by Lisa Schiffman
HarperSanFrancisco, $18, $14 paper
There is great distance between the hype surrounding this book—bound to revive with its paperback publication this summer—and what it actually is. The publisher’s sycophantic marketing claims that Lisa Schiffman’s personal discovery of Judaism speaks for 30 years’ worth of Jewish American experience. The cover reads, “Call us a bunch of searchers. Call us post-Holocaust Jews. Call us Generation J.”
As one of those in Schiffman’s generation, I find little of an “us” in her first-person narrative and scarcely any real analysis. The book takes for granted that, just like Schiffman, everyone in “Generation J” is white, middle-class, heterosexual and alienated from Jewish life. (Okay, she briefly mentions “Kikes on Bikes” from the San Francisco Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Pride Parade). “Generation X” was essentially a tool of the media and marketing industries, a massive overgeneralization and quite often offensive. “Generation J” offends in much the same way.
Even more regrettably, Schiffman has not written the story of Generation J. The story she tells is about a budding spiritual quest for Judaism, her marriage to a man who is not Jewish, her attempts to observe rituals like the mikveh, and her bringing her parents to a Jewish Renewal Rosh Hashanah service instead of to the movies. Schiffman’s ruminations and sometimes-ethnographic research does not cover the breadth of Jewish American experience. She doesn’t go very far outside her own sphere, which would be fine—except that she claims to.
This failure to acknowledge our diversity is stunning. By purporting to be something it is not, this book fails all of the supposed members of “Generation J” who don’t find themselves represented. By not grounding itself in any real sociological/historical/cultural discussion, the book ignores the very complex realities that it wants to represent.
During the question-and-answer period at one of Schiffman’s readings on her book tour last year, I asked about the marketing and cultural positioning of her book. She said Generation J was not the title she had intended. And the marketing? She mostly shrugged. “That’s the publisher,” she said. Still, it’s hard to imagine that an Internet brand strategist—Schiffman’s chosen profession—would be so nonchalant about the positioning of her very own book.
In one telling chapter, Schiffman and friends attempt to re-brand Judaism in corporate zeitgeist: “Pray Different,” “Just Jew It,” “Jews: A Curiously Strong People.” She writes, “Judaism needed, at the very least, an ad campaign.” Well, we’re certainly getting one now courtesy of HarperSanFrancisco. But is it the one we really need?
Jodi Perelman is a writer, artist and community builder living in San Francisco.