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To Every Season ...

October 8, 2008 By:
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For the last few years, Basic Books has been publishing a series of small volumes built on the premise of an older professional informing a hypothetical younger person what he or she might expect about the career path they're about to pursue. For example, Robert Brustein, the veteran theater critic and director, told a young actor what he or she might experience when she headed for Greenwich Village in search of glory; and Perri Klass, a longtime pediatrician and accomplished writer, penned a series of letters to her firstborn, Orlando, who'd been accepted into medical school, cuing him in on what he might discover when he lifted a stethoscope to a patient's chest for the first time.

Now Jonathan D. Sarna, a Jewish historian of note, has written a series of epistles to his daughter, titled A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew, explaining the essentials of Judaism via an examination of the Jewish holidays, both grand and minor ones. Shedding light on his method, Sarna notes in his prefatory remarks that each of these 13 letters "begins with a particular holiday and takes the reader on a journey from the origins of that holiday to great issues that it illuminates. Some letters consider new observances like Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. Others recall little-known days, like Tu be-Av, a holiday celebrating love and marriage. Together, they address major topics of concern to young Jews today, including intermarriage, identity, assimilation, anti-Semitism, freedom, Torah, Israel, social justice, the Holocaust, the environment, continuity and happiness."

The goal, as the author envisions it, is not to simply grow closer to his daughter, but to present her and other young Jews with the fundamentals of Jewish thought and philosophy, and in this way help them make the decision to lead a Jewish life. And he makes it clear he wouldn't have any qualms about lots of non-Jews picking up the book out of curiosity about the Jewish year.

"As an academic," the author states, "I am beholden to no particular movement in Jewish life, and this book therefore offers no brief for any particular movement, save for Judaism itself. It represents my own views on various contested issues, along with other points of view. Mahloket -- disputation -- is to my mind central to the Jewish tradition. My aim here is not to make decisions for readers, but rather to help them make wise and well-informed decisions for themselves."

Sarna begins, as the Jewish year once did in ancient times, with Passover, the first festival in the lunar cycle that Jews follow (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar that the secular world has adopted; Sarna provides a brief explanation of the differences between the two before beginning his introductory remarks). This particular letter is marked "Freedom," since the holiday, at its most basic, commemorates the exodus from Egypt, and the Jewish people's movement out of slavery to the joys and fears that accompany being free at last.

At the seder, the festive gathering where, traditionally, the Haggadah is read in its entirety before any of the meal is served, the goal, as Sarna explains to his daughter Leah, "is to relive history ... to personally undergo the Exodus from Egypt."

Continues Sarna: "That explains the special foods that we eat at the Passover seder. Matzah, made only from flour and water in a process that must hastily be completed within 18 minutes, reminds us that there was no time to bake bread before leaving Egypt. Bitter herbs, usually sharp horseradish or tart lettuce, recall the bitterness of slave life. Haroset, a mixture of nuts, wine, spices and fruit, symbolizes the mortar that the Israelites produced during their enslavement, when they were forced to make bricks."

Having laid out the particulars of the Jewish quest for freedom, Sarna, who is known as a chronicler of American Jewish history, compares the Jewish sense of freedom with certain American ideals associated with the concept. "Freedom, of course, means different things to different people," writes the author. "To us [as Americans], freedom means personal liberty, the freedom to choose. The more choices, the better. That's why America boasts a wide variety of Jews, almost as many as there are haggadahs! ... Within [all] these movements, there are also endless choices: lots of ways of being Conservative or Reform, lots of different Hasidic sects, lots of ... well, you get the idea.

"Freedom, many Americans believe, means picking and choosing one's way through Judaism, selecting cafeteria-style from its bountiful offerings, creating one's own way of being Jewish, a Judaism that is personally meaningful. The result? There are almost as many Judaisms as there are Jews. Not everybody likes that, but it is the price we pay for religious freedom.

"Given the reality of choice, how should you decide what kind of Jew to become?"

Sarna then gives a quick survey of different ways to enter and, perhaps, sustain a Jewish life.

This is the pattern and rhythm that the book follows, though not in quite so discussion-of-subject, then discussion-of-the-choices-open-to-the-young sort of layout. It's a good deal more subtle than that. Sarna works his way through the year, sometimes using personal reminiscences, sometimes explicating text, sometimes using history as a guide.

Whenever I review a book that's distinctly geared to appear around a specific holiday (as is the case with A Time to Every Purpose), I always like to see what the author has to say about the festival we might be immersed in at the moment. Since all of us may be in the thick of Yom Kippur when this issue of the Exponent arrives (or perhaps just immediately past it), it seemed best to settle on that "holiday." Sarna has called his chapter on this most important moment in the Jewish year, "The Individual and the Community."

It so happens that when Sarna wrote his letter to his daughter revolving around Yom Kippur, the holiday also fell in the middle of the week, so some of the discussion centered on how to balance life and work. "Balancing work with the rest of life is never easy -- not for those who observe Yom Kippur, or other Jewish holidays, or the Sabbath, or the laws of keeping kosher, or indeed, for those with any serious commitment outside work. Even balancing family and work, I can tell you, is often a supreme challenge. Nevertheless, conflicts, painful as they may be, help us clarify our priorities in life. Yom Kippur is as good as any to figure out what those priorities should be. In the end, only you can decide whether Yom Kippur is one of them."

As Sarna makes clear to his daughter, one of the major themes of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the importance of community, and it pains him to learn how many young people find Judaism's emphasis on this aspect to be distasteful, caring more to cultivate a sense of extreme individualism.

He tells his daughter, "I love the idea that Judaism privileges the group over the individual. It helps to combat selfishness and self-centeredness. Moreover, the traditional precept that 'all Jews are responsible for one another,' whether they know them or not, like them or not, agree with them or not, simply because all Jews are family is, to me, an amazing concept. It is without parallel in Christianity or Islam.

"Millions of Jews around the world are alive today because other Jews -- who never had set eyes upon them but felt a sense of kinship toward them as fellow Jews -- reached out to save them, or their ancestors, during times of persecution. Even in my lifetime, the successful movements to save Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews relied on this deeply felt feeling of mutual responsibility. It has saved more lives than any other Jewish value I can think of."

He then recalls a family vacation spent in Denmark when they bumped into an Israeli in the hotel who had nowhere to eat Shabbat lunch. Sarna and his wife invited the man to join them, though they'd "never set eyes on him before." Sarna recalls how happy the man was to share lunch in their hotel room -- and then it even turned out that they had friends in common. Writes the author: "All of us had a much more enjoyable and memorable Sabbath meal thanks to that act of Jewish connection. It illustrates what Jewish peoplehood is all about."

This moment demonstrates the best qualities of Sarna's book -- and that's because the ease with which it's conveyed, to say nothing of the concrete details and philosophy provided, might be the sort of thing to convince young readers that Judaism has much in it that will not only please them but will nurture their souls as well.


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