Book Review: My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin

Throughout our lives, we take different paths. We seek new adventures. We struggle through different times and quests. It is our way of understanding who we are, and where my-jewish-year-cover_border_-e1470686893732we come from. This is the story of one such journey. My Jewish Year is the tale of Abigail Pogrebin’s search for a deeper understanding of her own Jewish soul.

Abigail sets out to understand the Jewish holiday year. Not as a biblical study, as other authors have done. But in a very American, let me delve deeper into my ancestry, kind of trek. Now, the way, of course, to accomplish this task, was to celebrate each and every holiday throughout one year. The reader will be surprised to know that there are 18 (sort of) Jewish holidays, to which we are introduced.

Well the truth is, you will actually learn, that the most important holiday for the Jewish people, is the weekly Shabbat. So in reality, there are just so many more Jewish holidays than 18, but our author chose to only allow us into a few of her Sabbath celebrations, even though she kept Shabbat every week.

As most Jewish-Americans know, the only time most of us enter a synagogue or temple, is on Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. We celebrate Hanukkah at home, sometimes there is a party at our children’s Hebrew school. Meanwhile, surprisingly the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the US is Passover. Now that doesn’t mean your local house of worship doesn’t request your presence at these celebrations. It’s just simply that most of us, do not go.

But Abigail takes us on her journey through the holidays of Tisha B’Av, Tzom Gedaliah and Tu’Bishvat. She enlightens us with her thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day,  Israel’s Independence Day, and Israel’s Memorial Day. We study all night long with her during Shavuot. We decide, along with the author, whether we prefer the four glasses of wine at Passover, or during the Tu’bishvat seder (hint: Passover wins). We hear about the murder of the Judean governor Gedaliah, and our hearts ache for Yitzchak Rabin. We live through the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Holy Temples, not once during the year, but twice. And our souls cry out.

It is as if the history of the Jewish people is one of never-ending tragedy, sadness, alienation, and longing. But then, as we always do, we Jews seek out the joy. There is the gleeful dancing on Simchat Torah, and the almost whirling dervishness of Purim. And throughout there seems to be a considerable amount of single malt scotch. Why scotch? Somehow Abigail never really got an answer to that one. But personally,  I think it’s a generational thing. For my grandparents it was either shnapps, or slivovitz.

We get a glimpse of  the tumult of Jewish life in the United States, along with the heartfelt and angst, love, fear, and grief associated with our attachment to the State of Israel. For this book is written during the summer of 2014, during Israel’s last war with Hamas. When so many of us, as I was, were glued to social media, needing, wanting, yearning for some small bit of information coming out of Israel and Gaza. I remember all too well, how my heart spent that summer broken into so many pieces.

We learn with her the liturgy and bear witness to her discussions with rabbis and educators and friends. We marvel at the fact of the six, yes six, fast days. Since most of us have a hard time even completing the one on Yom Kippur.

We meet Abigail’s family. Her husband, her children. We are welcomed into their home and into her heart. We feel what her family feels as her father-in-law passes away. We meet her feminist firebrand mother, Letty Cotten Pogrebin. Abigail reminds us that so much of what she is today, whether as a woman, or as a Jew, is because of the gifts her parents gave her.

Abigail actually begins her sojourn by telling a story about her mother. She recounts how when her grandmother died, Letty’s father would not let her sit shiva for her mother, as women “do not count” in the minion, or prayer group. This is partially what led to her own mother’s feminism, and a search for a way to fulfill her own Judaism and womanhood.

The interesting point here is that I had actually read about that time in Letty Pogrebin’s life decades ago, in her own book Deborah, Golda and Me. Of course, when that book was published, Ms. Magazine was a household idea, and its cofounder, Gloria Steinem, Letty’s compatriot, was a national icon.

Life truly is different for those of us in Abigail’s generation. My mother too, made certain that her daughters, had a different upbringing than she had. My mother too, made certain that her daughters knew, that they counted, and that they were entitled to a Judaism that counted them as well. My mother, the rebel, was the first woman to carry the Sefer Torah in our synagogue on Simchat Torah.

I have to tell everyone that I simply loved this book. In truth, I cried as I read most of it. I identified so strongly with Abigail, and her journey through her Jewish Year. She was seeking answers, for which so many of us search. She was trying to understand a part of herself, that modern society forces us in so many ways, to hide from ourselves. She gave herself the time, the right, and the ability to seek out the unseen. To ask the questions that lurk in the back of every Jewish, and even every non-Jewish soul, when it comes to the eternal question of  Hashem, God, the Universe and the Divine.

I think I cried because as I read Abigail’s book,  I knew that I was not alone in what I yearned to understand. You see, I am the parent of two special needs young men. I used to say, when you parent special needs children, there are so many times, you feel utterly and completely alone. Cut off from the world, society, and everything that you once believed possible. Even in my quest to understand the Jewish part of my life, I never felt I belonged anywhere. This book allowed me to see, that I am not alone in my need to understand all that I am, from where I came, and to try to understand what it all means, so I can figure out just where I am going.

Ultimately, I think I also cried reading this book, because of the most Jewish of all lessons that Abigail learned along the way. She reminds us to cherish those we love today. To take nothing for granted. To make sure those that you love, know that you love them. Take time for them. Enjoy them. Give them your all.

You see, it’s been a year and a half since I buried my mother. Four years since I buried my father.They would have loved Abigail’s book. We would have had the best time talking about every chapter, every point, and the nuance of all the holidays. I simply miss them everyday.

Finally, Abigail’s book opens up so many possibilities in my own world, that I know it is a book I will read, and reread. There are profound, vexing, and controversial views into Judaism, from so many different perspectives that it is a thoroughly, and entirely engaging book. And yes, ultimately, she does ask more questions than are ever actually answered, but isn’t that in the end, the truly Jewish way of things?

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About Elise "Ronan"

#JeSuisJuif #RenegadeJew... Life-hacks, book reviews, essayist...
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