Summer Reading


Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success

By Judy Gruen

Koehler Books
Virginia, 2024
208 pages

Bylines and Blessings Book Cover

Judy Gruen is the Orthodox Erma Bombeck.

Gruen, a ba’alat teshuvah, a prolific journalist and author, would not be chutzpadik enough to identify herself as the ethnic equivalent of the late humorist, whose books and syndicated newspaper columns and work on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” made her the voice, as she described it, of the country’s Midwestern suburban housewives.

But Gruen’s writings have earned her that unofficial title.

A lifelong resident of Los Angeles (Bombeck’s hometown was Dayton, Ohio), Gruen brings to the life of frum Jewish families the loving and respectful sense of humor that characterized Bombeck’s columns.

With her characteristic wry literary style, Gruen in Bylines and Blessings recounts her journey—from her secular upbringing to becoming an Orthodox mother and grandmother. Her memories include a landmark interview with Bruce Springsteen’s lauded saxophone player; advice from her Aunt Rosa, in the then-Soviet Union, who was wary of renewed manifestations of antisemitism; her courtship with her Orthodox boyfriend-turned-husband who showed her the beauty of a Torah-observant life; and her disenchantment with the level of Jewish education that she and many US Jews had received.

Until she started attending classes under Orthodox auspices as an adult, she writes, “I hadn’t realized the extent to which Judaism had been watered down and filtered through a twentieth-century, politically progressive lens. I quickly discovered that friends with similar backgrounds to mine, also now studying Torah concepts, similarly felt “cheated” of learning about “fundamental” Jewish beliefs.

As a newcomer to the Orthodox community, she was forced to confront her familiar “Berkeley feminist . . . left-of-center political and social views.” For example, her take on tikkun olam [repairing the world], a basic building block in the non-Orthodox world: “I began to understand that traditional Jewish notions of making the world a better place depended on following G-d’s commandments.” She cites the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who wrote that “every phrase associated with the idea of Tikkun Olam, phrases like ‘light unto the nations’ or ‘the Jewish mission,’ or ‘ethical universalism,’ all those things became code words for assimilation, reform, and the whole concept of Tikkun Olam became suspect.”

And her take on a mother’s “work-life balance”: “It was clear that there was no such thing. My family’s needs came first . . .  you can always revise and edit an article or book manuscript, but you can’t go back and revise and edit your parenting mistakes.”

Though the early part of her memoir is set several decades ago, when she was attending college and starting her career and questioning the spiritual beliefs of her generation, much of the book, especially her reports of that time’s increasing anti-Israel—if not outright anti-Jewish—attitude she sensed in much of US society, sounds frighteningly contemporary.

One of her early articles was about covering a conference in San Francisco about antisemitism in the feminist movement. Her article’s title: “What’s a smart feminist like you doing wearing a Jewish star?” reflected a question many identified Jewish feminists had heard. “Secular or relatively uninvolved Jews,” who had assumed a commonality of cause in their progressive circles, “eventually discover[ed],” she wrote, “that their apathy toward their faith is no defense against the relentless forces of antisemitism.”

And she describes encountering antisemitism at college: “Antisemitism [sic] on campus . . . only furthered my commitment to my Jewish identity.”

“As an antidote” to the anti-Jewish animus she experienced, she writes, “I would devote a great deal of my career to writing about my people, my religion, and my homeland.”

She adopted an Orthodox lifestyle because she “needed more skin in the game beyond writing on Jewish topics from a journalistic remove.” In time she started asking herself if she could stop eating at non-kosher restaurants and stop shopping on Shabbat.

Her answer to those questions was yes.

“Jewish teachings have inspired my professional ambitions and personal values,” Gruen writes. “They have helped me build an empowering spiritual life and taught me to make my words count for the good.”

Although much of her current writing centers around her faith and her Jewish perspective on social issues, she has written about such far-flung topics as “health care, technology addictions, psychology, happiness, relationships, remarkable holocaust survivors, Hollywood films, rock and roll legends.”

Anything that interests her.

“To me,” she says, “writing is almost as essential as breathing.” She employs writing infused with humor—which, she says, “softens the edges” of serious subjects.

Often, like Bombeck, (“my writing heroine and mentor”), she includes her “family life and the poignant and funny moments in marriage and motherhood” in her essays.

“Growing up,” Gruen writes on her website bio, “I wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck, only Jewish.”

In Bylines and Blessings, she shows that she has reached her goal.



The Things I Told My Patients

By Dr. Jacob L. Freedman

Menucha Publishers
Los Angeles, 2024
136 pages

The Things I Told My Patients Book Cover


This book was inspired by something that a patient of Dr. Freedman told him.

The patient, a psychologist, asked if Dr. Freedman, a psychiatrist, had “it all scripted after saying it over a thousand times.” In other words, did the veteran doctor offer the same advice to all his patients and treat them all alike?

“No,” answered Dr. Freedman. “Each time it’s slightly different depending on the individual.”

Then the patient offered Dr. Freedman some advice: He “encouraged me to jot down the various things I’d told him over the years we worked together.” One day, the patient told Dr. Freedman, “I’d write a book called The Things I Told My Patients.”

This book is the result. It is light on stories and anecdotes, heavy on tips and advice gleaned from the author’s career as a medical professional.

