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Summer Reading: A Jewish Year
Writer Abigail Pogrebin usually isn’t one to settle for sidelines, unless it’s something like attending a University of Michigan football game with her husband, David Shapiro, an Ann Arbor alum.
For more serious interests, Pogrebin prefers getting directly involved, and that’s what she did in seeking a deeper understanding of the full range of Jewish holidays.
As Pogrebin researched the history, traditions and context of observances for a series published in The Forward, she resolved to spend a full year personally experiencing each holiday as it arose on the calendar and widely describe that in a book.
After participating in unfamiliar rituals for the first time — submerging in a mikvah in connection with Yom Kippur, fasting on days beyond Yom Kippur (17th of Tammuz, Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet, Fast of Esther), avoiding a night of sleep in the study of Torah on Shavuot — she completed My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (Fig Tree Books).
Pogrebin, president of the (Reform) Central Synagogue in New York and a trustee since 2011, expanded her text by meeting with representatives from various synagogues and temples, and she included commentary from religious scholars consulted to provide the informational foundations that enlightened her immersive outreach.
Her findings — intellectually and emotionally — are shared with each reader, one-to-one, as if she was having a conversation with a friend. She relates, for instance, the details of a seder shared by her extended family.
“I learned how demanding Judaism can be, and I mean that in the best sense,” Pogrebin says. “The fact that we are asked to mark moments as often as we are in the Jewish tradition changes the way we look at our daily lives. We are forced, in a very profound way, to be mindful, grateful and responsible to others.
“There are so many holidays in this calendar when the ultimate message is not so much how we’re feeling spiritually but what we’re doing concretely to help someone who doesn’t have what we have, who isn’t in the position of privilege we are in or isn’t as happy as we are. That, to me, was one of the great takeaways throughout this whole year.”
Pogrebin, who occasionally integrated some of the newfound rituals into her household, discusses the reaction of her husband and their teenagers, Ben and Molly. Not expecting them to join in, she appreciated their support of what she was doing and tells about getting the right sound from a shofar with their help.
Her own family and her Jewish family have been earlier subjects in Pogrebin’s career. In her first book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, she provided celebrity accounts of how Judaism did or did not enter into their lives. In her second book, One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, she personalizes a wider topic.
“I think of My Jewish Year as a lively adventure that’s accessible,” explains Pogrebin, who began her professional pursuits as an actress, became a television news producer (first for PBS and later for 60 Minutes) and turned to writing for magazines and newspapers.
She believes what the new text covers will be of equal interest to both “rookies” and “veterans” in religious practices, wanting readers to be entertained as much as they will be educated or challenged to think about milestones in the calendar, which she defines as the “spine” of Judaism.
“I’ve never done anything like this, and I didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick,” explains Pogrebin, who describes a feminist seder encouraged by her mother, writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
“I wanted it to be born of something very true, which it was: my own hunger to know more and understand where I come from and to assess for myself whether some of what I was missing I should consider adding to my life in a more regular way.
“Before every holiday, I was steeped in reading and learning. I would figure out where I was going to observe this holiday and try to take notes in my head. At home, I would write about it, digest it and quickly start learning about the next one.”
Important realizations had to do with the feeling of community established by participating with congregations ranging from the very Orthodox to the experimental. The idea is emphasized in a narrative about dancing with unknown worshippers on Simchat Torah.
“What surprised me the most and moved me more than I expected is that when there’s a holiday, others are going to be there for you,” she says. “Even when I went without my family to a ritual or observance somewhere, I was not going to be alone.
“There’s something stirring about the fact that a community is there when a holiday arrives, and the value of these holidays is that they bring us together. That confirms that there is a sense of family beyond blood relatives.”
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer