I’m guessing that the average high school senior wants a gift card for a graduation present, or even better, cash. I remember being 18 and appreciating either of those options as well as any item emblazoned with my college’s name, like a pair of mesh shorts. (This was 1995!) I also liked gifts with my name on it such as a pad of paper, an address book, one of those wrap towels with velcro across the chest, a toiletry case, or a shower bucket. Yes, freshman year of college felt somewhat like overnight camp.
What’s my point? This is all to say that if you’re the parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or family friend of a high school senior, there are any number of graduation gifts more desired and acceptable than a book about Judaism. But hear me out!
We Jews are known as the people of the book. That statement refers to the book, The Jewish Bible, yet the Bible is not just one book. Another word for The Jewish Bible is the Tanakh, which is made up of three parts: Torah (otherwise known as The Five Books of Moses), Prophets, and Writings. A seemingly infinite amount of commentary about the Tanakh, especially about the Torah, exists as well, including the Talmud and all the important commentaries on the Talmud from Rashi and others. You don’t have to accept that the source material, the Torah, came from Mt. Sinai to acknowledge its importance in Judaism and its influence on the world.
Unless the high school graduate in question is heading to a yeshiva, I’m willing to bet that any regular and exciting exposure to Jewish texts has been minimal and will be less than minimal going forward.
So here’s what I’m suggesting: How about a gift that includes a book about Judaism as well as a gift card or some cash? This way you might keep your status as beloved aunt, uncle, cousin, or family friend while simultaneously adding to the continued education of the Jewish people. The book you give this 18-year-old may not get read for another decade or more, but perhaps its presence on a shelf will remind the graduate in question that he or she comes from a rich tradition of storytelling, commentary, debate, and wisdom.
Below is a list of books that I thought an 18-year-old could potentially read and find interesting rather than daunting. I want to stress that this list is not meant to represent “the most important Jewish books of all time.” It’s also not meant to represent all of Sephardic and Ashkenazic influence, nor will it be balanced in gender and religious perspective.
Final note: I’m not including fiction because the list would get out of hand.
Here are a few ideas. Please add yours in the comments!
Pirkei Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah (Jewish oral law) that explains the Torah’s views on ethics and how to have positive relationships. Upon leaving for college it’s possible that a kid’s Jewish educational experience has focused entirely on learning to read Hebrew and understanding the ins and outs of holidays. Pirkei Avot is not only short (bonus points), but its attention on character development could be a breath of fresh air, Jewishly speaking, as well as helpful to someone about to meet many new potential friends at once.
2. “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, its People, and its History” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
“Jewish Literacy” is an excellent reference book for concise answers to anything you want to know about Judaism. My parents sent me a copy when I was studying abroad in Santiago, Chile during my junior year of college because my host family had so many questions I couldn’t answer. It would have been helpful freshmen year, too, when new friends and classmates wanted to know the answers to basic questions like the differences between the Jewish denominations and the details of keeping kosher. Telushkin also covers answers to ethical questions like when are we required to forgive someone.
3. “Living a Jewish Life” by Anita Diamant
A guide for the spiritual and cultural aspects of a Jewish life with attention to rituals, too. Diamant makes a special point to address the realities of incorporating Judaism into a mostly secular life. I think that a typical college kid could use a little help bringing Judaism into the next four years. Diamant’s book will give a gentle nudge.
4. “The Jew and the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India” by Rodger Kamenetz
This book chronicles Kamenetz’s experience traveling as part of a delegation of American Jews invited for an interfaith dialogue with Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama. Young, yoga-loving, and meditation-loving Jews might be surprised to learn that some of what they seek can be found in their own faith.
5. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Don’t be fooled by the title. Rabbi Blech’s overview of Judaism is a well-written and well-researched book that could serve as a great resource for both the Hebrew school dropout and the Jewish day school graduate. Blech covers plenty of ground and goes deeper than the “idiot” title would have you believe.
6. “Why the Jews: The Reason For Antisemitism” by Dennis Prager and Joseph Teluskhin
Written in 1983, this book is relevant as ever, especially on college campuses.