My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew. By Abigail Pogrebin. Foreword by A. J. Jacobs. Fig Tree Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $22.99.
What a joy it is to be able to share vicariously this talented and energetic author’s journey, a journey self-designed to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity. At first glance a sure-fire, gimmicky publishing venture, it turns out to be much more than that. It’s a kind of Jewish makeover. It has soul and determination and great sensitivity.
As the subtitle makes clear. Pogrebin organizes her book around the calendar of Jewish holidays, including an unexpected number of fast days. Each chapter is part embellished journal entry, part citations of relevant observations – short teachings – by rabbis whom the author interviewed along the way. Abby Progrebin as character in her own book is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. She has set out to see what, if anything, she has missed – and to decide what to do about it.
What new understandings will she turn into changed behavior? This question not only generates suspense, but also deepens our interest in the implicit question that lies behind it: what new understandings will she gain? How will she react to them? How will her readers react?
Readers are encouraged to let Pogrebin be their guide, to imagine themselves in her place. To measure their reactions against hers. To trust her certainties and her uncertainties.
Pogrebin wrestles with the fact that Judaism provides a range of templates. Her search leads her to encompass more than the Reform Judaism that is her home territory. She questions authorities from other worship traditions within the Jewish family. She visits a variety of temples and synagogues. They contrast not only in worship style, but in many other ways as well: size, prominence, formality, secular setting (major urban center, suburb, etc.). Pogrebin crisscrosses the country to touch as many bases as she can, though of necessity the book remains a bit New York centric.
The author’s quest brings a payoff that might not have been expected. Yes, she gains insight and appreciation for the individual holy days and rituals, especially the most holy of all – the Sabbath. Beyond this, however, she comes to feel the genius of the sacramental and liturgical Jewish year as an overarching structure both in time and beyond time. There is a rhythm to the changing emotional seasons of grief and joy, defeat and victory, scarcity and plentitude.
During this experimental year, she realizes more strongly than ever that the hold and power of the holidays depends upon one’s preparation and intention.
Helping Pogrebin and her readers are quotations from rabbis that she has met or read along her journey. These quotations are selected to underscore key issues connected with the holidays and the ways in which the calendar structures Jewish life. Some of the quotations introduce a theme or a chapter, while others simply arise when they are needed to lend clarity and authority.
Other useful tools are the special appendices: “A Jewish Year in Bullet Points,” a list of rabbi’s and other authorities interviewed as part of Pogrebin’s research, a bibliography, and a glossary.
Throughout her travels, inquiries, and meditations, Pogrebin continues to underscore her experiences as a Jewish child and woman, as wife and mother, and as an accomplished professional and unsatisfied seeker. These are parts of the tapestry. Now one of its threads, the thread of her Jewish selfhood and spirituality, is a much more prominent part of the design.
This remarkable book accomplishes its ends with great vitality and generous, inspiring openness.
A note on the author
Abigail Pogrebin worked for Mike Wallace as a producer on 60 Minutes. Her other books are Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish and One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin. Her work appears in such periodicals as Newsweek, New York magazine, The Daily Beast, the Forward, and Tablet.
This review appears in the March 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Charlotte and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).