A celebratory Jewish year

Abigail Pogrebin takes on an entire calendar of Jewish observance, and discovers self-reflection and spirituality

A WOMAN decorates her sukka ahead of the holiday.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A WOMAN decorates her sukka ahead of the holiday.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 It’s not hard to see how American Jews today are rapidly assimilating – forgetting their roots, forgoing customs and failing to connect with their faith. 
It was partly this phenomenon that led Abigail Pogrebin to the unique journey she records in her third book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wandering Jew. Pogrebin, a writer and former TV producer, sets out to find deeper meaning and personal connection to Judaism by observing each holiday in the Hebrew calendar.
Pogrebin’s religious observance was very casual growing up: lighting Shabbat candles when convenient, going to synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, having a Seder on Passover, and “pulling out all the stops” on Hanukka. She became much more emotionally attached to Judaism when she had children, and began to seek out a deeper connection. 
My Jewish Year is far from a how-to on celebrating the holidays, or an in-depth explanation of their observances. Instead it is a book that provides its readers with personal experiences from which they can connect to every holiday. 
Pogrebin’s personal anecdotes serve as a lighthearted way to introduce the Jewish holidays to those who have not observed them before, and a way to remind those who are more familiar of their own personal favorite memories and failed experiences. 
The author’s worries, hesitations and failures are relatable to any Jew who is searching for religious understanding. Her honesty may provide some solace to those who struggle to observe more holidays or take on more commandments. And her breakthroughs and realizations personalize the meanings of these holidays, and could motivate readers to play more active roles in their own relationships with Judaism and faith.
Nevertheless, the format can be frustrating at times; some chapters do not present a strong takeaway on the holiday at hand, while others, such as Hanukka, are given a disproportionate amount of attention, especially considering their established popularity. 
While Pogrebin sets out to observe every holiday in the Jewish calendar, she doesn’t follow through with certain laws. She fails to fully observe Shabbat (no phone, no electronics, no work). While she recognizes that turning off her phone would significantly boost her feelings of rest and relaxation, she finds herself unable to completely make the jump. It is disappointing for both her and the readers, but it also serves as a reminder that taking on new customs is a slow process that cannot be rushed.
When she does succeed in going the extra mile, she reaches those greater realizations and connections. Preparing for Rosh Hashana, she blows the shofar every morning of the month of Elul, and comes to find that this requirement to connect to her ancestors is also about reflection and connecting with her inner self. These small epiphanies are inspiring and make up for other places where she falls short. 
Pogrebin does an excellent job of exploring the religion through different denominations and viewpoints, but she allows her discomfort with Orthodox Judaism to occasionally stop her from trying certain activities. She criticizes them for being separatists and for being judgmental of others, and yet she barely gives the mehitza (the barrier between men and women during prayer services) a chance. 
Nevertheless, Pogrebin’s yearlong journey leaves her a more connected Jew, who understands why we have the holidays, what we do to honor them, and what the holidays do for us as individuals and as a people. She also recognizes that the end of her year is far from the end of her journey; she is far from comprehending every aspect of Judaism and from having connected with every aspect. 
But as she says: “At the end of the day, there is no ‘right’ answer in Judaism – only more questions... No matter my regrets, nearly every holiday magnified not just a personal gratitude but a larger one... that a people survived... that we get another day, not just to live more, but to love fiercely... that we gather repeatedly, to pound our chests in unison, eat in makeshift huts, cavort with Torahs, light menorahs, break matza, read names, study into the dawn... that we should ask what we have “the holidays to do for us – I have my answer now. A lot.”
By Abigail Pogrebin
Figtree Books
336 pages; $22.95