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)