My Jewish year 18 holidays, one wondering Jew

Abigail Pogrebin

Book - 2017

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Subjects
Published
Bedford, New York : Fic Tree Books [2017].
Language
English
Main Author
Abigail Pogrebin (author)
Other Authors
A. J. Jacobs (-)
Physical Description
326 pages ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN
9781941493205
  • Foreword: A. J. Jacobs
  • Introduction: How Did I Get Here?
  • 1. Prepping Rosh Hashanah: Self-Flagellation in Summer
  • 2. Post-Rosh Hashanah: Tossing Flaws and Breadcrumbs
  • 3. The Fast of Gedaliah: Lessons of a Slain Governor
  • 4. The Truth about Yom Kippur: Death and More Death
  • 5. Yom Kippur Letdown: Maybe Next Year
  • 6. Sukkot in LA: Serious Sukkah Envy
  • 7. Hoshanah Rabbah & Shemini Atzeret: Left Out, Then Lingering
  • 8. Simchat Torah: The Mosh Pit
  • 9. Hanukkah Reconsidered: A Split in the Jewish Soul
  • 10. Hanukkah at the Bedside and the White House: Unexpected Light
  • 11. The Tenth of Tevet: Starting the Secular Year Hungry
  • 12. Slouching toward Shabbat: The Most Important Holiday of All
  • 13. Tu B'Shvat: Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut
  • 14. Tzom Esther & Purim: Preparing to Fast and Spiel
  • 15. The Purim Report: Mirth and Melancholy
  • 16. Passover: Scallions and Rare Silences
  • 17. The Feminist Passover: A (Third) Seder of Her Own
  • 18. Yom HaShoah: "We Did More Than Survive"
  • 19. Yom HaZikaron & Yom Ha'atzmaut: For the Fallen and the Free-Israel's Memorial & Independence Days
  • 20. Lag B'Omer: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
  • 21. Activist Shabbat: Friday Night with the Kids
  • 22. Sleepless on Shavuot: Let My People Learn
  • 23. 17th of Tammuz: Another Fast, Seriously?
  • 24. Tisha B'Av: Mourning History, Headlines, and Hatred
  • 25. My Shabbat Landing: Comforting Consistency
  • Epilogue: Where Did I End Up?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 1. A Jewish Year in Bullet Points
  • Appendix 2. Interviews
  • Appendix 3. Bibliography
  • Appendix 4. Glossary
  • Appendix 5. Web Links for the Basics
  • About the Author
Review by New York Times Review

ACCORDING TO THE WRITER Leon Wieseltier, the greatest scandal among American Jews is illiteracy. We simply don't know enough - not nearly enough - about who we are and what Jews believe. During lunch at a Washington, D.C., steakhouse more than a decade ago, Wieseltier encouraged my own Torah study and efforts to deepen my faith by admonishing, "Who are we to let this 4,000year-old tradition slip through our fingers?" The journalist Abigail Pogrebin, who interviewed Wieseltier for her book about Jewish identity, "Stars of David," takes his cri de coeur seriously. In "My Jewish Year," she becomes curious about how Jews search for meaning - "Something tugged at me, telling me there was more to feel than I'd felt, more to understand than I knew" - and decides to celebrate all the Jewish holidays of the calendar year, even the ones she's never heard of. She calls herself a "wondering" Jew, and her exploration is lively, funny and honest. It is a relatable, immersive experience that pays homage to "The Year of Living Biblically," by A. J. Jacobs, who writes the foreword. She is a holiday pilgrim uninterested in journeying into Orthodoxy (she attends a Reform synagogue) but intent on reaching others like her, indeed like so many secular American Jews, who "do not connect their Jewish identity to Judaism." Pogrebin lowers her shoulder and goes straight through the Jewish calendar with an emphasis on doing more so that she might feel more. Whether partaking in allnight study before Shavuot (when the Bible says Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai) or blowing the shofar during Elul, the period of self-reflection and repentance before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), she uncovers the small detail (single malt Scotch is the festive drink of choice for Simchas Torah, when Jews celebrate the annual completion of reading the Torah) and the erotic one: "Sukkot is about shtupping" (Yiddish for both "pushing" and "having sex"), one rabbi tells her, describing the sexual aspect of thrusting the ulav and handling the lemon-like etrogs. More substantively, Pogrebin brings both curiosity and candor to her search. During a fast on the first day of January, the 10th of Tevet, marking the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians, she grabs hold of the larger point of skipping a meal: "Our tradition doesn't care about whether you're sated, but about what you do." This is a day of sacrifice to focus the mind on helping others rather than satisfying ourselves. Pogrebin strives valiantly throughout the year, learning (she interviewed more than 60 rabbis and scholars) and breaking stereotypes of our tradition, as when she blesses a woman sitting next to her at a feminist Seder on Passover. When she falls short, she levels with the reader. Despite her efforts, after the introspection and repentance of the High Holy Days Pogrebin describes feeling bereft. Like Morales from the musical "A Chorus Line," who sings about feeling "nothing," Pogrebin writes: "I didn't feel changed. There was no revelation." The admission underscores a truth about deepening one's faith and observance: It's hard. This is where "My Jewish Year" occasionally disappoints. Pogrebin and I are both journalists and Jewish seekers who have written about the experience. But what happens after the pilgrimage and the book? The spiritual work is just getting started and is fraught with obstacles. Living up to one's faith is never easy, and opening your heart to the spiritual touch takes time. Often what you are supposed to feel and supposed to do get in the way. I think changing your life through faith is more like a ladder than a year of forced ritual. Indeed, defining ritual observance as adhering to a holiday calendar offers a limited perspective. Ask many in the Orthodox community for whom spiritual boredom is a product of rote observance. To me, the essential question is, Where is God? For Pogrebin, as for many Jews, this is a complicated question - she is a believer "not in God as all-powerful, but in God as protector and healer." The question of God is, in my view, one we must spend more time exploring if we are to find meaning and purpose as a community beyond culture and debates over Israel. I prefer going deeper into Jewish liturgy to celebrating the new year for trees. Still, this pilgrimage is a serious and important one. Pogrebin writes poignantly of connecting the dots of Jewish identity for her children through a Yom Kippur prayer or a Passover debate she devised about the extent of Pharaoh's culpability. This is a goal shared by many Jewish parents who want their kids to understand that being Jewish is about more than a gift on Hanukkah or culture alone. we also share a love for the Jewish Sabbath - which she calls a time of "deliberate intermission." Shabbat is for me the most spiritual and peaceful of Jewish holidays, however imperfectly both Pogrebin and I observe it. Reflecting on the lessons of her experience, Pogrebin quotes Rabbi Peter Rubinstein : All of us create "something sacred in our lives." After her Jewish year, Pogrebin may accept or reject aspects of her tradition, but at least she knows more about it. This is what Wieseltier was talking about. He wrote in his book "Kaddish," "Do not overthrow the customs that have made it all the way to you." ? Pogrebin is a holiday pilgrim uninterested in journeying into Orthodoxy, a 'wondering Jew': 'Something tugged at me, telling me there was more to feel than I'd felt.' David GREGORY is the author of "How's Your Faith?" and apolitical analyst for CNN.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 5, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

Recent years have seen a number of books published in which an author commits to following the oft-neglected tenets of a religion think A. J. Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically (2007) or Rachel Held Evans' A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012). Here, putting her own spin on this formula, Pogrebin charts her own successful and illuminating course through a year of Jewish holidays. This personal but also thoroughly researched book chronicles a year of celebrating 18 Jewish holidays deeply and committedly. Each chapter not only features background information about the holiday and conversations with experts but also the author's sometimes funny and sometimes poignant attempts to do them well. The book is a frank reckoning with the author's own heart, but it's also about the myriad ways Jews relate to each other. Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike will appreciate this thoughtful and intimate journey through a very Jewish year.--Engel, Christine Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Can a 50-something neophyte glean meaning about herself and the world from observing all 18 annual Jewish holidays in a year of personal exploration? Pogrebin (Stars of David) provides a vigorous and moving affirmative answer in this insightful, clever, funny, and compulsively readable volume that will lead newcomers to seek out her other writings. Having grown up with her Jewish identity "a given, not a pursuit," Pogrebin believed that there was more to "feel than I'd felt, more to understand than I knew." She is guided by an eclectic group of teachers, including rabbis from all modern denominations, who provide different lenses through which to view ancient, and sometimes obscure, holidays as relevant today. Her exploration begins with Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the Jewish New Year, that provides an opportunity to gear up for that holy day with daily self-examinations; typically, her account of trying to learn how to blow a shofar every morning, and integrate her experiment in observance with her family routine, is both humorous and inspiring. Even knowledgeable Jews will find wisdom and new perspectives in these pages. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Journalist Pogrebin (Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish) uses her former column for The Forward as a launching pad to take readers on a spiritual and intellectual journey. Here, she explores the Jewish calendar of holidays and observances (including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Shabbat), combining both cultural and theological explanations with often hilarious autobiographical detail. Each major Jewish holiday is explored in turn, with Pogrebin visiting a variety of synagogues and partnering with rabbis and friends as she fasts, prays, and worships. Throughout this engaging read are funny anecdotes intertwined with deep spiritual reflection. Verdict A modern take on a pilgrim's journal, this account will offer insight for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. Readers who are interested in becoming more observant will find it especially worthwhile.-Felicia J. Williamson, Dallas Holocaust Museum © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A Jewish writer takes an educational journey through the feasts and fasts of the religious calendar.Former 60 Minutes producer Pogrebin (One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I've Learned About Everyone's Struggle to Be Singular, 2009, etc.) embarked on a rigorous program celebrating, for a full year, the grave holy days and happy holidays her faith prescribes, even those that eschew electronic devices. Living a year by the prayer book, she found personal possibilities and universal implications, beginning her year of learning one autumn with the theological New Year. That was quickly followed by a fast day recognized only by the most observant. Then came a solemn Yom Kippur, a major fast day and the most serious day of reckoning. The author also chronicles days appealing to the senses, days celebrating the reception of the Holy Law, and more minor fasting days. There's a proto-Earth day and a day for masquerading to commemorate an escape from annihilation. For Passover, the author attended a feminist observance. The most important holiday comes not annually but weekly: the day of rest when all manner of work and all mundane concerns are set aside. Regarding the ancient holidays, there are reorchestrated and new ones to commemorate the establishment of the state of Israel, its lost defenders, and the Holocaust. For the book, Pogrebin, a bit of a religious tourist, traveled to various synagogues and consulted scores of rabbis and scholarsthough none in the Orthodox right wing of Judaism. She offers homilies, elaborate similes, and other illustrative figures of speech that will engage like-minded readers. The text, however, won't enjoy ready acceptance with those who do not find room in the tradition for touchy-feely sentiments, such as "mindful walking" or "mindful sweating." The graceful value of Pogrebin's tract is the deep faith and rich vitality evident in her up-close and personal Jewish year. A sentimental journey through Judaic practice and thought. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 Prepping Rosh Hashanah: Self-Flagellation in Summer The instruction manual from the Israeli company that shipped my shofar (the trumpet made from a ram's horn that's blasted during the Jewish new year) says the blowing-technique can be learned by "filling your mouth with water. You then make a small opening at the right side of your mouth, and blow out the water with a strong pressure. You must practice this again and again until you can blow the water about four feet away." Rosh Hashanah (literally "head of the year") needs the shofar report to alert the world to the new year and to "wake us up" to introspection. This instrument is notoriously impossible to blow, especially with its prescribed cadence and strength; try it some time, it's really hard. Synagogues troll for the brave souls who can actually pull it off without making the congregation cringe at sad attempts that emit tense toots or dying wails. This year, I'm committed to fulfilling the commandment of hearing the shofar blast not only on the new year itself, but on every single morning of the 40 days of Elul, the weeks of self-examination that begin before Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). So I'm standing at the kitchen sink, spewing tap water ineptly as my children look at me askance. My 17-year-old son, Ben, picks up the tawny horn. "Let me try." He kills it. I hit on an idea. "I need you to be my blower every morning at dawn for the next 40 days." "Sure," Ben answers blithely, despite the fact that he can't be roused before 9 a.m. during the summer. Before this project, I didn't even know that the shofar gets blown daily for 40 