Not the comprehensive discussion that its subtitle would lead one to expect, but an endearingly smart and affectionate...

A journalist provides a lively overview of current Jewish practice across denominational lines.

Former New York Times religion writer Goldman (The Search for God at Harvard, 1991) scans the remarkable range of ways in which contemporary American Jews express their religious identity, affirming both pluralism and continuity. Sections headed “Jewish Life,” “The Jewish Year,” and “The Jewish Day” discuss life-cycle events, holidays, and daily acts of worship. Chapters offer brief histories, descriptions of traditional rituals, and permutations of practice to underline Goldman’s assertion that “Jewish teaching is not monolithic.” Rabbinic interpretations, personal memories, and meditations are tossed into the mix. The summaries of history and tradition are too sketchy to serve much purpose, and the intended audience shifts from one page to the next; while thumbnail sketches labeled “The Basics” are apparently aimed at readers unfamiliar with Judaism, the witty, tongue-in-cheek depictions of individual takes on tradition seem meant to spark interdenominational dialogue among observant Jews. Not a manual, a documented study, or a polemic, this account has an odd waywardness, like a New York Times Magazine article stretched to book length. But the interesting sidelights, clever quips, and sweet, off-the-cuff insights just keep coming. Goldman’s strong suit is not the historical or how-to information readily available in more substantial manuals, but highlighted sections labeled “Variations on a Theme,” which present idiosyncratic observations substantiating the principle that “a little anarchy can be healthy.” Goldman takes seriously his mandate to represent actual Jewish practice, rather than abstract ideals: thus, the section on observance of dietary laws does not stop at Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist principles—but also covers “people who observe a fifty-mile kashrut rule” (by following dietary laws when close to home, but waiving them while on vacation, especially in a region noted for its seafood) and the celebrated Chinese-food exception.

Not the comprehensive discussion that its subtitle would lead one to expect, but an endearingly smart and affectionate depiction of the healthy chaos of contemporary Jewish life. (Illustrations)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-82389-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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