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Being Jewish

The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today



About The Book

Increasing numbers of Jews are returning to their religious roots in a search for meaning, eager to explore a heritage that is deeply embedded in history and at the same time rapidly changing. But what is Judaism today? And what does it mean -- culturally, spiritually, and ritually -- to be Jewish in the twenty-first century?

In Being Jewish, Ari L. Goldman offers eloquent, thoughtful answers to these questions through an absorbing exploration of modern Judaism. A bestselling author and widely respected chronicler of Jewish life, Goldman vividly contrasts the historical meaning of Judaism's heritage with the astonishing and multiform character of the religion today. The result will be a revelation for those already involved with Judaism and a fascinating introduction for those whose interests are newly minted or rekindled.
This inspiring volume encourages us to find our own place within the tradition and leads us into a deeper understanding not just of the details of the religion but, ultimately, of what it means to be Jewish.



Gabriel's Helper

There is a medieval Jewish legend, "Gabriel and the Infants," that goes like this: In the months before a Jewish child is born, it is visited in the womb by the Angel Gabriel. There, in the warmth and Silence of the mother's body, the angel teaches the baby all of Jewish learning -- the Torah, the rituals, the holidays, the deepest truths of Jewish wisdom. The baby absorbs it all, just as it takes nourishment from its mother. But suddenly, as the baby is about to be thrust into the world to eat and breathe on its own, the angel presents it with a similar intellectual challenge. Right before birth, Gabriel strikes the Child on the upper lip, and all the teachings are instantly forgotten.

I loved hearing this story as a child. For one thing, it explained that otherwise useless indentation above my upper lip. For another, it gave me a timeless relationship with all Jewish knowledge. The process of living a Jewish life seemed to have more to do with remembering what is inherently mine rather than learning anew. As I encountered Jewish rituals and holidays, Jewish ideas and philosophies, they seemed to have a familiar ring. Sometimes the image of Gabriel flashed before my eyes.

The legend of Gabriel also provided me with something else: company, I knew that as a Jew I was not alone, From my earliest beginnings, there was someone there -- teaching, coaxing, and guiding. This notion of a Gabriel in one's life is built into virtually all of the Jewish life cycle events. At the first initiation rite, the brit, there is the sandek, the man who holds the baby during the cutting. A bar or bat mitzvah cannot take place without a teacher who passes on the ancient words and melodies to a new generation. At a wedding, the bride and groom are traditionally given shomrim, or royal guards, who escort them to the wedding canopy, And even in death, Jewish law ensures that the body is not left alone from the time of death until the moment of burial. It is customary for family members or friends to take turns standing watch at the bier.

Judaism provides community. It does so in the major life cycle events as well as in the more mundane moments of the day, the week, the month, and the year. Daily, Sabbath and festival services ring out from synagogues across America and the world in a variety of styles and beliefs. Home rituals, from Sabbath candle lighting to Passover seder meals, connect the individual with the Jewish community at large and with practices both ancient and modern.

In American society, there is no coercion to be a religious person. Freedom of religion means that we are as free to do with religion as we are to do without. Those who convert to Judaism are nowadays called Jews by choice. But, as has often been said, every Jew today is, in fact, a Jew by choice. We can go to synagogue or not go to synagogue, pray or not pray, mark the life cycle events or ignore them. Judaism is out there, something external, something we can choose to partake of -- or dismiss.

But the legend of Gabriel and the Infants provides another model. Gabriel teaches us that Jewish knowledge is not external, removed from life, but something inside: the very stuff of life that must be reckoned with and rediscovered. And, just as important, Gabriel reminds us that built into Judaism are guides, companions, and teachers who can help both those born Jewish and others who want to learn about the faith. These lessons, I believe, are ones that American Jews desperately need. Judaism can help ease the modern sense of isolation and loneliness, providing a sense of belonging in the present and a sense of connection with the past.

A third lesson I take from Gabriel is that Jewish teaching is not monolithic. What is good for one person may not be the answer for others. Gabriel visits each of us with a personalized lesson. Of course, there is Sinai, with its dramatic revelation for all the faithful, but there is also the awareness that each Jew has to forge an individual relationship with the divine.

In this book, I will lead the reader through the process of Jewish discovery, moving first from birth rituals to funeral rites, and then through the Jewish months, from one Jewish New Year to the next. Along the way, I will take a look at how different Jews have found meaning, richness, and variety in the tradition and made it their own.

