Pogrebin, Abigail. “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew”, Fig Tree Books, 2016.
A Spiritual Journey into Judaism
Like many others, I was born and raised Jewish but I rarely questioned certain aspects about the religion. I followed what was expected of us an Orthodox Jews but then I went to live in Israel and found a different kind of Judaism that seemed to be based more on not doing what Judaism expected of us simply because the religion encompassed every activity of every day and we did not have to seek it out. I realized that the need of a Jewish community that was so strong here in American was non-existent in Israel because everyone was part of that Jewish community there. Coming back to the states meant finding a community where I could be comfortable and I find that comfort today in observing as much as I can.
Abigail Pogrebin has had a similar journey and she shares it with us. She grew up following some holiday rituals but she realized how little she knew about their foundational purpose and relevance in today’s world. She felt that she needed to understand why holidays which were obviously important to our ancestors are still being observed today and have been so for thousands of years. We no longer harvest our own crops so we do not need harvest holidays and we stopped living in huts and eating manna centuries ago. Why is it important to not only remember these days but also reenact them? Pogrebin took a year off to do intensive research and to write about the holidays and festivals that make up our Jewish calendar. I love this book because Abigail Pogrebin asks the questions that so many have and do not dare to ask. In my home we were told to not ask and just do what our rabbis, teachers and parents tells us to do and I still do not have a concrete answer as to why a minyan must be made up of ten men.
With the publication of the Pew Research study in 2013, it was found that most American Jews find their “Jewishness” in tradition, ancestry and culture. Religion seems to be somewhat coincidental. I, like Pogrebin, think that the reason for this is because few of us examine Judaism to see what it is all about.
As A. J. Jacobs tells us in the introduction, there is information from 51 rabbis (who actually knows 51 rabbis aside from other rabbis? Most of us tend to believe what our rabbi says and we do not need a second opinion). In her search for a way to look at Jewish life, Pogrebin uses humor as she investigates the holidays of the Jewish year and she shares the prayers and the fasts of her journey. She does the hard work for us and we reap the benefits that she provides in a very entertaining manner. She provides a great deal of information as she looks at the “wandering―and wondering―Jew”. For those who think they have all they need to know about Judaism, there are several surprises. She has the ability to make many of the holidays relevant for today by adding information about contemporary society and how it fits into the celebration of holidays that we have observed for thousands of years. For example, in looking at Purim, she reminds us that we are told to drink to excess and she sees that drinking Scotch is an innovative and novel way to end the Fast of Esther and she sees Sukkot not so much as Harvest holiday but a way to enjoy life in the open air.
There is just so much to enjoy in this book and I have now added it to the books that sit on my desk (next to the Oxford English Dictionary [abridged] my Hebrew/English dictionary) and just a few fingers away from consultation. There is a wonderful glossary, a well useful bibliography, a separate appendix on interviews and weblinks. She, unlike Hillel, cannot answer everything standing on one foot but manages to do so (almost— no one can do it all) in one book.