When I moved to Atlanta, I switched to a Reform congregation after a lifetime of Conservative shuls, and 12 years later I still miss Mussaf, the post-Torah prayer service deleted by the Reform movement.
I always figured my discomfort at the rush to and often through Aleinu had to do with the change from what was familiar — until I read Congregation Shaarei Shamayim Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis’ “Dancing With G-d: How to Connect With G-d Every Time You Pray” and realized that the absence of the recitation of the Amidah leaves a void in the Saturday service that you only notice if you’ve felt the power of that core prayer to, as Rabbi Kunis says, “increase your intimacy with G-d.”
Including the four-chapter, 88-page Amidah supplement that wraps up “Dancing,” about half the book addresses aspects of that central prayer. But this is not an academic examination of the prayers or an analysis of the services.
It’s a guidebook, and it covers the mechanics of prayer and the order of Jewish worship. But those physical, practical details are just a process and are covered not because they are the essence of prayer, but because comfort with those details clears the spiritual path to G-d.
As Rabbi Kunis writes, “When we recite the Shema G-d speaks to us, and when we recite the Amidah we speak to G-d — thus completing a holy dialogue.” Without one last chance at that dialogue, “Dancing” made me realize, Saturday morning just doesn’t feel complete.
The beauty of Rabbi Kunis’ book is that, like the siddur (prayer book), it’s not a story you read once, then leave on a shelf. It’s a companion you return to again and again for guidance, inspiration, spirituality and joy. And if you don’t feel like cracking open the book, you can go to the companion website, www.dancingwithg-d.com, to watch videos and hear the book’s exercises in action.
I have no reason to think Rabbi Kunis had any conversations with Rabbi Karmi Ingber of The Kehilla in Sandy Springs about their books, but Rabbi Ingber’s “Where the Heavens Kiss the Earth: Mystical Insights for Personal Growth” seems like the perfect pairing for “Dancing With G-d.”
Both books are guides packed with exercises as well as spiritual insights and are best used rather than simply read, although there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in the beautiful words they weave together.
While “Dancing” is about connecting with G-d through prayer, Rabbi Ingber’s book takes the next step in the spiritual ladder, delving into Torah and Kabbalah for nothing less than the meaning of life.
Rabbi Ingber doesn’t waste time in explaining that the purpose of creation is to give mankind the chance to make the right choices to achieve the ultimate pleasure of experiencing closeness to G-d. He then spends most of the book addressing some of the core questions about the world around us, such as why bad things happen to good people — first at the mystical and philosophical level, then from a practical view.
Don’t skip the endnotes each chapter; they are full of gems, such as Rabbi Ingber’s evidence-based demonstration that the Greek alphabet was derived from the Hebrew aleph-bet and not the other way around.
Both rabbis’ books are excellent, but they are not quick or easy. Properly approached, they require study, contemplation and rereading. Perhaps there’s a message in the fact that an Atlanta rabbi’s spouse provides the perfect down-to-earth, heart-first narrative to enjoy when you want to laugh and cry about life itself without thinking about the big picture.
That’s not to say Donnie Kanter Winokur, the wife of Temple Kehillat Chaim Rabbi Harvey Winokur, has given us something lightweight or inconsequential with her new memoir, “Chancer: How One Good Boy Saved Another.” To the contrary, she accomplishes an impressive amount in fewer than 300 pages.
It’s hard to beat a true story about the reciprocal love between a dog and his family, but Winokur does so much more.
She shows us the pressures of being a rebbetzin and the strains on a rabbi’s marriage. She demonstrates the pain of infertility and the joy of adoption. She reveals the fear and uncertainty that come with being a parent and the wonder of seeing the world through your children’s eyes. She makes us face death with dignity and acknowledge the enduring loss. She educates us about the worlds of disabilities and service animals and the many ways people without disabilities can just be idiots.
All those elements are secondary to her narrative about discovering and dealing with the disabilities experienced by the Winokurs’ adopted son, Iyal, from his fetal exposure to alcohol — and about finding the miracle of the first service dog trained to respond to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a 90-pound golden retriever with a bum hip named Chancer.
Winokur doesn’t hide anything, from her exhausting roller coaster of emotions to Iyal’s shocking revelations of abuse at school. She writes, “Our diagnosis was just words on a page — black-and-white symbols that couldn’t begin to capture the Technicolor, 3-D, all-encompassing lifetime of IMAX effects on display in my son’s life.”
You can help her launch the book with a free reading and reception at Kehillat Chaim at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23.
Who: Donnie Kanter Winokur
What: “Chancer” book launch
Where: Temple Kehillat Chaim, 1145 Green St., Roswell
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23
Admission: Free; bit.ly/2w8czkG