My Jew­ish Year: 18 Hol­i­days, One Won­der­ing Jew

By – February 8, 2017

Even to the most devout, the Jew­ish cal­en­dar can seem cryp­tic. Per­haps we know the para­bles behind the hol­i­days but not how to apply them, or maybe we rec­og­nize the Hebrew words com­pos­ing the prayers but not what they say. Seek­ing deep­er mean­ing, New York jour­nal­ist Abi­gail Pogre­bin – a reform Jew whose annu­al child­hood obser­vance cov­ered the High Hol­i­days, Hanukkah, and a cou­ple of Passover seders – decid­ed to embark upon a year­long jour­ney into under­stand­ing Judaism through 18 holidays.

Based on her col­umn for The For­ward, called 18 Hol­i­days; One Won­der­ing Jew,” the book chron­i­cles Pogrebin’s adven­tures in Judaism, from Elul, the peri­od of reflec­tion that pre­cedes Rosh Hashanah, to the final Shab­bat of the year. Pogre­bin logged her thoughts, feel­ings, and expe­ri­ences in detail while inter­view­ing dozens of rab­bis and Jew­ish aca­d­e­mics on the Torah and observ­ing the hol­i­days at syn­a­gogues of all denom­i­na­tions across New York and Los Angeles.Though it required uncom­fort­able tasks such as wrestling with an unwieldy sho­far for a month and endur­ing mul­ti­ple fasts, the cal­en­dar proved a tidy frame­work for dis­cov­er­ing the full­ness of the reli­gion. The Jew­ish sched­ule height­ened the stakes,” Pogre­bin writes, remind­ing me repeat­ed­ly how pre­car­i­ous life is, how impa­tient our tra­di­tion is with com­pla­cen­cy, how oblig­at­ed we are to res­cue those with less, how lucky we are to have so much his­to­ry, so much fam­i­ly, so much food.”

The book pro­vides inti­mate access to Pogrebin’s exten­sive Rolodex of rab­bis and Jew­ish thought lead­ers, cul­ti­vat­ed through decades of work as a jour­nal­ist and through her family’s robust net­work of friends. (Moth­er Let­ty Cot­tin Pogre­bin is a well-known activist who start­ed Ms. Mag­a­zine with Glo­ria Steinem; twin sis­ter Robin is a long­time reporter at The New York Times.) The nar­ra­tive, inter­spersed with analy­sis and mus­ings from renowned Jew­ish schol­ars, is suf­fi­cient­ly acces­si­ble to com­pel a read­er to explore the depths of his or her own faith, no mat­ter how devout or sec­u­lar. Through­out, Pogre­bin draws insight from Judaism’s Ortho­dox, Con­ser­v­a­tive, and Reform branch­es, under­scor­ing that such diver­si­ty of thought has nev­er been more nec­es­sary, as 21st cen­tu­ry social move­ments seem to deep­en the divide with­in the religion.

But Pogre­bin also learned that Judaism has the pow­er to unite. Con­ga danc­ing with the Torah dur­ing a Sim­chat Torah cel­e­bra­tion, she begins to regard Judaism as a vehi­cle for con­nec­tion. Where in the world is there a peo­ple that loves a book so much that they dance around with it?” The Jew­ish Learn­ing Center’s Rab­bi David Kalb asks her. It’s a cel­e­bra­tion of the biggest book club in the world.”

Pogre­bin cred­its the year of study with mak­ing her more mind­ful, com­pelling her to look hard­er at every pri­or­i­ty, every rela­tion­ship, every choice,” and quelling her con­cern that it’s too late to start liv­ing a Jew­ish life. Instead, she hap­pi­ly dis­cov­ers that Judaism is a train that cir­cles back to pick you up.”