Taking Judaism Personally

by Judy Petsonk
The Free Press, $25

In this anecdotal and intimate history of the last 30 years of the Jewish renewal movement in the United States, Judy Petsonk describes the ways many previously disconnected Jews have refuelled their spiritual lives. The Havurah, where Jews associate together informally in small groups to daven, study and celebrate, has proved so successful an antidote to large, impersonal synagogues that many synagogues themselves have adapted the concept. More radically, the Jewish feminist movement brought the ritual enfranchisement of women, enriched the language of liturgy to include women and feminine attributes of God, and created new life-cycle rituals, among them baby girl namings, adult bat mitzvah celebrations and Rosh Hodesh groups. An eclectic attitude rediscovered mystical and meditation traditions in Judaism and incorporated aspects from other traditions such as Buddhism and Yoga that have been a magnet for Jews. An expansion of the concept of kashbrut to include ecologically responsible behavior, and the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships within the Jewish community demonstrate a commitment to reinterpreting Judaism to meet new social and political challenges.

The book lists readings, teachers and organizations and encourages an do-it-yourself approach to creating a Jewish community. It also provides sometimes too personal accounts of the lives of the many familiar feminists who made the current renewal happen. In this friendly account, Petsonk documents that for all our assimilation into American society, some members of our self-absorbed baby boom generation (who seem to think they’ve discovered everything for the first time)— tried ancient but evolving Judaism on and found it a comfortable protective garment, with room to grow in.