I’ve always been fascinated by Judaism—its ancient traditions and unique relationship to God, the contributions of Jews in many areas of endeavor to the world, and by the consistency and ferocity of the oppression against them.
So I was looking forward to reading this book. I wanted to learn more about Jewish life and ritual.
But I’ll be honest. It took me a while to get into it. And once I did, couldn’t put it down. There was always one more story to read.
The book contains interviews with dozens of Jews—ordinary people who tell stories about moments of insight or about critical transitions in their Jewish practice or who ponder what being a Jew has meant to them. The stories are arranged loosely according to Jewish holidays and religious celebrations, from the circumcision of boys eight days after birth to the ancient burial rites of the Chevra Kedisha.
The stories are all first person, which was confusing to me at first when the voice and perspective changed every few pages. This gave the stories freshness and immediacy, but hinders an objective understanding of the person because you only see his or her point of view.
Nevertheless, stories are always a powerful medium. Not only did I learn about Judaism, not only was I consistently touched with the depth and tenacity of faith, but I understood in a way I never had before how the very fact of being a Jew, observant or not, sets this people apart from all others and binds them together in their faith and culture. In this world, it’s hard to forget that you were born a Jew.
Woven into the fabric of almost every story is this sense of solidarity with the Jewish community. Of belonging to something special, ancient, and oppressed. There was the Jewish cattle-ranching family, for example, that observes its heritage and traditions despite being almost completely isolated from a Jewish community. There was the American soldier who chose to be identified as “Jew” on his dogtag during the war in Kuwait, knowing that he would be killed if he were captured. (The US military gives Jewish soldiers the option of being identified as “Protestant B” when fighting in the Middle East.)
My favorite was “the singing girl” who went to the temporary morgue on 30th Street after the 9/11 attack to perform the traditional shmira ceremony—standing guard over the bodies as a gesture of protection and respect until they could be buried. She took the Friday night shift from midnight to 4 a.m. For weeks, she sang the Tehillum, the Psalms, that we all share, in that temporary morgue, surrounded by the souls of the dead of all faiths. Eventually, she became known as “the singing girl.” She shares the fruit of her long vigil in her story.
This Jewish Life is an easy but compelling read. It’s a peek through the temple door into a religion and culture that is the cradle of our own.
Reviewed by Kate Convissor at www.wanderingnotlost.org