days before the Jewish new year. (It's actually fewer, because the horn can neither be honked on Shabbat nor the day before Rosh Hashanah.) Elul commemorates the 40 days when Moses went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets. He smashed the first set in anger, after descending Sinai and discovering how his flock had doubted him and God, building a forbidden idol, a golden calf, to worship instead. During this month of Elul, we ask forgiveness for that first, faithless idolatry and for our modern, countless missteps. This is new to me: starting the path to repentance in August's 80-degree weather. I'd previously thought that self-baring was a one-day affair--the Yom Kippur Cleanse. And that was plenty; twelve hours in synagogue without eating has always felt to me like penitence in and of itself. But now I'm learning a new rhythm. Contrition starts daily, 40 days before the mother-lode, incited every dawn by a noise one can't ignore. The first day, I opt for a loose definition of the word, "dawn," which means waking when the sun is up already. It's immediately obvious there's no way I'm rousting Ben to blow the shofar for me. I'm on my own. I pick up the plastic trumpet and go into a room as far from my sleeping family as possible. I lift the horn to my mouth and try to follow the contradictory directions to both relax-and-purse the lips simultaneously, whistling air through the mouthpiece. To my shock, out comes a blast. It's not pretty, but it's hardy. I keep my gaze out the window, thinking how bizarre this is and at the same time, how meaningful. I blow one more time, a little tentatively because I don't want to irk the house. The shofar sound is Judaism to me: raw, rousing, visceral, plaintive, insistent. I then sit down on the sofa to Google the 27th Psalm on my iPhone because I learned we're supposed to recite it aloud every morning of Elul for 40 days. This psalm is about God's protection, which Elul reminds us we're going to need during the upcoming days of judgment. I hear my voice saying the words and they're oddly comforting, despite the dread. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh, even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise up against me, even then will I be confident." I then attempt the entire Psalm in Hebrew, and manage to get through it. Slowly. But I'm proud of the fact that I can. When my kids wake up, they ask me how it went--my shofar right of passage. I tell them it felt interesting and dorky at the same time. Ben apologizes profusely for failing his assignment on the first day. I reassure him that I should be the one shouldering this ritual anyway; it's my Wondering Year, my obligation. As Elul accumulates and becomes routine, I find myself actually looking forward to the new morning regimen: wake up ahead of my husband, turn on the coffee machine, grab my plastic horn and face the window. My bleats are sometimes so solid they surprise me; but more often they're shaky. I have to balance my desire to improve my blow-technique, against my fear of alienating the whole family. Maimonides, the medieval philosopher, explained the custom of blowing shofar as "a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency." Am I complacent? About my behavior, my friendships, my parenting, my work? If complacency means, as the dictionary says, "a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself," the answer is actually no. Just ask my therapist. I offer her a weekly catalogue of self-reproach. But the fact is, I don't scrutinize myself as comprehensively as I could when it comes to my character. Really, really candidly, what kind of person am I and how do I assess my private selfishness, pettiness, apathy? Can the peals of the shofar derail all our rationalizations? Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, author of one of the classic guides to the holidays, "The Jewish Way," explains that Elul is a time for "accounting for the soul," or cheshbon hanefesh , (a reckoning with one's self). Yitz, 82, a friend of my parents' (which is why I can call him Yitz,) who is tall, slim, and somehow ethereal in his erudition, radiates the kind of placidity that makes me feel calm. Which is rare for me. If I could spend more time with Yitz, I'm convinced I'd be more Zen, not to mention, smarter. "Just as the month before the summer is the time when Americans go on crash diets, fearing how their bodies will look on the beach," he writes, "so Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, became the time when Jews went on crash spiritual regimens, fearing how their souls would look when they stood naked before God." I ask some other trusted rabbis how they'd suggest going about this "accounting for the soul." They recommend choosing one trait a day and focusing introspection on that one quality. In an attempt to find a list of traits, I Google "Elul exercises" and "Elul practices" and come up with a list of middot (traits) that will take me through all 40 days. It's an alphabetical litany of 40 characteristics suggested by a Toronto teacher named Modya Silver on his blog, which he has since taken down: 40 traits (middot) for each day of Elul : * Abstinence - prishut * Alacrity/Zeal - zerizut * Arrogance - azut * Anger - ka'as * Awe of G-d - yirat hashem * Compassion - rachamim * Courage - ometz lev * Cruelty - achzriut * Decisiveness * Envy - kina * Equanimity - menuchat hanefesh * Faith in G-d - Emunah * Forgiveness - slicha * Generosity - nedivut * Gratitude - hoda'ah * Greed Falsehood - sheker * Hatred - sina * Honour - k'vod * Humility - anavut * Joy - simcha - 20 * Laziness - atzlut * Leadership - hanhagah * Life force - chiyut * Love - ahava * Lovingkindness - chesed * Miserliness - tza'yekanut * Modesty - tzniut * Order - seder * Patience - savlanut * Presence - hineni- 30 * Pride - Ga'ava * Regret - charata * Recognizing good - hakarat hatov * Repentance - teshuva * Respect * Restraint - hitapkut * Righteousness - tzedek * Self-Awareness - hitlamdut * Shame - busha * Silence - shtika * Simplicity - histapkut * Slander - lashon hara * Strength - gevurah * Truth - emet * Trust in G-d - bitachon * Watchfulness - zehirut * Wealth - osher * Willingness - ratzon * Worry - de'aga * Fear/awe - yirah I print out the list and think about who will attack it with me. My rabbi-guides told me to find a study partner ( chevruta ) to keep me on track and ensure a daily reckoning. So I need someone who's going to be game and won't balk at the discipline, let alone the candor. My close friend, Dr. Catherine Birndorf, is a choice candidate: an accomplished psychiatrist and a fellow stumbling Jew, her bracing directness and humor keep me on my toes. Over our staple breakfast, soft-boiled eggs and toast, she relishes excavating our obsessions and roadblocks. She's helped me through more false-alarm crises than I want to name. I describe my proposal to her in our favorite diner, and Catherine doesn't hesitate before saying yes, which makes me feel grateful because I didn't really have a Plan B. It's a lot to ask of someone--to do a penance-per-day--swapping confessions. Not everyone has the bandwidth. Our agreed protocol is this: we'll mull the trait-of-the-day during daylight hours, then at night, email each other frank reflections. To explain the purpose of this demanding Elul schedule, I send Yitz's quote to Catherine--the one about "crash diets" in anticipation of the beach. She writes back, "I'm a little skeptical of the beach analogy and crash dieting since it rarely leads to lasting change. But you gotta' start somewhere..." She's right that vows don't usually stick. I worry about that: breaking my promise this year to adhere to the holiday regimen, no matter how uncomfortable at times. Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a jocund expert in Midrash (rabbinic commentary on Torah) who happens to be another family friend and has taught for three decades at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells me that daily scrutiny is necessary to upend our complacency. "When you go to the therapist, you don't just go once. You keep going. The repetition of Elul allows you to open yourself--not all at once-- to things you've closed off." What have I closed off? The realization that I still haven't managed to turn compassion into action. I spent a semester teaching writing to formerly homeless men, but failed to find a way to stay in touch with them, let alone address the root causes. I don't see my parents enough. My aunt and I haven't recovered from a falling out four years ago. I still look at my phone too much in restaurants, though I hate when others do that. I tend to remind my son what he has to finish, instead of just asking how he is. I see the point of Elul, the necessary runway to spiritual lift-off. How can one start the new year without looking fully--exhaustively--at the preceding one? When else do we permit ourselves, or demand of ourselves, a microscopic self-analysis? I ask Burt--in his book-filled office--how he'd respond to those who say 40 days of navel-gazing is overkill before Yom Kippur."You can't walk into synagogue cold," Burt fires back. "Let me use the shrink analogy again: You don't just go into your therapy session without thinking ahead to what you want to discuss." That's true. The middot (40 traits for each day of Elul) force me to zero in on pockets of myself I rarely isolate. Anger: I get riled when I feel something is unjust and I need to pause before writing the angry email. Courage: I both have it and lack it, and wish I could have the courage to worry less about approval. Cruelty: I don't believe I am cruel, at least not consciously, and that's a relief to acknowledge. Forgiveness: I don't forgive my own mistakes, no matter how slow, and I'm slow to forget friends' affronts. Excerpted from My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.