The book is divided into three sections, each representing a cycle of Jewish life. The first section will demonstrate how Judaism responds to the natural events of life, looking at the ceremonies associated with birth, the coming of age, marriage, and death.

The second section will deal with the major milestones of the Jewish calendar -- the classic holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover -- as well as the minor fast days and holidays created in the twentieth century to respond to the tragedy of the Holocaust and the Creation of the modern State of Israel.

The third and final section will explore the rhythm of the Jewish day, in which time is marked with prayers and blessings. This section will look at Jewish prayer, the laws of kashrut, and Jewish ethical behavior in everything from charitable giving to family life.


This book grew out of a rethinking and reexamination of Jewish life during a sabbatical I took with my family in Jerusalem in 1997-1998. My previous sabbatical, taken over a decade earlier, was spent at Harvard Divinity School exploring the religions of the world. The literary product of that year, my book The Searcher God at Harvard, struggles with concepts of pluralism and belief. It deals with the question of how someone Orthodox, like myself, can embrace and appreciate the truths of other religions. The Search gained widespread acclaim, with one reviewer calling me "a kind of Gulliver of faith," but there was criticism too, perhaps the most stinging from a rabbi in a right-wing Jerusalem yeshiva who "caught" one of his students reading my unorthodox hook. He was dismissive, telling the student: "Why does Goldman run off and study Christianity and Islam when he barely knows Judaism?" This new book is my effort to examine not the faiths of others but my own faith, to look deep into its practices and history and try to invigorate it with new meaning and purpose. I undertake this examination not as the yeshiva boy I once was but with the insight of a Gulliver who has seen the lives of others and can now reflect better on his own.

This book is not a right-wing or even Orthodox approach. While Orthodoxy is my home, I believe that Judaism can and should be celebrated in a variety of ways. I am that rare breed: an Orthodox pluralist, someone who believes that the right answer for me is not the answer for everyone. After all, if I embrace pluralism in my approach to other religions, I must embrace it as well within my own faith. In these pages, I will demonstrate a variety of Jewish practices: some traditional, some innovative, and -- many of the best of them -- a combination of the two.

In recent years, the pietistic ArtScroll Series of books has enjoyed enormous popularity in Orthodox circles. Riding a wave of Orthodox fundamentalism, ArtScroll has found a niche in a community obsessed with unbending adherence to halacha, Jewish law. Every aspect of life, from the bedroom to the synagogue to the kitchen stove, has found regulation in ArtScroll's three hundred volumes, often lost in this effort, however, has been much of the nuance, subtlety, poetry, and flexibility of traditional Judaism. To put it plainly, Judaism is much more fun than the ArtScroll Series would have you believe.

To me, the way in which people live their Judaism tells as much. about Judaism as what is legally required in the halachic system. I have tried to enrich this volume with stories -- stories from my own life and from the lives of other Jews who, while far from perfect, are striving to live a meaningful Jewish life.

This is not a comprehensive religious text on Jewish observance. Do not look at this book as a manual, but as a beginning. There are many places to turn -- even to ArtScroll -- for greater depth and knowledge. In these pages, I want to demonstrate how Judaism developed over the centuries and provide a snapshot of how it is observed at the turn of the new millennium.

During my year in Jerusalem, I studied with some of the greatest teachers of Judaism at the Shalom Hartman Institute and at the Jerusalem Fellows. I read in the finest libraries of Jewish law and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the campus of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. I dipped into the cacophonous and exuberant study halls at the Mir Yeshiya, Aish Hatorah, and Chabad-Lubavitch. I availed myself of the riches of the stately Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University. But I probably gained the most from extended conversations with several pulpit rabbis from around the world -- people who, like me, were on sabbatical for the year in Jerusalem. They represented all the major modern movements in contemporary Jewry -- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform -- and helped root my academic inquiry in the reality of contemporary. Jewish practice.

My study of Judaism was also set against the backdrop of a year of extraordinary political and security developments. I arrived with my wife, Shira, and our three children-on August 1, 1997, the day after two Arab suicide bombers killed fifteen people at the busy outdoor-market in Jeruslem known as Machane Yehudah. Less than a month later, Shira was a block away when three Arab terrorists killed themselves and four others on the pedestrian walkway of Ben Yehudah.

