ability to self entertain.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Start with picture books and work your way through to the young adult books. If your child will allow you to read to them into their teens I count you as one of THE MOST successful parents in the world.

Look at PJ Library for ideas of books to get. You can also sign up to have a Jewish book sent to your child (or grandchild) once a month.

Also, ask friends and librarians for suggestions. PJ Library is good but they don’t have everything.

Email me ( the names your favorite books and I’ll share them with others.

It could always be worse

It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folk Tale by Margot Zemach

All of a Kind Family

All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Childrens Jewish Holiday cookbook

The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen By Joan Nathan

Joseph & his magnificent Coat

Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors by Marcia Williams

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There are a lot of books for planning weddings! I’m only going to mention my top favorites.

A book aimed specifically at interfaith weddings is, Celebrating Interfaith Marriage by Rabbi Devon Lerner. I wouldn’t be recommending this book if I thought it suggested watering down EVERYONE’s traditions. Rabbi Lerner walks you through the wedding traditions for both Jewish and Christian ceremonies. I encourage you to review all of them together. Discuss which ones speak to you, not your parents or friends, to you. I believe that your wedding will probably be a compromise with your family’s expectations but it should be the last time you put the extended family before your new nuclear family. Reading about the meaning of various customs can help you see ‘your’ cultural practice through the eyes of those who do not practice it. It will also help you to understand the power behind your partner’s customs.


The New Jewish Wedding
A modern book on Jewish weddings is Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding. She has only a few pages specifically on an interfaith wedding but the book is a good overview and the pages on intermarriage are worth reading. You can get the book from the library (ask for an interlibrary loan if your library doesn’t have a copy) just to browse through it.


An OLD book and favorite because it is so complete is The Jewish Wedding Book. There is nothing about interfaith weddings in it. But if you want to review all the traditions around Jewish weddings this works well as a primer.

This book, by Lilly S. Routtenberg and Ruth R. Seldin, is ‘a practical guide to the traditions and social proprieties of the Jewish wedding.’ Can’t you just picture these ladies in white gloves? This is a very thorough book. I loved the suggestions for what you can have engraved on your wedding rings. (Note to the ladies, traditional Jewish rings have no markings! At all!) Trust me, they cover everything.

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There are very few books about the experience of people who grew up with parents of different faiths. These individuals typically get portrayed in one of two extremes -tragically mixed-up or messiahs of religious peace. They are neither. The current books that have anything reasonable to say are these two.

Between Two Worlds
Written by two women who have one Jewish parent, the book does a remarkably decent job of portraying the challenges that can face a person growing up in this setting. They don’t white wash the challenges, chapter 4 is titled, Spirituality and Ethnicity – How We Pledge Allegiance. The book was published in 1992 and a lot has changed. But a lot has not. It’s a good read.

Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes was published in 2006 and as you can tell by the cover art is intended to be somewhat entertaining. Publisher’s Weekly said of it, “engaging, funny and provocative.” The book is a collection of stories by people who grew up interfaith. They are for the most part children of Jewish men so their status according to Jewish law is tenuous and much of what they write is angry or hurt. Unfortunately much of the power of the stories comes from having dysfunctional families. Drug use, alcoholism and divorce are hard on any family and not the result of their religious differences. On the up side, all the authors are good writers. Read at your own risk; it might upset you.

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Want to lie on the hammock and read? How about a book with some Jewish aspect to it? Here are some recent books being talked about this summer. Happy reading!

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal
Non- Fiction: A popular book about a collection of Japanese miniatures owned by a wealthy German Jewish family. It is mostly about the heir to these items as he retraces the history of these pieces.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
A historical novel about 4 women and their lives before, during and at the time of the attack at Masada.

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas
A historical novel about a young Jewish girl, her life and voyage to Istanbul.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
A new set of short stories. All of them deal with the Holocaust, but no two are from the same point of view.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
Feldman grew up in a closed Orthodox society. Her story has been widely reported, and the book has been a best-seller.

Sacred Trash by Dina Hoffman
The fascinating story of the Cairo Genizah, and the world it has uncovered.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Historian William Dodd was the US Ambassador to Germany in the mid 1930s. This is the story of his first year, and the opening of the Nazi war against the Jews.

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