Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
As an Indian I have had the privilege of observing various religions in my country and the rituals that the religious adhere to in their everyday lives. As a non-observant Sikh, I have been fascinated with the little things that add meaning to the religious in my community, and to Indians of different faiths. So when I came upon this book My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin, I was delighted. I wanted to learn about the Jewish rituals, their observance and meaning.
The book opens with the challenge that attracted Abigail – a line in Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish – “Do not overthrow the customs that have made it all the way to you.” She decided to observe every single holiday in the Jewish calendar, in an attempt to understand its importance to her community and its people.
What followed was a year of intense research and observance, of learning and understanding, and of immense personal growth.
I loved the book. I learnt about the Jewish customs; more importantly I learnt the values and the history behind them. Abigail infuses the narrative with lightness – of her own struggles with integrating the rituals in her daily life and of ensuring that her family was not forced into this adventure ( it unwittingly is at various points). She is honest in what works for her and what does not make sense to her, and the deeply personal narrative also has commentaries from rabbis and other experts who provide insights into the rituals.
It made me want to spend a year as an observant Sikh as well – to understand my religion and its rituals and customs better! Perhaps if most of us undertook this exercise there would be lesser strife in the world in the name of religion!
Here are excerpts of our interview with Abigail Pogrebin.
tgbc: Why did you decide to embark upon this mission?
AP: I was frustrated by how much I was missing when it came to understanding and experiencing my own tradition. It bothered me that I had never been taught – and never tasted – the entire architecture of a Jewish year, and I had a hunch it would be meaningful, or at least expanding and challenging if I did. I wanted to join a conversation that’s been ongoing for thousands of years, and see whether it spoke to me.
tgbc: How did the rituals fit into the modern lifestyle? What were some lifestyle changes you made to accommodate every ritual?
AP: I would first say that the Jewish calendar upends the secular one. You can’t just go about “business as usual” if you live observantly, because there are so many demands for each holiday. For one example, I certainly changed my Shabbat routine – deciding to go off email (which, for me, was like tearing off a limb for 24 hours), and aiming to slow down more, walk and read more, trying not to do a million errands or catch up on things, but instead to go at a different pace. Other lifestyle changes had to do with food. I didn’t suddenly become kosher (my goal for this series was to research and observe every holiday; not to undertake a wholly Orthodox life), but I did fast six times as the calendar requires, and that changed the way I thought about who is constantly hungry, what my role should be in alleviating that desperation, and how the lessons of the minor fast days apply to our lives today.
tgbc: Which holiday did you like the best and why?
AP: It may be an anticlimax to admit this, but I fell in love with Yom Kippur anew. It is, in many ways, the most demanding holiday, but it also revealed itself to be the deepest. The Day of Atonement is not simply about taking inventory of our flaws and missteps; it’s about coming face to face with the real possibility that we might not get another year. And how does that recognition of our fragility change our outlook, our behavior, our priorities, our relationships? Yom Kippur became a bracing wake-up call to do the hard work of introspection and make sure I’m making choices I’d be proud of if it all ended tomorrow.
tgbc: What were your main takeaways from this exercise?
AP: My main takeaways from this expedition were these:
The holidays speak to your life, whatever you’re going through. There is wisdom tucked into every text and ritual –which suddenly affirms, or helps me make sense of, the hurdles and joys.
The Jewish year reminds us not just of what we have, but of what we owe. There is always someone suffering, and our tradition taps us on the shoulder again and again to remind us to do something to improve another’s lot. We can’t sit back and be satisfied with our blessings. Our blessings demand action.
The holidays are built around history and memory. We keep bringing our heroes and enemies back, because they have something to teach us.
tgbc: Would you recommend others also undertake this journey? Why?
AP: I would recommend that others try one holiday they have not yet experienced, or if they’re already holiday-fluent, revisit one holiday from a different vantage point — either by reading a new take, sampling a new ritual, or visiting a different spiritual community. There is meaning to be found if you take the leap. And if you try something new and hate it, you’ve learned something too.
tgbc: What are some elements of this year that you want to continue following?
AP: I want to continue to observe the month of Elul with a disciplined (and unsparingly honest) investigation of my traits and conduct; I have continued to attempt a quieter, technology-free Shabbat; I hope to keep dancing on Simchat Torah.
tgbc: At the book event, you also mentioned that this book becomes even more relevant in today’s times. Would you expand upon that?
AP: I think there’s no question that we are in more divisive times than any previous period in my memory. Empathy and generosity are imperiled in a real way, trust in our institutions is low, and the political has gotten way too personal. For me, these holidays drive home how destructive are the forces of infighting and tribalism, how it’s ultimately the moments of unity or commonality that sustain and strengthen us.