There is a story in the Talmud in which a stranger from a foreign land enters a rabbinic academy and reflects back his understanding of Jewish law and practice. Because he isn’t from there, he has a different perspective than the others, and thus asks questions and makes suggestions that few have considered.
In The Jewish American Paradox, Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin does something similar. As Mnookin explains, for most of his life he was ambivalent about and only loosely connected to Judaism. His book is a self-described “intellectual journey” to understand not only his questions about his own Jewish identity but also to examine the foundational concerns facing the Jewish community: Who is a Jew? How should we respond to interfaith marriage? What is the role of Israel in Jewish identity? What does “Jewish peoplehood” mean?
The book is strongest when Mnookin uses his legal mind to place elements of Jewish identity on trial. In the opening chapter, he examines the life of the famed psychologist Erik Erikson, who was born Jewish and struggled with his religion his whole life. Mnookin uses Erikson’s story as a way to understand the tensions between identity and status, religion and heritage, fluidity and definition. Later, he does the same with the question of “who is a Jew” in Israel, unpacking the legal ramifications of making Jewish lineage a criterion for citizenship.
Utilizing his expertise in the art of negotiation, Mnookin makes his case for a definition of Jewish identity that is wide and inclusive, knowing full well that many will disagree. In this respect, Mnookin is brave; while many writers have unpacked the challenges and questions of modern Jewry, few have the courage to try to answer those questions.
While the book at time reads like an insider conversation among people who are already invested in the Jewish community, at others it seems like a primer on Judaism itself. In his final chapter, about raising a Jewish child, he explains, “This chapter is not meant for those parents who are deeply committed to Judaism and whose lives involve regular religious observance.” He then goes on to unpack the rituals, observances, and advice most salient to couples who are struggling with how they fit in to the Jewish project.
Though not a memoir, the book is deeply personal. This is not an impartial look at American Jewry. Mnookin reveals throughout how he has reconciled issues regarding his and his family’s Jewish identity, and one sees how those personal experiences clearly inform his analysis, from his examination of intermarriage to his discussion of Israel.
Readers will appreciate walking alongside one of our generation’s great legal minds as he thoughtfully struggles to find his place in the 3,000-year-old Jewish conversation.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.