Two strategies for attacking this spotty review of the American Jewish scene suggest themselves. One is to ignore the text and utilize the broadly suggestive bibliography as an outline guide to an array of published and unpublished sources. The other is to skip-read, dispensing as far as possible with the crazyquilt introduction to American Judaism and its branches (where the thinking and writing are crudest, and the conclusions are either feebly obvious--rabbis ""tend to know more, I believe, about Jewish venerable traditions than do most of their coreligionists""--or ambivalent) and giving attention, as interest dictates, to the rabbis around whom successive sections are jerry-built. ""Suburban Activist"" Jerome Davidson of Beth-El, the leading Reform temple in rich, Jewish-run Great Neck, finds it difficult to talk about God. Mississippi rabbi Perry Nussbaum weighed the ""delicate position"" of his congregants, came Out for civil rights nonetheless, and found himself sidelined at sixty; today's southern rabbis, more assertive, are fighting ""the persistent fundamentalist quest for Jewish souls."" In the growing, tangled ""World of Orthodoxy,"" the focal, rabbi-led congregation is threatened by the shtiebl, or small gathering place for independent worship. Almost everywhere, pressures for conformity coexist with apathy. Conservative rabbi Stephen Lerner dismayed his Riverhead, L.I. congregants by the seriousness of his Judaism (""So, a lot of us said screw you, rabbi. There's plenty of potential anti-Semitism around here still. . . .""); now head of a small, undistinguished Manhattan synagogue, he's gratified that a hundred New Yorkers turn up voluntarily for a Saturday sermon. Among small-town rabbis, strength of commitment contends with the hard facts of isolation and declining population; but it is a peculiar blessing, still, ""to be the only dispenser of thousands of years of Jewish life for those who care to listen."" The recognitions of loss and gain are the book's saving grace.