Roberta Rosenthal Kwall could not have imagined how “DIY” would become such a central part of all of our lives in 2020; her book Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World fits remarkably well into conversations about what it means to be Jewish and practice Judaism in the current moment. Kwall’s book explores a broad spectrum of observance and tradition, including prayer, kosher and shabbat rituals, social action, education, and grandparenting. By organizing her work according to each area of observance, Kwall gives her readers the opportunity to experience the titular remix — the ability to dive in and out of specific traditions, focusing on those which are most meaningful at a particular time.
Kwall’s articulation of the essence of Remix Judaism captures the spirit of individualism that has become foundational to most recent Jewish sociological scholarship. Her research in this area, coupled with her knowledge and inclusion of traditional Jewish texts — both ancient and modern — helps her readers to understand the ongoing process of connecting their current Jewish identities and practices with the Judaism that came before. Kwall uses these writings to demonstrate the ways in which previous generations developed their own rituals, and explicitly gives support to those who would choose to both follow existing paths and adjust their contours. She only falters when referencing a dichotomy between Orthodox praxis and others. As Remix Judaism does not defer to denominational labels and embraces the complexity of a Judaism that doesn’t fit nicely into boxes, this dichotomy felt at times forced.
Kwall is at her best when she is writing about the personal choices made by friends and acquaintances, highlighting the relationships that cause us to consider what will go in our own personal remix. Her chapter on Jewish grandparenting stood out as a particularly excellent example. The stories Kwall presents here are deeply relatable, and she shares them with a generous dose of empathy. Most refreshing was that this chapter, along with the one on social action, features stories that cross generational lines. With so many studies and books that focus on just one generation’s experience, it was a pleasure to be shown that Jewish engagement is a life-long journey — that the mix of Judaism we choose when we are young can evolve as we encounter new life experiences and relationships.
Remix Judaism shows the diversity of opportunities for engagement in Jewish life that exists today. Many mature readers will recognize themselves navigating the intricate dance between “what we’ve always done” and “what if we tried to do it this way.” Kwall’s book brings plenty of material to a book club discussion or adult education event; the book also has the potential to encourage conversations in families and among close friends, where changing Jewish practice may bring challenges and disagreements into the existing relationship. Remix Judaism is a remarkably accurate snapshot of where American Jews find themselves right now.
Deborah Miller received rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, where she serves as a hospice chaplain and teacher.