Imagine sitting down to lunch with your best friend, who just returned from a dream vacation. Your friend animatedly tells you all the details about where she went, who and what she saw, what she ate, and what she learned about the history, culture, and religious traditions she encountered. It’s a long lunch, but you have time to linger. This is the scene that sums up Abigail Pogrebin’s latest book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.
The premise of Pogrebin’s journey is the acknowledgment that there is a great deal more to the Jewish calendar than the holidays that are most widely acknowledged. That the practices and prayers associated with the best known Jewish holidays don’t adequately represent the breadth of the Jewish year. Pogrebin, like many contemporary Jews, is aware that their commitment to following the Jewish calendar and the demands that it makes suffers from a lack of information, connection, and clashes with other obligations. She decides to adhere to observing every Jewish festival and fast day over the course of the year. This book is her report of how she participated, what she learned, and the impact on her Jewish identity.
Pogrebin writes chronologically, starting with the High Holidays at the beginning of the Jewish year and ending with the Tisha B’Av fast. This makes sense intuitively, and helps to ground the reader in the action. While she presents each holiday in a self-contained chapter, she does reference earlier experiences as the year progresses. Each chapter can be read independently, but it is definitely better to read them in order. Furthermore, reading them in order highlights the contrast in the ways Pogrebin approaches holidays she is very comfortable with and those with which she is less familiar. Her description of Passover stands out among them all as the one Pogrebin has clearly made her own. Many readers will be able to relate with Pogrebin’s experience that some holidays make their mark much more strongly than others.
What makes this book such a valuable guide is that Pogrebin not only recounts her own experiences, but includes short paragraphs of teaching from a diverse set of rabbis and Jewish educators. Readers will learn competing interpretations and how this translates into vibrant practices, evolving rituals, and creative liturgy. Following along as Pogrebin explores these teachings and seeks to incorporate them into her experience would be a dynamic adult education program in any community. Its clarity and focus on finding meaning in the holidays makes it an excellent companion for Jews by choice, interfaith families, newlyweds, new parents, and any other seekers considering new approaches to their Jewish lives. For readers who have observed the Jewish holidays (one, some, or all), the book is certain to stir up memories, and the discussion opportunities for book clubs are almost endless. A single meeting would not be enough to cover the range of topics Pogrebin presents.
The only area in which this book is possibly disappointing is that Pogrebin’s location and family connections allow her exceptional access to Jewish communal leaders and programs. The resources and expertise that she enjoys as a member of a large congregation, living in New York City, and with a winning Jewish geography network that reflects her family’s immersion among the leaders in the community, may leave some readers with the unsettling distance between the Jewish lives they know and the unusual bounty of opportunity in Manhattan. As much as readers are able to appreciate that this book is only Pogrebin’s story (and her family’s), understanding it as a way to approach the Jewish calendar but not the only way, there is an excellent chance that this book will inspire them to think about the Jewish calendar through a different lens.