For the first week of the year 5777, Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series fea­tures writ­ers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronf­man, z”l, and his ded­i­ca­tion to Jew­ish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and lega­cy in his final book, Why Be Jew­ish?: A Tes­ta­ment.

When I was 16, along with two dozen oth­er kids who had just fin­ished 11th grade, I went to Israel on the Bronf­man Youth Fel­low­ship. I spent that sum­mer of 1994 laugh­ing, argu­ing, and talk­ing, talk­ing, talk­ing with the oth­ers, includ­ing some who are still my dear­est friends today. We shut up only to sleep for a few hours every night, and to sit still as a small cadre of sen­si­tive teach­ers, peo­ple gift­ed with patience for the tir­ing and tire­some 16-year-olds we were, care­ful­ly insert­ed some very good ideas into our unformed brains, showed us some valu­able texts and places, and gen­er­al­ly treat­ed us with more respect than we deserved. 

This was one of the cru­cial occur­rences in my life, but that wasn’t clear to my 16-year-old self. For all I knew, maybe when you grew up every sum­mer was like this. Of course there hasn’t been any­thing like it since. 

The think­ing that brought me to Israel as a teenag­er orig­i­nat­ed in, of all places, the mind of a tough Cana­di­an-born baron of com­merce, Edgar Bronf­man, who died in 2013. It was the result of a long and strange jour­ney for Edgar, the con­clu­sions of which are laid out in his last book, Why Be Jew­ish? Read­ing the book as an adult, I appre­ci­at­ed anew that the ideas I now take for grant­ed actu­al­ly came from the pro­gram he cre­at­ed and the teach­ers he chose — the idea that that tough ques­tion­ing, skep­ti­cism, and out­right rebel­lion are at the very heart of Judaism,” that Jew­ish life is a tapes­try with many threads, and that faith isn’t the only one or even the most impor­tant one, and that ignor­ing this tapes­try would be a griev­ous loss not for Judaism, what­ev­er that is, but for me. 

When I was 16, or even 26, I didn’t devote much thought to the fact that some­one like Edgar would think that teenagers he’d didn’t know were worth his time and mon­ey. Now that strikes me as incred­i­ble, and as one pos­si­ble response to the chal­lenge in this book’s title. Why be Jew­ish? I’m not some­one who has a good answer to that ques­tion. But one might be found in my dis­cov­ery at 16 that Jew­ish life was a kind of life where some dis­tant per­son who had nev­er met me — some­one like Edgar Bronf­man, or a rab­bi who lived in Egypt or Ger­many 1,000 years ago — cared for some rea­son about what I thought, and who I’d grow up to be. 

The full name of Edgar’s pro­gram was the Bronf­man Youth Fel­low­ships in Israel. Edgar was a New York­er and wasn’t inter­est­ed in Zion­ist indoc­tri­na­tion or aliyah; his pro­gram could have been in the Catskills. But it wasn’t, and for me the last word end­ed up being the most impor­tant, my escape hatch from the ques­tion of Edgar’s title and its exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety. That sum­mer I found a liv­ing, shout­ing, curs­ing soci­ety where Judaism — or some hybrid ver­sion live­li­er than any I knew — had some­how become a main­stream cul­ture, where Jew­ish life had been dis­con­nect­ed from mon­ey and class and intel­lect, where that tire­some hyphen (Amer­i­can-Jew­ish, Jew­ish-Amer­i­can) had been anni­hi­lat­ed. It was a place where Why be Jew­ish?” was a ques­tion that made no sense, or as much sense as Why be Chi­nese?” would make in Chi­na. Why would peo­ple in Chi­na not be Chi­nese? After that sum­mer I made a brief vis­it home to fin­ish high school, came back to Israel when I was 17, and stayed.

Why Be Jew­ish? dis­plays Edgar’s rest­less mind and his con­cern for young peo­ple who are grap­pling with angry ques­tions, as he did in his unhap­py syn­a­gogue in Mon­tre­al as a child, and reach­ing the wrong con­clu­sions as he did. The book makes clear his deter­mi­na­tion to make a dif­fer­ence in the world, and reflects his fear that with­out good answers to the ques­tion of the title, the days of non-Ortho­dox Judaism in the Dias­po­ra are num­bered. At the book’s close, the author, aware that the end is near, offers thanks for a life lived in con­ver­sa­tion and argu­ment with Jew­ish ideas. But he doesn’t leave it there, because the book isn’t about him or for him. He would be even more thank­ful, he writes, if the read­er finds a way into a shared tra­di­tion that cham­pi­ons the ques­tion­er and doesn’t scorn the doubter,” and picks up where he left off.

Mat­ti Fried­man is a Jerusalem-based jour­nal­ist and the author of Pump­kin­flow­ers: A Soldier’s Sto­ry and The Alep­po Codex: A True Sto­ry of Obses­sion, Faith, and the Pur­suit of the Ancient Bible, which won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Literature.

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