Book Review-A Beautiful Day and Jewish Years


Beautiful Days, Holy Days

Avraham Peretz Friedman

Compass Books, 2015, $24.95


My Jewish Year

Abigail Pogrebin

Fig Tree Books, 2017, $22.95

These two books explore ostensibly the same subject matter—the holiday and fast day cycle of the Jewish year—but could not differ more in tone, sensibility, intended audience, and purpose. Beautiful Days, Holy Days is a collection of divrei Torah (words of Torah) appealing to a frum audience—that is, believing and mitzvahobservant Jews who “walk the walk and talk the talk” of the yeshiva world. Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year is the story of a liberal Jew’s immersion in the Jewish holidays, examining them from many historical and denominational angles, as a way to “fill in the gaps” of her Jewish own knowledge and strengthen her Jewish identity.

Beautiful Days assumes an audience that already knows what the Jewish holidays are about and is seeking new insights into their associated texts. It is an anthology of Torah-based thoughts rather than one continuous work, and the essays vary greatly in length, in tone (from homiletic to polemical), and in their relevance to the holidays.

The sensibility is unmistakably yeshivish, as evidenced by the frequent use of Hebrew terminology without full translation. A piece under Rosh Hashanah on “The Progression of Malchuyot, Zichronot, Shofrot,” for example, translates malchuyot, but not the next two words, assuming that the reader is familiar with the three sections of the Rosh Hashanah mussaf service.

A chapter titled “Mitzvot ah’seih she’ha’z’man g’raman” lays down the categories of time-bound positive commandments from which women are exempt as immutable rules, but fails to see the “gray areas.” Hearing the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah is certainly a positive time-bound mitzvah, but in many communities women have become accustomed to coming to shul for shofar blowing. In such communities, a shofar may be brought to a woman’s home if she cannot go out.

In contrast, Abigail Pogrebin’s book is an ongoing quest, a search for meaning, and she invites other seekers of all stripes to come along. She is “attuned in … [her] current expedition, to the Opted-In vs. the Opted-Out Jew,” and writes for both, occasionally telling the well-informed that they can skip the next few paragraphs.

Pogrebin has done her homework; read a lot of books; interviewed leading modern Jewish thinkers, from Blu and Yitz Greenberg to Adin Steinsaltz to David Ellenson to Judith Hauptman to Sara Hurwitz; and ordered a lot of “stuff,” including a shofar from Amazon (who knew Amazon carried them?). She worked on improving her Hebrew with less than full success. But she asks the right questions (which she learned from Rabbi Irwin Kula): “What do we hire a holiday to do for us? What is the yearning to which the holiday is a response?”

Pogrebin is determined to cover the full spectrum of the Jewish calendar, from prep time in Elul, to the six fast days (which she complains about), to the newly minted spring memorial holidays of Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut (which do not appear in Friedman’s book). She sometimes explores multiple interpretations of a single holiday, such as seeing Hanukkah as a tirade against assimilation or as internecine warfare or as a late rabbinic invention of the cruse-of-oil story seven centuries after the Maccabees.

She seeks out new iterations of traditional rituals, such as the JCC of Manhattan’s all-night Shavuot smorgasbord of learning, with everything from stress management to Israeli folk dancing. She attends the Feminist Seder, a ritual begun in 1976 by Esther Broner and, among others, Abigail’s mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Abigail fondly remembers attending as a privileged “Seder Daughter,” and she now aspires to pass on this tradition to the next generation of Pogrebin daughters.

At times in this book I acknowledged the wisdom of the rabbinic adage, “Tafasta meruba lo tafasta” (“If you seized a lot, you didn’t seize”). When the author rushes from one synagogue service to another (I think four in all) on Yom Kippur, I felt she must have lost something in the shuffle. On Hanukkah, she arranges home-based evenings of menorah-lighting and gift-giving and receiving, orchestrates a panel at the Jewish Theological Seminary, rushes to her father-in-law’s hospital bedside in Chicago, and ends up at the White House Hanukkah party. I felt exhausted just reading about it.

She devotes several chapters to different experiences of Shabbat, but understandably prefers Friday night services in her home Reform synagogue (of which she becomes president during the year), which always begin promptly at 6 p.m. and end at 7:15. I felt she missed out on one aspect of the rhythm of the Jewish year in not experiencing the flow from “early” to “late” Shabbatot.

Ultimately, Pogrebin learned a lot and felt a wide range of emotions from her year, and out of her subjective experience emerges a snapshot of how Jewish life in all its variety is celebrated in twenty-first-century America. Hers is a journey that Jews of many persuasions can identify with and come along on.

Roselyn Bell is the editor of the JOFA Journal. She recently completed an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Rutgers.

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