The year 1998 arrived with renewed fear of chemical attacks by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The fears were rooted in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Saddam rained thirty-nine Scud missiles on Israel. With concerns about a renewed conflict, we were sent scurrying to find gas masks in adults' and children's Sizes. We sealed a room of our Jerusalem apartment in fear of an attack. At the last moment, the threat of war was averted after a settlement brokered by the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

It wasn't until a year after we left Israel that a new prime minister, Ehud Barak, ushered in an era of new hopes (and fears) by reopening long-dormant negotiating channels with the Palestinians and Syrians.

While the issues of survival are always paramount in Israel, the issue of religion was never deep beneath the surface during our visit. Until I lived there, I never understood what power religion had in Israel, in both good ways and bad. I had read so much about the deep division over religion -- how the secularists hated the ultra-Orthodox, known as the haredim, and vice versa. I saw much evidence of this on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalelm, But, living in Israel, I came also to see something else: how much the Orthodox and secular have in common. Judaism is a central part of the identity of the non-Orthodox. For virtually all Israeli Jews, religion serves as a common denominator when it comes to life cycle events and holiday celebrations. Regardless of whether you are religious or secular, you don't work on Yom Kippur. That doesn't mean you go to synagogue -- many Israelis go to the beach (and some go to both). But for all it is a festival. Nearly all Israeli Jews (95 percent) circumcise their sons, and virtually all are married under a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy. There are problems, to be sure. Israelis have no choice when it comes to religion. The only religious Judaism that is officially recognized in Israel is Orthodoxy. About 15 percent of Israeli Jews are orthodox, but the Orthodox grip on the religious establishment is absolute. There is no formal sanction (and little government support) for the non-Orthodox movements. During our year in Israel, Conservative and Reform Jewry struggled to gain some recognition but made little headway in the face of the powerful Orthodox political parties.

Clearly, the Israeli's life is governed by the religious calendar and shaped by Jewish life cycle events, There is no such guarantee for American Jews, many of whom have no relationship to the Jewish calendar on either a communal or a personal level. What came through clearly to me during our year in Israel is how different American Jewry is from Israeli Jewry. American Jews have many options when it comes to Judaism -- they can choose between the three major religious movements, the smallest of which is Orthodoxy. But on a day-to-day level, most American Jews have little relationship with or knowledge of the Jewish cycle of life.

Today, there are more Jews in America than there are in Israel (although demographers, say that within the next ten. years Israel's Jewish population will surpass America's). Of the 15 million Jews currently in the world, roughly 6 million live in the United States, and about 5 million live in Israel. There remain about 1.5 million in the former Soviet Union and more than 1 million in Western Europe, principally in France and Great Britain. In addition there are 300,000 in Canada, 233,000 in Argentina, 120,000 in South Africa and 130,000 in Brazil. The remaining 5 percent are scattered throughout the world.


What connects this dispersed people? Some say a common history. We all share a story that includes both triumph and tragedy. While we all have our personal Gabriel, the tradition teaches that all jews Stood at Sinai thirty-five hundred years ago when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. The souls of Jews for all time were there, the rabbis state, when the Jews answered God's charge with the words na'asheh v'nishma: "We will do and we will listen." By plating all Jews at Sinai, the rabbis argue that all are included in the covenant. History is a strong bond.

Others say that all Jews are connected by a common wisdom, as embodied in Jewish writings, both sacred and secular. We are guided by the Torah, the Talmud, and the codes of Jewish law developed over the centuries, as well as by the genius of Maimonides, the Baal Shem Tov, Herzl, Freud, and Einstein. Still others point to our ancestral home and the imperative to keep modern Israel a safe and thriving nation. When Israel is at risk, Jews everywhere feel endangered. All of these are powerful connections.

Last, Jewish ritual serves as a powerful connection between all Jews. It occupies a special place because it sanctifies all these elements -- our history, our ideas, and our land -- through acts that unite us in common practice.

Ritual acts are mitzvot, acts of obligation, more commonly known in the singular form, mitzvah. By the count of the rabbis of the Talmud, there are 613 mitzvot. There are two kinds of mitzvot, those that involve human relations and those that involve relation with the divine. Examples of the former include "Thou shalt not steal," and the imperative to "love the stranger? Examples of the latter -- between humankind and God -- include "keep the Sabbath" and the obligation to pray.


