Showing Up at Jewish Office Hours
In My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, Abigail Pogrebin wanders across denominational spaces to deepen her understanding of Jewish time. This book, which originated in a series for the Forward, is part memoir, part Jewish holiday primer.
A Reform Jew, Pogrebin readily acknowledges that her Jewish year, sometimes experienced as a Jewish endurance test, is simply everyday life for traditionally observant members of her tribe. Throughout, she wrestles not only with her own Jewish commitments but also with those she has (and has not) transmitted to her two children. The year in which she determines to “keep up and show up” since “Judaism has specific office hours” is punctuated by her father-in-law’s death as well as the recognition that a close friend who is also a young mother will not win her battle against cancer. Communal challenges posed both by increased anti-Semitism and by the internal fault lines in the Jewish community over Israel, gay marriage and Jewish authenticity also consistently inform her thinking about the most well-publicized holidays (e.g., Hanukkah) and those holy days that too often slip through cracks of secular and Reform Jewish consciousness (e.g., The Tenth of Tevet, a fast day memorializing the beginning of the destruction of the 1st Temple).
Keeping to that calendar is a challenge, one that Pogrebin undertakes willingly but not without some “kvetching.” Abstaining from food not only on Yom Kippur but also on five other occasions that Jewish time calls for–the Fast of Gedaliah, a Jewish governor murdered by another Jew; the 10th of Tevet; the Fast of Esther that precedes Purim; the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem that ends with the destruction of the Temple; and Tisha B’Av, “the motherlode of memorial” for Jewish catastrophes across the ages —tests Pogrebin’s resolve. In 2015, two of these fasts coincided with major secular holidays: New Year’s Day and the July 4th weekend, a fact that underscored Jewish difference. She also “fumbled at the most important holiday of all,” Shabbat. While she managed to abstain from e-mail, she couldn’t bring herself to disconnect from all devices, no matter how many revered rabbis urged her to do so. Recognizing “how rare it is to be off-duty” as a Jew in time, she nonetheless finds her own way into Shabbat and the rest of the Jewish year’s mourning and merriment, including “the Studio 54 of Simchat Torah” at B’nai Jeshurun, a renowned congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Notably, this daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (co-founder of Ms. Magazine and co-convener of the prototype for feminist seders), felt herself to be “a sidelined Jew” by one mechitza, while another provided “a glimpse of how separate can feel more equal.”
Pogrebin’s process is to learn about a holiday prior to observing it. Excerpts from interviews with contemporary Jewish sages frame each chapter, so the book offers a treasure of Jewish wisdom and the clear sense that many gifted teachers provided directions to this wandering Jew. My Jewish Year is a testament to the power and the promise of adult Jewish education, as well as to the transcendent value of Jewish time.
Ultimately, and movingly, she finds herself at the end of the year reawakened to “klal Israel, the whole of Israel: a shared inheritance, and reverence for a calendar that has kept us intact.”
Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University, the author most recently of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness.