Authors tell Jews: Dream on

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

If you think dream interpretation is just about big cigars or trains speeding through tunnels, the talmudic sages would like a word with you.

So would Vanessa L. Ochs and Elizabeth Ochs. The mother/daughter team has co-written “The Jewish Dream Book,” a slim sweet volume that explores the Jewish way in sleep and dreaming.

Tempting as it may have been to make a sharp turn onto New Age turf or toward Freudian cliché, the authors stuck to an ancient road map. Drawing on sacred texts and other fundamental Jewish sources, they make the case for a proactive dream life.

As quoted in the book, the Talmud says, “An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened.” This aphorism guides the authors throughout “The Jewish Dream Book.”

Dreams, claim the Ochses, have significance beyond the mere psychological. They are “divinely inspired” messages, a way in which “God approaches us and we apprehend God.”

They point to biblical figures such as Hagar, Jacob, Joseph and King Solomon — each of whom famously tossed and turned for a few nights — as models of divinely inspired conscious dreamers.

They also quote liberally from Torah, Talmud, the Zohar (the central text of the Kabbalah) and even modern Jewish theologians to support their prescription for a good night’s sleep.

That prescription includes several steps, among them keeping a dream diary and seeking out dream interpretation from trusted friends or rabbis. Most intriguingly, the authors serve up a regimen of “dream incubation,” or preparing the mind, body and soul to generate powerful life-changing night visions.

This involves bedtime prayer, introspection, even writing down questions and slipping them under the pillow. And virtually everything described has its origin somewhere in Jewish tradition.

The authors also have Jewishy-rooted advice for those afflicted with nightmares. One suggestion is ta’anit chalom or dream fast, i.e., a short-term forgoing of food to starve out troubling images. Another, derived from a verse in the Book of Zechariah (“Dreams speak lies”), is to “remind yourself that only you have the power to determine the meaning of your dreams.”

Short of that, the authors revert to latter-day options: they recommend therapy for those plagued by recurring nightmares.

Other compelling tips in the book include forming a Rosh Chodesh, or “new month” group, at which participants (usually women) gather to celebrate, pray, study and share dreams. And, adding to the already abundant catalog of Jewish blessings, the authors crafted a dozen new blessings for all kinds of dreams, from healing images to the utterly mystifying.

One of the book’s strong points: the gorgeous color illustrations by Kristina Swarner. Her Chagallesque artwork (which appears to be crayon on paper) adds much to the text, which at times does read a bit drily.

Another plus, the margins of nearly every page are filled, Talmud-style, with commentary, insight, stray tales and dreams, all adding richness to the topic.

There’s no way to know if the authors’ prescription works for everyone. Even without such guidance, most people occasionally experience powerful dreams (flying dreams never fail to thrill), and those who have lost loved ones often claim eerie “visitations” from the dearly departed.

But by elevating dreams to the level of the divine, “The Jewish Dream Book” returns them to the realm they occupied for most of human history. This is no easy task in so secular and scientific an age.

For Jews, there is added satisfaction in latching onto an aspect of the tradition about which many may not have known.

With less than 100 pages of text, “The Jewish Dream Book” only scratches the surface of a subject worthy of a doctoral dissertation. But it remains a delight nonetheless and perhaps the most useful bedtime reading out there.

The Jewish Dream Book: The Key To Opening the Inner Meaning of Your Dreams” by Vanessa L. Ochs with Elizabeth Ochs (107 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.