- The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons
There are periods in one's life when time both moves too quickly and passes too slowly, when your world is consumed by abs surd practical detail and the deepest of spiritual questions, when you long for the peace of sitting quietly by a mountain lake, but you are hard pressed to figure out how to take in the scent of the daphne blooming outside your door.
It was one of those times as I approached and turned fifty. Included in this year of "just too much, already," was a visit from my elderly mother which suddenly turned into her living with us for months as she recovered from a broken shoulder and hip, struggles with unemployment and jobs, and a sudden scare about ovarian cancer that, gratefully, turned out to be a large benign tumor, necessitating "only" a radical hysterectomy. There was actually more, but I think this gives a pretty good idea of the kind of year it has been.
I feel I weather these storms fairly bravely with support and kindness from expected and unexpected people and places. I turn to friends and family and acquaintances. I turn to my journal. I turn to books, when I'm able to read. I try to take in the snow and then the crocuses. I turn to Chanukah and Tu b'Shvat and Purim and the solstice and equinox. I long for daily doses of quiet support or wisdom about how to approach each day, as I try my best to continue to be hopeful that I will get out of the "may-tzar,"1 the narrow place, even though I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. [End Page 120]
When I think about my need for some daily focus, I think about the variety of daily wisdom type books I've seen in the bathrooms and bedsides of friends, which originate from Alcoholic Anonymous principles. I always liked them, even when I found them to be not infrequently overly simplistic or optimistic. Still, there was something else about them that was problematic for me—they always felt a bit "goyish." Not outright goyish, but goyish like that old Lenny Bruce act about Jewish vs. Goyish—"Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake's cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes—goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish—very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish."2
Fortunately, for my birthday I received a "daily wisdom book," that was very much not goyish: Jill Hammer's The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons. While usually I first read a book's introductory material, acknowledgements, and even the bibliography and index, this was a different time in my life. I immediately looked up the Hebrew date so I could read the entry for that day, which was about one-third into the book. The entry included, as all entries do, a biblical and a midrashic quote and an analysis that relates these to cycles, seasons, the Jewish year, and Jewish history, philosophy and/or values.
I committed myself to read each day's entry while still in bed in the morning so it might help me through the day. Within the first week, I read entries such as "The Cedar That Hid Isaiah," "The East Wind," "The Half Shekel," and "Increasing Joy." I read quotes from Samuel, Exodus, the Song of Songs, and Deuteronomy; and midrash from the Babylonian Talmud, Pirkei De-Rabbi Elizier, the Jerusalem Talmud, and Otzar Midrashim. For someone like me who has some knowledge, but who is far from a rabbinical scholar, having these quotes in a daily way teaches me history, values, names, ideas, and patterns in a very palpable and easy to abs sorb manner. They also provide a structure to look at daily life in a Jewish way. As a...