Ask any Jew to describe their Judaism, or how they feel about being Jewish, and you’ll get a long story. The answer may begin with a shrug and something simple like, “It’s a big part of my life,” or “It’s not a big part of my life,” but from there you will get the story as to why either of those answers might be true.
I hated Hebrew School. The kids were horrible.
Hebrew School was the only place I belonged.
I loved Jewish overnight camp. It was the place I felt the most “me.”
I hated camp. It was cliquey.
I was president of BBYO, but abandoned anything Jewish in college.
I had no Jewish friends in high school, but stumbled into Hillel in college and fell in love with everything Jewish.
I will only date Jews.
I will only date non-Jews, but want to raise my kids Jewish.
Our Jewish stories are varied, but they demonstrate patterns, which might be useful for leaders in the Jewish community who want to engage Jews from all backgrounds. Enter a new collection of essays: Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, (August 2012, Academic Studies Press). In Living Jewishly, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, a Jewish communal professional in Chicago, collected personal essays from Jews of all backgrounds to do just that–examine what lessons could be learned from how this particular demographic engages in Jewish life.
The topics in Living Jewishly cover the areas you would expect from the 20s and 30s demographic—single life, marriage, becoming more religious, becoming less religious, raising children, and joining (or not joining) various Jewish institutions—but the opportunity to peak into the lives of such a wide variety of Jewish stories was still eye-opening.
The essays take interfaith marriage, for example, and explore all sides. We get Rachel Cort’s essay, “Who is Jew?: Exploring My Non-Kosher Judaism,” which examines what happens when the child of an interfaith marriage feels Jewish in every imaginable way, but most confront the fact that in some parts of the Jewish community she would not be considered Jewish since her mother converted with a Reform rabbi. We also hear from the Jewish member of a couple who chooses to go through a conversion class with her non-Jewish spouse, as well as a Jewish member of a couple dealing with the question of the Christmas tree and Easter.
The most obvious theme, or pattern, to all of the essays Bregman collected, however, is the issue of fitting in. The woman who covers her hair and wears long skirts feels out of place at the more secular Jewish communal events. The newly religious man committed to shomer negiyah feels perplexed by some of the religious members of his community who seem to ignore that particular set of laws. We don’t know which synagogues to join. Some of us can’t find anything we liked as much as camp, yet for others the young-adult professional events feel too much like camp. We might want Shabbat, as Twin Cities writer Galit Breen describes so well in “Summer Days, Summer Nights,” but we don’t all bring the Shabbat feeling into our homes in exactly the same way.
In other words, there is no one magic answer to engaging all of us. I say “we” because Bregman’s anthology includes an essay of mine about discovering the benefits of following the laws of Jewish marriage (niddah, mikveh) that was first published in the magazine CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism and later reprinted here on TC Jewfolk. My essay fits well with what I see as another overarching pattern of 20s and 30s demographic we get in this collection: We separate from our parents by seeking more or less Judaism in our lives. Or, we affirm our parents’ choices by seeking exactly what they gave us in our childhood homes.
I highly recommend Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation. Jews of any age and background are likely to find a place where their particular Jewish stories belong.
*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free copy of Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a positive review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…