Book Reviews, Literature

Journey To Open Orthodoxy – Rabbi Avi Weiss

With his new collected volume of writings Journey To Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Avi Weiss presents how his thinking and experiences have come together to shape his vision for the future of the Jewish people. Reaching beyond the limitations of a denominational platform, these essays articulate a menu of possibilities on a wide-range of topics, from halacha to Jewish leadership, diversity and inclusion in Jewish life, and the State of Israel. Although he intends his ideas to be linked under the umbrella of “Open Orthodoxy” each individual essay has the sturdiness of resolve and principle to stand on its own.

As some of the contents have been previously published, and in some cases over 20 years ago, the strength of each individual essay is hardly surprising. What is most striking about the collection is how it enables the reader to travel along with Rabbi Weiss as his thinking matures and sometimes changes. The gradual development of Rabbi Weiss’ positions, as he gains experience as a pulpit rabbi, visits and re-visits traditional texts, faces new challenges in his family relationships, and addresses stormy political seas emerges as his ultimate lesson. Living a full Jewish life, being fully immersed in the well-being of loved ones, community, and Am Yisrael is a long-term commitment, one that can be uncomfortable and deeply painful. In this volume, Rabbi Weiss powerfully demonstrates that his commitment to continuing on this journey has enabled him to create a space for a different kind of religious engagement and practice, one he hopes will emerge as a significant force in the future of Jewish peoplehood. Individual readers may not be in the position to affect the international conversation about what should constitute normative Jewish practice and participation, but they will be inspired to understand that their opinions about such subjects may change over time, and that there is tremendous value to exploring multiple options.

There will be readers who chafe at Rabbi Weiss’ characterizations of other Jewish denominations, and who will actively disagree with some of his halachic positions. While the book invites an in-depth critique of the movement he calls “Open Orthodoxy” readers need to be cautious not to judge Rabbi Weiss for not moving far enough or fast enough (or for going too far too fast). It can be difficult to separate his writing from the generally privileged religious, socio-economic and political contexts of his community in Riverdale, New York, and readers with limited experience with the formal study of Jewish texts may occasionally be overwhelmed. Readers who have been closely following Rabbi Weiss’ work and writings will probably not find much new material, although they will likely be most appreciative of having this well-edited and conceived collection. The best hope for this volume is for those who have accompanied Rabbi Weiss in his past decades of service to the Jewish people to better understand his journey, and that those who are less familiar with his work may learn from his experience and embrace the uncertainty of fully engaging in the conversation and journey of their own.

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Book Reviews, Literature

Never A Native – Alice Shalvi

Alice Shalvi is a force to be reckoned with, and in her memoir, Never A Native, she describes how a refugee German Jewish girl became one of the most important voices in Israeli feminism and social politics. From its early descriptions of her family’s fight from the Nazis to England in the 1930s to her celebrated work re-shaping the academic and political fabric of a new nation state, Shalvi’s rich and courageous personal story shines through.

Shalvi’s focus on her early life and her relationships with her family provide more than just her personal history. Her attention to these details firmly place her story as part of the narrative of the Jewish people. As she recounts her journey from Germany, to England, to Israel, readers will recognize in her individual story the pathways and experiences of their own families and neighbors. Within the intimacies she shares about being a partner with her husband, parent to her children, a daughter, sister and friend, Shalvi emerges as a powerful storyteller that makes her professional attainments seem inevitable. She is hardly invincible, but showcases the intelligence and determination that empowered her and so many other women to speak and achieve their goals.

For readers who think they know Israeli political history but are unfamiliar with its women’s movement, Never A Native is an essential primer on this part of the country’s development. Similarly, those who are interested in Israel’s academic and social welfare institutions will find in Shalvi’s work a thorough examination of how they were shaped. Shalvi is not so disingenuous as to try to pass off her life experiences as being “typical” of her generation, but she balances a very fine line between acknowledging her privilege as a Western European, highly educated women with some of the economic and political hardships that were common in the early years of the state.

Never A Native deserves the accolades and attention that it has received. While not every page is teeming with fast-paced action, Shalvi provides her readers with so many opportunities to reflect, question, and be inspired. Educators will find it rich in material to share with high school, college, and adult learners. And everyone should be grateful to Shalvi, not only for the tremendous work she has done to support women’s rights in Israel, but for her willingness to share her story in such an approachable and thorough way.

Book Reviews

The Rabbi Finds Her Way – Robert Schoen with Catherine de Cuir

What does a rabbi do all day? This is the question at the center of this lively and entertaining introduction to Rabbi Pearl Ross. Readers join her journey as she steps into her position as Assistant Rabbi at a large and prosperous Reform congregation near her hometown, falls in love, and addresses a long-time rift with her estranged sister.

Robert Schoen and Catherine de Cuir’s writing, particularly their humor, keeps the tone of the novel light and well-paced. As we get to know Pearl, her family, and the Lakeshore Temple community, the characters jump off the page and invite readers into their stories. The authors ably balance their characters’ fallibility and humanity, with emotional depth and dramatic life experiences. In a day at the Lakeshore Temple, it seems like anything can and will happen. Readers, along with Pearl, are encouraged to meet these challenges with a strong sense of humor.

While the book doesn’t shy away from the more difficult experiences of death, aging, illness, and imprisonment, it does approach them with a some privileged rose-colored glasses. The congregation that Schoen and de Cuir create is financially wealthy, with supportive lay-leadership, and an incredible staff; even its bar and bat mitzvah students and their families are intelligent and enthusiastic! Pearl’s dating, marriage, and motherhood have no apparent impact on her career. While not everyone is always happy, Schoen and de Cuir are letting Pearl live the dream. Just enough reality gets into the novel to make it relatable – alas congregational life is rarely as neat and tidy as they allow it to be here.

The Rabbi Finds Her Way is a book with easy appeal for anyone who has ever spent any time with, or has an opinion about, organized religion, whether Jewish and other. The narrative includes a number of scenes with sermons and speeches about various Torah portions that would contribute to a book club, adult education, or synagogue meeting. For those who remember Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, Schoen’s Rabbi Pearl Ross-Levy has the potential to follow his lead for a new generation.

BooksAndBlintzes received a free copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. It represents the sole opinion of the reviewer.

More information about the book and its authors is available at: https://www.robertschoen.com

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