This reference book, from “The Way Into” series, teaches us about the historical and religious reasons for the many varieties of Jewish identity from the biblical period through today. According to the author, Jews have described themselves as members of a social group with common ancestry, a distinct religion, and common culture. A link to the biblical land of Israel created a sense of peoplehood. Circumcision, avoidance of pork, and observance of the Sabbath were instrumental in separating Jews from others. Although Judaism evolved into such diverse groups, with the majority living in the Diaspora, the ability and desire to transmit Jewish culture to the next generation by all groups ensures its continuity.
Professor Fishman makes a fascinating, intensive study of all the Jewish groups in each period. Among the topics discussed only in the first chapter are the Israelite patriarchal tribes, the biblical kingdoms, Judaea and Israel, the Temple period, Diaspora Judaism, Hellenizers and Hasmoneans, Pharisees and Sadduccees, the ascetic Essenes, Maimonides, Rabbinic Judaism and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and Early Christianity. We continue to read about life in Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, Messianism, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, European Reform Judaism, Haskalah, and Zionism.
Four chapters are devoted to the remarkable “kaleidoscope” of American Judaism. I loved the descriptions of today’s Orthodox communities. The differences between Centrist, Modern, and various types of ultra-Orthodoxy are explored. Reform, Conservative, Egalitarian, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Kabbalah Judaism are elucidated. A chapter is devoted to Judaism by choice.
I found the book a bit daunting at first, but was quickly hooked into reading the engaging description of the evolution of my identity as a Jew. I would have enjoyed reading about modern Sephardic communities.
Included are extensive notes, glossary, index, and suggestions for further reading.