Dr. Freedman is an educator and writer who had served as chief resident at the Harvard Medical School. He made aliyah in 2016 and works in Jerusalem as a health care and management consultant. He has treated victims of terrorism, and IDF veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

His book reflects the non-judgmental approach that a trained psychiatrist brings to his practice. “Most people don’t start their day with a plan to do anything wrong, they just happen to fall into the trap of following everyone else,” he writes. “Peer pressure is stronger than gravity!”

This book is a micro-sequel to his earlier one, Me and Uncle Baruch: A Story for Families Coping with Mental Issues (New York: Menucha Publishers, 2002), which took a macro approach to one subject, teaching a child how to accept an older relative “affected by mental illness.”

Dr. Freedman writes about anonymous patients and famous colleagues, Talmudic rabbis and members of his own family, in each case sharing some of the words he has spoken in a professional setting in his decades as a mental health professional:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Give yourself the time to be calm.
  • “One day at a time” isn’t just for alcoholics.
  • Love the people you work with, or get a new job.
  • Love yourself. “People who love themselves will prioritize their self-growth and become the kind of people who achieve their full potential.”
  • Don’t let your financial setbacks hurt your family life. “Your baby daughter is still smiling at you when you walk in the house whether or not you closed that big deal.”
  • Keeping Shabbos will keep you sane. “Physician burnout is directly linked to poor patient care and medical errors, which means that my keeping Shabbos is good for my patients, too.”

Though working now with a largely Jewish patient base, the author has dealt during his career with people who include “arsonists and axe murderers [and] a guy who told me he was born on Pluto.”

His book catalogs what he has learned along the way.

Dr. Freedman’s book is an easy read, and full of supportive insights for men and women facing all sorts of personal challenges. And best of all, it is cheaper than an hour with a psychiatrist.



Mean What You Pray: A Practical Guide to Connecting in Prayer

By Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

Adir Press
London, 2022
152 pages

Mean What You Pray Book Cover

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, a dynamic leader in the kiruv movement in the United Kingdom, has proven himself in his earlier books to be a master of applied emunah.

In Finding Light in the Darkness (New York: Targum, 2007), and in its updated-and-expanded version Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to Good People (London: Adir Press, 2016), Rabbi Rosenblatt describes the pain of losing his first wife to cancer (though in the latter book he writes that “pain has no meaningful role in trying to define ‘bad’”), and of the spiritual and personal completion he experienced in his remarriage.

Mean What You Pray follows in these two books’ literary footsteps. While devoted to the topic of prayer, the book is a clear expression of the lessons about tefillah and the personal relationship with Hashem that the author learned in his yeshivah education, and subsequently lived and shared while coping with his searing loss. While there is no lack of excellent books that explain the mechanics and philosophy of Jewish prayer, what Rabbi Rosenblatt’s offers is point-by-point approach to understanding what authentic prayer is and how to incorporate it into one’s spiritual life. The key is the word “practical” in the book’s title. The book offers hands-on hints from the rabbi’s own experiences.

In Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to Good People, he explained his thoughts on prayer: “G-d listens to our prayers. Prayer can change reality.” This, despite the fact that his first wife succumbed to her disease, the prayers of countless people notwithstanding. “Whether or not you end up winning is not what matters. What matters is that you are involved, engaged, not a victim . . . prayer is, in and of itself, deeply comforting. I am a very different person today because of the intensity of the prayers I said for my wife during her illness.”

In the introduction to his latest book, Rabbi Rosenblatt notes that the Shelah (Rabbi Yeshayahu HaLevi Horowitz, 1558-1628) identified “two types of people when it comes to prayer.” Those who “genuinely proclaim Hashem’s oneness in Shema, pray to Him in Shemoneh Esrei, and bless His Name in the blessings;” and those “who recite Shema but do not proclaim His oneness; they say Shemoneh Esrei but they are not praying; they say a blessing but they do not bless Him.” In other words, people going through the motions of praying, but not internalizing the words’ message.

“This book is written for those who wish to be in the Shelah’s first group of people, who pray and mean it,” Rabbi Rosenblatt writes. While “there is so much depth and relevance available in prayer . . . for many of us, feeling a real connection with prayer is a challenge.”

The purpose of standing before G-d, he stresses, is not to just read prescribed words, but to take the words seriously. “Prayer requires that we consciously experience what we are saying to Hashem.”

To make the path easier for the reader—a man or woman who can literally become a baal tefillah (master of prayer)—Rabbi Rosenblatt divides his book into four sections:

  • “Service within the Heart”: The overarching principles of
  • “Connecting to the Power of Prayer”: The way that prayer enables people to make a relationship with the Creator.
  • “Modes of Prayer”: The general forms of prayer instituted by the Rabbis.
  • “Shemoneh Esrei”: The specific form that prayer has taken over the years.

In this syllogistic progression from the theory and foundations of prayer to its most-common practice in the standard praise-thanks-requests recited several times a day, Rabbi Rosenblatt presents both a hashkafic context and tangible advice that can prove useful to both the neophyte ba’al teshuvah davener and the frum-from-birth member of the Orthodox community who has opened a siddur his or her entire life. “When it comes to prayer, the intent of the heart is primary,” he writes. “Intent is not merely a part of prayer, it is prayer itself.”

In a concluding appendix, “Conceptual Shemoneh Esrei,” intended for “readers who have little or no relationship with Hebrew, Shemoneh Esrei, or its concepts,” Rabbi Rosenblatt presents a text, in the guise of a statement to G-d, which summarizes the salient points of the familiar Shemoneh Esrei. “My goal,” he writes, “is that rather than pray nothing, [readers] should pray something that is relatable for them.”


Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action


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