The Way Into the Vari­eties of Jewishness

Sylvia Barack Fishman
  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams is a Cuban-born, Brook­lyn-raised, Long Island-resid­ing mom. She is Hadas­sah Nas­sau’s One Region One Book chair­la­dy, a free­lance essay­ist, and a cer­ti­fied yoga instruc­tor who has loved review­ing books for the JBC for the past ten years.

Discussion Questions