October 25th, 2016

storyteller doll

Jewish Books

I have other things to write about, too, but I've been meaning to post this for a while. I've read a few books over the past months that have some sort of Jewish content to them. Two had to do with Chabad Hassidim, one involved a Conservative synagogue, and one retold a Biblical story (so was sort of a Midrash). All of these are worth reading for different reasons:

Stephen Fried, The New Rabbi: Fried followed a large Conservative congregation in Philadelphia through their search for a new rabbi to replace their long-time leader who was retiring. There’s lots of local shul politics, as well as issues with the broader Conservative movement. I have to admit that a lot of why I found this interesting was because my father had been on the rabbi search committee at our synagogue back in my childhood. So it all sounded very familiar. It was also a good reminder of why I prefer more intimate congregations to the sort of large suburban synagogue written about here.

Stephanie Wellen Levine, Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls: The author spent a lot of time getting to know teenage girls in the Lubavitch community and profiles several of them in this book. One of the key points is that the separation of the sexes in the community allows these girls to be loud and outspoken. Some are truly pious, but there are also girls who leave the community and, for example, go to strip clubs and experiment with marijuana. (There’s nothing said about them having sex, so one can only wonder.) I'll admit to being most impressed by the girl who ended up going to college and pursuing a pre-med program. Overall, this is a very interesting read.

Anita Diamont, The Red Tent This is a novel, in which Diamont reimagines the story of Jacob’s daughter, Dina. In the Bible, Dina is raped and her brothers avenge her. In this version, she enters into a voluntary relationship and is betrayed by her brothers, who are scheming for their own advantage. This leads her to go to Egypt, where she gives birth to a son and, eventually, reencounters her family. There are some decidedly heretical ideas in the book (mostly involving idol worship by the matriarchs), but it is an absorbing read. And it is worth thinking about different points of view on familiar stories.

Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubovitch The two things one finds all over the world are, of course, McDonald’s and Chabad. If you’re Jewish, the latter is a more significant institution, providing, say, a place to go to a Passover seder in Kathmandu. But they are also controversial, for a number of reasons. I will admit that I don’t like that they’re perceived as the face of Orthodox Judaism, versus, say, Young Israel. Fishkoff is generally positive about Chabad, but doesn’t shy away from noting the criticisms of the organization - especially the Messianist tendencies of a large number of their adherents (but not their senior leadership). She also points out that their emphasis on outreach can lead to fairly shallow services, geared towards beginners. Overall, I thought this was a fairly balanced and interesting book. I’m still too much of a Litvak rationalist to be drawn into any Hassidic group, but I thought this was a worthwhile read.