Each of the modern branches of Judaism sees God in a different way. And its God-view shapes the ritual. The Orthodox, it might be argued, see God as Father, demanding and exacting. God loves us, the Orthodox say, but it is a conditional love, dependent on our actions. For the Orthodox, ritual reigns supreme, especially the rituals between God and man. The Orthodox punctiliously watch what they eat (kosher only), what they wear (modest garb), and how often they pray (three times a day).

For the Reform, God is Mother, whose love is unconditional. The details of the mitzvot, are not important; if she cares about ritual, it is only in a nostalgic way. The important thing is that we're good to our fellow human beings and try to leave the world a better place than we found it. Reform emphasizes the mitzvot involving human relations, such as helping the poor, rather than mitzvot involving obligations to God.

The Conservatives, however, see God as a lover. According to this approach, Jews are in a partnership with God in which God listens and we listen. God wants us to do God's will, but that will is not static. It changes as we change. The Conservatives believe that God's law is modified to fit the modern circumstance. Hence, ritual is an elastic phenomenon that changes with the times.

In this book I will deal for the most part Only with the three major branches, but let me just extend this analysis to one Other branch: the small Reconstructionist group. Reconstructionism sees God as neither Mother, Father, nor Lover. The Reconstructionists do not see God as a noun at all, but as a verb. God is the catalyst that enables us to actualize who we are as people and as a nation. We can use ritual to take us where we need to go. It is an instrument for our use.

My friend Elie Spitz, a West Coast rabbi who was on sabbatical with me in Jerusalem, likens the denominations to a deck of cards. My ritual summary above emphasizes the top card -- the ritual-bound Orthodox, the ritual-free Reform, the ever-changing Conservatives, and the utilitarian Reconstructionists. "All too often they play only their top card," Rabbi Spitz would say of the branches. In fact, the decks of all the denominations include the ritual card, just as all the denominations include love, change, and acts of charity, These days, ritual might be seen as the wild card. In all the denominations, including the Reform, the ritual card is moving higher and higher in the decks. In May 1999, the Reform movement -- which for more than a hundred years had stood squarely against ritual observane -- took the extraordinary step of encouraging its members to reconsider traditional observances, such as embracing the dietary laws and observing the Sabbath. The movements abbinical body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued the challenge using the words mitzvah and mitzvot -- terms more often utilized by the Orthodox. Mitzvot, the Reform rabbis said, "demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our times." Among all branches of Judaism, there is a growing awareness that ritual acts that are specifically Jewish have the power to create and preserve the Jewish community.

Take lighting candies on Friday night to usher in the Sabbath, an act traditionally performed in the home by Jewish women. The four denominations might have a different explanation for the act, but they all would see it as having great merit. The Orthodox say that women must light the candles because on Sinai that is what God told Moses that Jews must do in perpetuity. It is a practice that goes back to our matriarch Sarah, who lit candles in Abraham's tent, the Orthodox explain. The Conservatives would say that yes, we are commanded to light, either by Sinai or by the tradition. But it is not only women who must light; men have the obligation too. Times change. The Reconstructionists might talk about how lighting chases away the darkness and ennobles our spirits. And the Reform would argue that lighting candles on Friday night is a matter of personal choice, but certainly it is a ritual of great beauty.

To my mind, the important thing is not why you light, just that you light. What is the value of ritual? There are many answers. On a fundamental level, a ritual act connects you with all the others who have done that ritual, both past and present. Light the Sabbath candles and think of all the candles being lit by members of your congregation that night. Then think about all the candles in your city, in your country, in the world. Then think of all the candles ever lit by Jewish women and men through the ages, back to the matriarch Sarah. Now that's a lot of light.

On another level, doing a ritual act connects the Jew to a power larger than ourselves. If we are to believe on some level that God -- whether Mother, Father, Lover, or Catalyst -- wants us to do this act, then lighting the candle or keeping the Sabbath or having a brit or attending a seder or helping the poor connects us with the Divine. On a vertical level we are connected to God; on a horizontal level, to others who have done these acts, both past and present. What emerges for me is a web of light.


How do we pass Judaism on to our children? For the Israeli, it is easy. Judaism is there as part of the atmosphere -- in the language, in the food, and in the music as well as in the events of the year and one's life. For the American Jew, who lives in a place where Judaism is a minority culture, education is essential: we can teach our children our history and our wisdom and our love for the land. But nothing makes it more concrete than ritual.

