Post-modern Judaism

Abigail Pogrebin wrestles with the yearnings behind age-old Jewish holidays and the lessons they transmit for our times.

A boy sings underneath the Israeli flag at the Israel Solidarity Rally in London's Trafalgar Square (photo credit: REUTERS)
A boy sings underneath the Israeli flag at the Israel Solidarity Rally in London's Trafalgar Square
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HOW IS a Jew, in these post-modern, post-fact, post-truth times to reckon with the matter of her (or his) Judaism? Though the conundrum of Jewish identity must be considered anew in every era, by each individual Jew, the question can be especially complex today, when the breakdown of once trusted institutions, the challenges of religious extremism, and the cogent arguments of science render all belief, let alone ritual and ceremony, quaint and indulgent.
Nonetheless, roots, cultural legacy and identity are concerns which demand, at some point or another in the course of a life, to be addressed. For journalist and writer Abigail Pogrebin, the author of this memoir, “My Jewish Year, 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” that point came in her late 40s when, after years of feeling a need to better understand the details of Jewish observance, she began writing a series of personal columns for The Forward, which later expanded into the book, in which she promised to “dissect and digest every single Jewish holiday… to share my preparation first, my experience afterwards.”
“All I knew,” Pogrebin writes, “was that something was tugging at me, telling me there was more to feel than I’d felt, more to understand than I knew… Here was a blueprint – thousands of years old – staring me in the face, and I’d never tested it.
I’d been drawn to Jewish life, but I hadn’t fully lived one.” In the introduction, she explains that the book was guided by two questions posed by Conservative Rabbi Irwin Kula, one of the many religious authorities she consulted. “What do we hire a holiday to do for us?” and “What is the yearning to which the holiday is a response?” POGREBIN DEVOTES a chapter to each of the eighteen holidays (including three that deal with Shabbat). Her tone is congenial, warm and down to earth, and she succeeds in transmitting the details of the rituals and customs in a manner that reflects her genuine curiosity and the need to understand it all on her own terms. Her voice, while entirely her own, partakes in the collective voice of American Jews of the 21st century.
In her discussion of Sukkot, for example, she reflects on the ritual of the sukka.
“Sukkot keeps up the pressure: your home and belongings are fragile, not just you. I need this reminder because, like all of us, I get lazy about taking material things for granted. We run through days... surrounding ourselves with ‘reliable’ stuff, nice furniture, clothing, efficient home appliances. But they obscure life’s precariousness.… So it would behoove me – at least annually – to sit under a roof that won’t protect me, one that deliberately lets the rain in. Or to sleep under the stars. These holidays can heighten what I’ve already accumulated, whom I love, what lasts.”
In writing the book, Pogrebin spoke with 51 rabbis as well as 20 non-clergy educators. She begins the discussion of each holiday with a quote or two, and also references them to provide background information and to explore the ways in which the holiday resonates with her own thinking and life experience. In this way, the book offers both comprehensive instruction on the history and practice of the holiday, and a look at how the celebration of the holiday plays out in the life of a modern American Jew.
The journey, for Pogrebin, is at times gratifying and meaningful, but also demanding, particularly because she is mostly going it alone. Her diligence in participating in six of Judaism’s seven yearly fasts (she does not observe the Fast of the First Born) is admirable. Here she is describing her experience of the little observed 10th of Tevet fast: “Even with the fast’s brevity in New York, I am agitated; not eating is not my forte…. My friends are staying with us at our Connecticut lake house, and, after a somewhat raucous New Year’s Eve dinner, they’re enjoying pancakes and maple syrup in the morning while I’m reading up on King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. ‘What’s this fast for,’ my friend Catherine inquires, mouth full.
‘Our temple was destroyed by the Babylonians,’ I say, crankily.”
BETWEEN THE lines of this relevant and important book lurk questions that are not easily resolved. Where does one set the limits of religious observance? How can we reconcile customs that seem archaic or outdated? How much change and flexibility can these age-old traditions tolerate before they morph beyond recognition and lose their original purport? And, no less significantly, what are we to make of the rifts between the denominations of Judaism? When Pogrebin sets out to plan a Hanukkah event at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the central educational institution for Conservative Jews, the representatives of Chabad and Agudat Israel refuse to participate as they “can’t – or won’t – sit on the JTS stage with non-Orthodox rabbis,” an act which is meant to indicate (according to Aguda’s Rabbi Avi Shafran) “that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’” But the question which ultimately engages her is that of what she will impart to her own children. “The Jewish schedule,” she writes at the end of her Jewish year, “heightened the stakes, reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is, how impatient our tradition is with complacency, how obligated we are to rescue those with less, how lucky we are to have so much history…I get that memory is history, a corrective, a badge. Can I transmit that lesson to Ben and Molly while they’re still living under our roof? A sense of the ancestors who came before us and why they matter? I now have a stronger grip on what’s been transported for generations, despite the odds. No Jew starts from scratch.”
It is important to note that the religious observance in this book is set in an American context. The attempt to realize this project elsewhere in the world would no doubt result in a very different book. If nothing else, this engaging, intelligent work can be read as proof of the enduring ability of Judaism to withstand the permutations of history and culture. “We both knew,” Pogrebin writes at the close of the book, speaking of her correspondence with modern Orthodox Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, “that at the end of the day, there is no ‘right’ answer in Judaism – there are only more questions.”