The Windy City sells a lot of Jewish books

CHICAGO — The Talmud is flying off the shelves of bookstores like hotcakes. Sure, it's been around for thousands of years, but with easy-to-follow translations of primary text and commentaries in new editions (like Artscroll's Shottenstein Edition), Jewish study is becoming the rage, even for people who have never before opened a prayer book.

Judaica books, in general, are hot these days, according to both Judaica and general-interest bookstores in the Chicago area. And Jewish books are selling because Jewish identity is strong, says Avi Fox, owner of Rosenblum's World of Judaica in Chicago.

"Sales are up because Jews are up," Fox said. "And what I mean by saying that Jews are up is this: The primary buzzwords out there are continuity, building Jewish identity, strengthening Jewish literacy, and a recognition that it's best done through Jewish education and through helping Jews develop a better understanding as to who we are, where we came from, and where we're going."

Jews of all stripes are asking questions about their own religious identity and they're turning to books on introspection, spirituality, and Jewish mysticism for the answers. Blame it on Oprah and Madonna.

Why the sudden attention turned inward? "People are realizing who they are," said Rabbi Josef Gross, owner of Chicago Hebrew Bookstore. "They're realizing that a person isn't really indestructible. A person wakes up in the morning and is thankful that he's here. We're starting to realize what we are and who we are."

The Jewish book industry has seen tremendous change in this past decade, and both the Jewish press and secular press have embraced this burgeoning Jewish market.

Young people are increasingly turning to Judaism because "they want a reason why," says Gross. Even unaffiliated Jewish people are yearning to learn more about their religion, according to Fox and Gross. Others are just discovering their Judaism for the first time, thirsting for knowledge about their roots.

Despite getting in touch with their spiritual side, Jews still leave room on their reading lists for the old standbys — such as books on Israel as well as the Holocaust, the latter written by survivors and, lately, survivors' children.

"There's a flood of Holocaust memoirs," says Selma Liskar, an Old Orchard Barnes & Noble bookseller and the store's Judaica expert. "People want to get their stories out before it's too late."

Currently, the second-best-selling Judaica book on is "Eyewitness Auschwitz" (written by Filip Muller and published by Ivan R. Dee), a prisoner's personal account of working in the death camp gas chambers for three years.

But a wealth of Judaica lies just as much in the pages of other Jewish subjects, says Fox, and publishing companies are recognizing the quest for variety within Jewish reading.

"Religion and Judaism go beyond books on the Holocaust and Israel," Fox said. "The Holocaust is 55 years old. While it's certainly still important to generate many new books on that subject, people have waked up to the realization that there is a popular interest out there in books that deal with Jewish life."

Listed below are some of the most popular current Judaica best sellers:

* "Jew Vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry," Samuel G. Freedman (Simon & Schuster)

*"Generation J," Lisa Schiffman (Harper San Francisco)

*"The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Bell Tower)

*"Jew Boy: A Memoir," Alan Kaufman (Fromm International)

*"Night," Elie Wiesel (Bantam Books)

*"The Gifts of the Jews," Thomas Cahill (Doubleday)

*"The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Two Worlds," Jonathan Rosen (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

*"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism," Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Richard M. Joel (Alpha Books)

*"King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel," Jonathan Kirsch, (Ballantine Books)

*"Talmud Bavli: Tractate Bava Basra: The Gemara/ the Schottenstein Edition (The Artscroll)," Yosaif Asher, Rabbi Weiss (Mesorah Publications Ltd.)