Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today By Ari L. Goldman Simon & Schuster, 288 pp.

It's an often-stated truism that the Goldene Medine (America's Yiddish name, emphasizing its fabled riches) has been very good to Jews, as good or better, in fact, than any other adopted land in the course of their thousands of years of global wandering. But it's quite another question to ask whether the United States has been good for Judaism.

American Jews today are no longer excluded from the highest levels of government or professional life (need we mention Sen. Joseph Lieberman?). To be labeled an anti-Semite is to be branded an unmitigated bigot (ask Louis Farrakhan), and Jews who can afford it may live wherever they like. Even the once lowly bagel has become an all-American breakfast favorite on a par with Wheaties and--ironically--bacon and eggs.

It's a different story for Judaism, the traditional religion of Jews. As their acceptance and material comfort has grown, American Jews have abandoned in ever growing numbers the faith of their ancestors in favor of total and, generally, irreversible assimilation--notwithstanding the ba'al teshuva movement, which has brought a relatively small number back to Jewish observance in recent years.

Today, most American Jews do not attend synagogue with any regularity. Nor do they adhere to the faith's basic tenants and beliefs, even by the liberal standards of Reform Judaism. More than half marry non-Jews, the level of Jewish literacy is abysmally low, and hand wringing over "Jewish continuity"--the continuation of a cohesive and self-perpetuating Jewish community--is the order of the day.

It would seem to follow then that Ari L. Goldman's "Being Jewish," a once-over-lightly guide for living a ritually Jewish life, would be a natural lifeline for those Jews still curious enough to want to read such a volume. Well it is, and it isn't.

Goldman, a former New York Times religion reporter who now teaches at Columbia University, knows the American Jewish landscape as well as any journalist. Modern Orthodox (meaning liberal-to-moderate) in outlook, Goldman wrote of his own struggle to retain his connection to tradition in contemporary America in his earlier book "The Search for God at Harvard," an account of his year at Harvard Divinity School. He is sensitive and knowledgeable about the varied beliefs and practices of American Jews, and critical of rigid Orthodoxy's dismissal of those who are less than vigorous adherents of traditional Jewish law.

Moreover, he understands that America's secular culture and religious marketplace make every Jew today "a Jew by choice," and that the practice of Judaism has become idiosyncratic to the point that, quoting the late Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus, "there are six million Jews in America and six million Judaisms."

Goldman's latest work is at its best--and most captivating--when he seeks to articulate the variety and often-contradictory nature of American Jewish life through his own and others' experiences. His reporter's ear for amusing and illuminating anecdotes is keen; from the college professor who during Passover has his shrimp salad on matzo, to the Los Angeles Jewish Federation professional who restricts his Sabbath driving to side streets because freeways remind him of going to work.

Goldman says his book should be viewed as a "snapshot" of contemporary American Jewish life and as a "beginning" text and not a complete manual for living a meaningful Jewish life--by which he means practicing Judaism in some form. Outside of Israel, he notes, it is terribly difficult to live a meaningful Jewish life as a secularist, and virtually impossible to impart a lasting secular Jewish identity to young people who have no connection to past cultural traditions.

However, Goldman falls short of his stated goals by becoming trapped in his own mindset.

Goldman, for all his pluralism, is too quick to fall back into the Orthodoxy by which he lives when he seeks to explain Judaism's core beliefs and practices. An example is his insistence that "mitzvot"--traditional Judaism's religious obligations, including only eating kosher foods or not working in any way on the Sabbath--are incumbent upon all Jews. For Goldman, traditional ritual practice, even if somewhat modified, is Judaism. However, in that he is in a distinct minority within contemporary American Judaism.

Both Reform, which claims the largest segment of synagogue-affiliated Jews, and Reconstructionist, which posits Judaism as an evolving civilization and rejects belief in a personal God, outright reject the requirement of mitzvot. Even most middle-of-the-road Conservative Jews today ignore the key mitzvot, even as their movement teaches otherwise. Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews are not about to adopt Orthodoxy, even liberal Orthodoxy, just because they are told that is the Jewish way. Offering less traditional steps toward invigorated Jewish religious practice would have strengthened this book considerably.

Goldman's problem then--aside from some minor redundancies and factual errors (whales and dolphins are not unkosher fish, but unkosher mammals)--is his failure to speak to American Jews as they live, rather than how he might like to see them live. Why should they willingly take on the demanding yoke of mitzvot and adopt traditional ways when they have, seemingly, fared so well by abandoning traditional Judaism? A more compelling argument is required when the culture in which they live offers so little support for the change.

More about the spiritual longing of younger American Jews--the attraction of the non-traditional Jewish Renewal movement and traditional Hasidic Orthodoxy are two areas that could have been better mined here--also would have strengthened Goldman's case. It's not enough to include "spiritual" in the subtitle; content is required.

For the reader already intrigued, "Being Jewish" is both eminently readable and instructive as a basic text. But it breaks no new ground (other than with some fresh anecdotes) in going over Judaism's traditional rituals and customs associated with rites of passage, the Sabbath and holidays, home and synagogue, and the role of prayer. Missing is a creative response to why Jews should remain true to Judaism, be it the Orthodox version or any other contemporary variation.
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