There are many fine volumes available which describe the holidays, life cycle events, and major ritual practices that punctuate the Jew’s day and year. Ari Goldman’s volume does that and more. He traces the history of various observances, detailing how they began and how they developed. More distinctively, he points out anecdotally the many diverse and sometimes strange ways in which those observances are kept.
Goldman quotes (with apparent approval) the late Jacob Rader Marcus, the preeminent historian of American Jewry: “There are six million Jews in America and six millions Judaisms.” These idiosyncrasies, many of which Goldman cites, lead the author to conclude, “We are Smörgåsbord Jews. American Jews come to the great table of Jewish observance take what best suits them. No two buffet plates are the same.”
That doesn’t bother Goldman. To the contrary, he declares, “I do think a little anarchy can be healthy. Being Jewish is about feeling good. It is about finding meaning.”
It is quite obvious that Goldman not only feels good indeed about his Judaism, but he also finds it full of meaning. He does a superb job of interpreting the religion: its values, beliefs, and practices. He has the skill of the preacher, and the temptation to practice it is too much for the scholar and journalist in him to resist. For example, he makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the centrality of the Jewish home in the training of a child: “The way adults act and talk – towards their children and toward each other – teaches children more than any synagogue or classroom can.”
Goldman has a profound understanding of Judaism and loves it passionately. That passion is contagious. One who is contemplating conversation to Judaism would do well to read this excellent introduction. A born Jew will gain from it a deepened understanding and pride in what is already his or hers.