Excerpt from Being Jewish by Ari L. Goldman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Being Jewish

The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judiaism Today

by Ari L. Goldman

Being Jewish
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    Sep 2000, 288 pages

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This is not a comprehensive religious text on Jewish observance. Do not look at this book as a manual, but as a beginning. There are many places to turn -- even to ArtScroll -- for greater depth and knowledge. In these pages, I want to demonstrate how Judaism developed over the centuries and provide a snapshot of how it is observed at the turn of the new millennium.

During my year in Jerusalem, I studied with some of the greatest teachers of Judaism at the Shalom Hartman Institute and at the Jerusalem Fellows. I read in the finest libraries of Jewish law and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the campus of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. I dipped into the cacophonous and exuberant study halls at the Mir Yeshiya, Aish Hatorah, and Chabad-Lubavitch. I availed myself of the riches of the stately Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University. But I probably gained the most from extended conversations with several pulpit rabbis from around the world -- people who, like me, were on sabbatical for the year in Jerusalem. They represented all the major modern movements in contemporary Jewry -- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform -- and helped root my academic inquiry in the reality of contemporary. Jewish practice.

My study of Judaism was also set against the backdrop of a year of extraordinary political and security developments. I arrived with my wife, Shira, and our three children-on August 1, 1997, the day after two Arab suicide bombers killed fifteen people at the busy outdoor-market in Jeruslem known as Machane Yehudah. Less than a month later, Shira was a block away when three Arab terrorists killed themselves and four others on the pedestrian walkway of Ben Yehudah.

The year 1998 arrived with renewed fear of chemical attacks by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The fears were rooted in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Saddam rained thirty-nine Scud missiles on Israel. With concerns about a renewed conflict, we were sent scurrying to find gas masks in adults' and children's Sizes. We sealed a room of our Jerusalem apartment in fear of an attack. At the last moment, the threat of war was averted after a settlement brokered by the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

It wasn't until a year after we left Israel that a new prime minister, Ehud Barak, ushered in an era of new hopes (and fears) by reopening long-dormant negotiating channels with the Palestinians and Syrians.

While the issues of survival are always paramount in Israel, the issue of religion was never deep beneath the surface during our visit. Until I lived there, I never understood what power religion had in Israel, in both good ways and bad. I had read so much about the deep division over religion -- how the secularists hated the ultra-Orthodox, known as the haredim, and vice versa. I saw much evidence of this on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalelm, But, living in Israel, I came also to see something else: how much the Orthodox and secular have in common. Judaism is a central part of the identity of the non-Orthodox. For virtually all Israeli Jews, religion serves as a common denominator when it comes to life cycle events and holiday celebrations. Regardless of whether you are religious or secular, you don't work on Yom Kippur. That doesn't mean you go to synagogue -- many Israelis go to the beach (and some go to both). But for all it is a festival. Nearly all Israeli Jews (95 percent) circumcise their sons, and virtually all are married under a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy. There are problems, to be sure. Israelis have no choice when it comes to religion. The only religious Judaism that is officially recognized in Israel is Orthodoxy. About 15 percent of Israeli Jews are orthodox, but the Orthodox grip on the religious establishment is absolute. There is no formal sanction (and little government support) for the non-Orthodox movements. During our year in Israel, Conservative and Reform Jewry struggled to gain some recognition but made little headway in the face of the powerful Orthodox political parties.

Copyright © 2000 by Ari. L. Goldman

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