Posted on March 16th, 2016

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer: By the Sefer

Laura Novak WinerThis month we asked Laura to answer some questions about her reading life, in the style of the “By the Book” column featured weekly in the New York Times.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
If you don’t count my Kindle, which has hundreds of books in it, I have five books on my night stand, all of which I am in the process of reading or re-reading:
Teaching and Its Predicaments by David K. Cohen
The Way of Transition by William Bridges
Jewish Spiritual Parenting by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles (the director of the film Race to Nowhere)

What’s the last great book you read?

I am in a very dedicated book group of women who read a variety of books each year, from fiction to non-fiction, new and classic. We just finished reading The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. It is about the search for the world’s tallest living tree among the great coastal redwoods, and the climbers who climb them. Who knew climbing trees was actually more than just something kids do?! It has inspired a summer road trip up the California coast to Redwood National Park. I have redwood trees in my backyard, but these trees will be magnificent to see. By the way, the world’s tallest living tree is named Hyperion, at 379.3 ft – taller than the Statue of Liberty.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

When I can read for just the pleasure of escaping into a story, I enjoy historical fiction. I admit I’ve read the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series, and I love books like Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters series and the Rav Hisda’s Daughter series. I also really like stories about women in China. That interest stems from my college days as a religious studies student, when I focused on Chinese religions. Women in China have always had to overcome such cultural challenges; to read about strong women who are able to make their way in what used to be (and may still be) a very patriarchal society inspires me.

I do not usually enjoy science fiction or fantasy books. I’m not so into dragons and elves unless it is connection to Harry Potter. I’ve never read the J.R.R. Tolkien books, though I’ve tried reading them, watching the movies and listening to them on audio. No matter what platform, I just find them boring.

What was your favorite childhood book?

My twin sister and I had the full set of Laura Ingalls Wilder books and we would take turns reading each and every one of them. I just loved reading about Laura’s life growing up on the prairie with Ma and Pa, and all of their adventures. I suppose it didn’t hurt that it was also one of my favorite TV shows. But of course, the books were better!

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

John Irving would be a very intriguing dinner guest to have sitting at the table; he has such a wild imagination. Yehudah HaLevi’s poetry is among my favorite body of Jewish literature. His knowledge of Jewish texts and philosophy would surely provide for rich conversation. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is another one of my favorite authors. She writes about women in South Asian society and culture. I would definitely need another feminist at the table.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

My favorite education related books are Moral Questions in the Classroom by Katherine Simon and The Soul of Education by Rachael Kessler. I re-read each of them every year or two.

I don’t often re-read books that I’ve read for pleasure. I find that there are so many books out there, that I want to read new things. I like to keep track of what I’ve read; I have a reading list page on my blog that I try to keep updated. I don’t know if anyone cares what I’ve read, but I find it fun to look back, just for the sake of it.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I’m not embarrassed to not have read Tolkien. I tried, really! I haven’t read some classics like War and Peace, The Source, Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird. I probably should read those. I just read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, parts of which have become engrained in our pop culture. I laughed out loud. I didn’t realize it would be so funny. Two summers ago I listened to an unabridged version of Moby Dick. It was a bit grueling, but I listened to every minute of it. I think that counts.

What do you plan to read next?

That’s a funny question to ask a doctoral student! I am at the stage of my work that I am reading a great deal. On my list right now is almost everything written about Israel education, since that will be the focus of my doctoral work. For pleasure though, I am going to be reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE, is the President of ARJE.