I recently heard a Reform rabbi talk to a group of parents of teenagers about intermarriage. Alarmed by statistics showing that more than 50 percent of Jews are marrying out of the faith, the rabbi encouraged us not to send our kids off to college without "the talk." "Tell them that they can have friends from all over, but the person they marry should be Jewish," he said. I remarked that I've been working on it since my children were born. "How?" he asked. I explained that every night before I put my children to sleep, I have them say sh'ma, the Jewish creed: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." They're all still young, but they could no more go to sleep without sh'ma than without a pillow. It gives them comfort and closure on their day. Now, I don't pretend to think that my children won't intermarry because they say a Jewish prayer before nodding off. But in this way and in hundreds of others, I have given them a practice, a ritual, that reminds them they are Jewish -- and not just in synagogue but in school, in the playground, at home, in the kitchen, and even in bed.

In recent years, several authors, from Alan Dershowitz to Herman Wouk, have written about a crisis in American Jewry. While Jewish political and economic power appears secure, our numbers are shrinking; "disappearing" is Dershowitz's word. The intermarriage rate -- as high as 52 percent marry out of Judaism, according to the 1990 Jewish Population Survey -- shows no sign of reversing its upward trend, and our birthrate is below the replacement rate. Several solutions have been advanced. For some, the solution is to open up Judaism by relaxing its rules and making conversions to the faith easier. Others say, target efforts toward the non-jewish spouses of intermarried couples to bring them into Judaism. Others say, concentrate instead on the "core Jews" -- those-already members of the faith; build walls and fortify the faithful. Still others say, strengthen Jewish community centers where Jews can both study and socialize; others say, concentrate on improving and building synagogues. Others say that a fund must be supported to guarantee that every Jewish teen gets a trip to Israel; clearly, it is an experience that ties One to the land and the people. Still others talk about strengthening Jewish educational and Social programs for college youth.

I say, start simple. Do a ritual. Light a candle, visit a synagogue, attend a seder, celebrate life in a Jewish way. I believe there is something intrinsically valuable about Jewish observance. Take the Sabbath. In our house, we do not watch television or cruise the Internet or even talk on the telephone from sundown Friday until the stars come out Saturday night. For some this deprivation might seem like a punishment, but for me it is bliss. Our week is so filled with outside intrusions that it is a blessing to have one day without them. It is one thing to do that alone, or even as a family, but to do it in connection with others all around the world can transform and enrich.


To my mind, it is not necessary to shut out all intrusions; even dropping one of them has its benefits. Turn off the television, and you just might finish that book you've been reading. Forget the telephone, and you just might spend more time at the dinner table talking to your family and guests.

I've spent my life observing Jews. As a child from a divorced family, I grew up at the tables of my aunts and uncles, in kosher hotels with one parent or the other, and in the synagogue, which often served as a home away from home. I've always been a student of the many variations in religious practice. In my twenty years, at the New York Times -- ten of them spent covering religion -- I made a living out of watching these different ways of practicing Judaism. I covered New Age Jewish retreats, staid rabbinical conventions, and exuberant Hasidic gatherings known as farbrengens. In addition, with this book in mind, I've conducted interviews with hundreds of Jews about their religious practices -- both on the Internet and in person -- in every denomination and in every region of the country. From all my years of observing Jews, I find one common thread: Jews are not consistent. Jews pick and choose from among the wide panoply of religious practices. In the words of the late Jacob Rader Marcus, the preeminent historian of American Jewry, who died in 1995 at the age of ninety-nine: "There are six million Jews in America and six million Judaisms."

Jews are not alone in their selective observance. American Roman Catholics, in fact, have a name for it: Cafeteria Catholicism. The image is of Catholics walking down the line with their cafeteria tray, taking what suits them. Some will agree with the Church on birth control but not on abortion, some will want to see women as priests but not gays. Many revere the office of the Pope but vehemently disagree with the man in office.

Instead of Cafeteria Catholics, we are Smorgasbord Jews. No orderly cafeteria line for us. I use the term smorgasbord because the Jewish choices are so much greater. Traditional Judaism makes demands that Christianity, from its very start, dismissed: circumcise, eat only kosher meats, pray three times a day, don't mix milk and meat, don't work on the Sabbath, and on and on. American Jews come to the great table of jewish observance and take what best suits them. No two buffet plates are the same.

There are Jews who keep kosher at home but not-outside the home. Some observe the Sabbath by not working, and others keep it by going to synagogue. There are those who observe neither the kosher laws nor the Sabbath, but wouldn't dream of eating bread on Passover. Some won't keep any rituals but wouldn't think of buying a German car, listening to a Wagner opera, or reading Ezra Pound.

Even the Orthodox are subject to these variations. There are those who eat kosher and those who eat only glatt kosher (a higher level of kosher supervision). Some Orthodox men go to their jobs wearing large black hats; others go bareheaded. There are some married Orthodox women Who cover their hair all the time -- some with wigs, others with hats -- and there are others who cover their hair only in the synagogue. There are Orthodox men who will not shake hands with women other than their wives, and there are those who do. Some go to synagogue for prayer twice a day; others go only on Saturdays and festivals.

One of the nation's leading sociologists of Judaism, Dr. Bethamie Horowitz, has conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with Jews around the nation. Getting a precise picture of Jewish practice is difficult, she said, because Jewish religious practice is fluid and idiosyncratic, and reinvents itself constantly throughout the life of the believer. Dr. Horowitz added, "We need to widen the way we define Jewish identification to include the idiosyncratic things people relate to Jewishly."


I like to think of these inconsistencies as the Jewish attempt to reach for the holy. As we stand at the smorgasbord we take the items that are most meaningful to us, and that will make us better Jews. All of this makes Jews a very quirky people. There is no single way to be Jewish in America today. Let me give some examples from my "quirk file":

* Joe, a high school teacher and a big Red Sox fan from Boston, always has a hot dog on opening day at Fenway. Hot dogs at Fenway are not kosher, but that doesn't bother Joe, who considers himself an American first and a Jew a distant second. One year, however, when opening day landed on Passover, Joe bought his hot dog, took it off the bun, and put it on a piece of matzah he had brought along just for that purpose.

* Phil works for a major weekly magazine that goes to press on Saturdays. He can't observe the Sabbath in the traditional manner, so he makes his own -- beginning Monday night; for twenty-five hours, he does not work.

* Sam is an orthodontist with a busy practice in New Jersey. He neither prays, goes to synagogue, nor keeps any ritual laws, with one exception. Every morning, he puts on tzitzit, the four-cornered fringed undergarment worn by pious Jews. He wears the garment all day while he sees patients and while he eats his non-kosher meals. Why does he wear tzitzit? "I feel naked without them," he Says.

* Katherine, a convert to Judaism, can't fast on Yom Kippur. She gets sick if she doesn't eat. So she spends the day with a fast of another kind: she doesn't speak for twenty-five hours.

* Charlie and his wife, Susan, do not keep kosher. But on the Sabbath they never eat bacon or shellfish. "It's our way of keeping Shabbos," Charlie explains.

* The Weinstein family in Detroit keeps a kosher home; there are separate dishes for meat and milk. But there is also a third set -- Chinese -- which they use only for non-Kosher takeout.

All of these are true stories; about real people. What has been changed here are their names. In fact, the vast majority of them did not want their names used -- they consider these quirky practices to be private. Several admitted to being downright ashamed at their behavior, but for very different reasons. In some cases they felt they were doing too little; in other cases they felt they were doing too much. Perhaps the most poignant story for me came from my friend Bill (not his real name). Bill, a book editor, is not otherwise observant on a daily basis, but before he goes to sleep each night, he whispers the sh'ma. "I don't even think my wife knows," said Bill. "It's my own little private prayer."

I had known Bill for decades and never knew this about him. As a regular sh'ma sayer myself, I felt a new connection. "Do you say it with your kids?" I asked hopefully. "No," he said. "I never thought of it."

What has happened is that religious idiosyncrasies have gotten such a bad name that people don't want to talk about them, let alone pass them on to their children. I know this mind-set; I was brought up with it. The Orthodox rabbis of my youth did not subscribe to the more popular notion we find today that Judaism is a matter of choice for both converts and those born Jewish. They spoke about the "yoke of the kingdom of heaven," an obligation to follow the precepts of Torah right down to rigorous daily observances. Feeling good was not part of the system. To allow people to do what they felt good about Jewishly was to invite a kind of religious free-for-all that allows people to pick and choose what feels good to them.

Today, even some outside of the Orthodox world worry about this kind of anarchy. Writing recently in Commentary magazine, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, warned of those who advocate a "Judaism without limits," where a variety of choices and practices are incorporated into Judaism simply because they are trendy or they feel good. "Instead of setting clear lines," he wrote, "they enjoin Jews to lower the barriers between Jewish and non-Jewish religion....This way lies not pluralism but anarchy, and self-extinction."

I'm not advocating extinction, but I do think a little anarchy can be healthy. Being Jewish is about feeling good. It is about finding meaning. For some, that might mean the ArtScroll Shabbos Kitchen Guide, but for others, it might mean eating lox and bagel or even a non-kosher hot dog on matzah. It might mean not talking on Yom Kippur, or having three sets of dishes, or saying the sh'ma silently on your bed.

The young assistant rabbi in my Manhattan Orthodox synagogue might not put it the way I do, but he, too, sees virtue in idiosyncratic practice. "Judaism gives you 613 opportunities to find God," said Rabbi Yair Silverman, referring to the 613 mitzvot, or commandments. "For each one you do, you do good."

"People are afraid of looking like hypocrites" by observing some laws and ignoring others, Rabbi Silverman added. "But they shouldn't be afraid. You should strive to be as great a Jew as you can be. Inconsistencies are part of human nature." He noted that the Jewish festivals, periods during which greater ritual observance is required, are meant to "highlight the extremes." The festivals "modulate the monotony of everyday life," he explained. "You don't live at the extremes. You climb to the top of the mountain to see the view. But you don't necessarily stay there."

Throughout this book, in sections labeled "variations on a theme," I will give other examples of how Jews live their Judaism -- on their own terms. I will describe both what the tradition demands and what people actually do in their lives. My purpose is to elevate these practices and show how indeed they are all efforts to reach for the holy. Only if people are proud of them and have confidence in their idiosyncrasies will they endure.


I believe that quirks reveal a desire on the part of American Jews to act in a Jewish way. While some may ask why they go to so much trouble, I wonder why they don't do more. Why doesn't Joe find a kosher hot dog? Why doesn't Sam go to synagogue? Why doesn't Bill say the sh'ma with his children? One rabbi told me that fear keeps many American Jews from performing rituals -- fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of sitting in the wrong place, fear of not knowing the words to the prayer. I understand this fear. Many Jews, well educated at the best universities, know Homer and Shakespeare but never read Maimonides. They can order food at the best French restaurants but can't read the Passover haggadah. We've forgotten the lessons of the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel reminds us that we have a relationship with ritual that goes back to our very beginnings. And whether or not we want to believe that all that is part of our distant past, Gabriel reminds us that there are mentors and teachers and stories that can help us make Judaism a greater part of our lives.

My hope is to be one of those mentors -- Gabriel's helper, if you will -- by making Jewish ritual accessible for American Jews and others interested in the faith. I will explain what the tradition demands, what the rabbis allow, and what people actually do in their daily practice. In these pages, I offer a "toolbox" of Jewish ritual that I hope readers will open, explore, and experiment with. These are not magic incantations or rites. Lighting a candle is no more meaningful than picking up a hammer. What is important is how you use that candle to build a Sabbath experience in your home. Ritual has the power to take the mundane and make it holy and, with time, open the heart.

To my mind, the greater debate on the Jewish destiny can wait. What is important is to start with acts that proclaim that Jews are a people with a land, a history, wisdom, and a heart. Doing ritual acts makes those ideas concrete and connects us with our past, our God, and our people.

Copyright © 2000 by Ari. L. Goldman

About The Author

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ARI L. GOLDMAN, one of the nation's leading religion journalists, was a reporter for The New York Times for twenty years. He left the Times in 1993 to teach journalism at Columbia University, where he has trained a new generation of religion writers. Professor Goldman was educated at Yeshiva University, Columbia, and Harvard. He is the author of the bestselling memoir The Search for God at Harvard and the widely acclaimed Living a Year of Kaddish. Goldman has been a Fulbright Professor in Israel and a Skirball Fellow at Oxford University in England. He lives in New York with his wife and their three children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 2, 2007)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416536024

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Raves and Reviews

"To those who wish to learn more about Jewishness, tradition and modernity, let them read Ari Goldman's superb and stimulating volume." -- Elie Wiesel

"Ari Goldman gives us a marvelous guide to being Jewish, emphasizing the joy rather than the 'oy.' Goldman speaks to the heart as well as the mind and provides an eclectic road map through the diversity of Jewish life." -- Alan M. Dershowitz

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