Book Review: Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation

Allan Lew

A meditation on the Jewish High Holidays by one of the most important reform rabbis of the last fifty years. A deeply honest and moving book. The most spiritually moving piece of literature I have read, maybe ever.

As close readers of this website know, I converted to Judaism a number of years ago. The reasons for that conversion are complex and personal and hard to explain. Since converting, my relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed. E and I have always attended high holiday services, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t always approached them with all that much awe. That’s changed in the last couple of years. It’s changed in part because my son now attends a Jewish school and we are now much more involved in a Jewish life. It changed because we became members of a powerful, progressive synagogue with an incredibly dynamic rabbi. And it’s changed in part because I am older, with a life more complicated and perhaps more in need of spiritual solace.

And it’s changed in part because of this book.

One of the things that initially attracted me to Judaism was the way in which it welcomes an engagement with the spiritual through the intellectual. This book is a wonderful reflection of that type of engagement. Lew takes you through the Torah’s proscriptions for the various holidays, he explains how our traditions and rules came to be, and why, but he never lets you forget that this is more than an intellectual exercise. It is more than an obligation. It is a complex apparatus designed to allow us to engage with ourselves (and for some of us, our God) is a real, visceral, and perhaps transformative way.

If you come to my synagogue for the high holidays, you’re going to see a variety of expressions of Judaism. You’ll see the egalitarian orthodox minyan. You’ll see the various kids services, in all degrees of wild, you’ll see bored teenagers waiting for it to end, and others with their heads deep in their siddurs. One thing you’ll also see is numerous people with this book beside them. Next year, once again, I’ll be one of them.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army

The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Sue Fishkoff

“Excuse me sir, are you jewish?” If you live in New York and you look even remotely like an Ashkenazi jew, you’ve been asked this question. The people doing the asking are members Chabbad Lubavitcgh, the largest, most outwardly looking movement in Hasidic Judaism. This remains the best book in English on the movement.

That’s kind of unfortunate.

It isn’t that this is a bad book, it isn’t. It’s actually quite good. Fishkoff has the writing chops of the long time journalist. She interviews many of the important players (though, unfortunately, not the Rebbe himself) and she has a good grasp of the history of the movement (and of Hasidism in general). But she suffers a bit from the problem that effects many who write on social movements – she falls a bit in love with her subject.

At least she’s honest about this. Right from the start, she talks about how moved she was by the generosity of many she met in the Lubavitch movement. I appreciate that honesty. And I appreciate her acknowledgment of the scores of good deeds Chabbad does in reaching out to secular Jews across the world. Chabad does a lot of good, and the story of its growth, led by the fascinating, complicated, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is incredible. But in my opinion she downplays the darker side of this, the most vocal and well-known Hasidic dynasty. There isn’t enough here about the troubling messianic tendencies within the organization (especially in the part of it that lives near me, in Crown Heights Brooklyn) and there isn’t enough about the way secular education is often frowned upon, women put upon, and those who leave the fold ostracized. It isn’t that Fishkoff doesn’t acknowledge these issues, she’s too good a journalist for that, but I feel she doesn’t spend enough time exploring them.

Still, a book that is well worth your time if you’re interested in the Chabbad movement or if you’ve ever been asked on the street “excuse me sir, are you Jewish*?”

Recommended for the Enthusiast..

*A sidenote on this issue. As you may know if you read this site regularly, I’m a ger – someone who converted to Judaism. Chabad isn’t very pro-convert, they’d prefer Christians stay Christian, by and large. If I tell a Chabad-nick I’m a jew by choice, I usually get a number of questions about the way I was converted, who oversaw it, do I kept kosher, etc. Its all generally too much trouble. But I also do not want to say I’m not a Jew, because, well, I am. So my standard response is the non response “no thanks”.

Interesting Gers: Sammy Davis Jr.

God, what a life. Born in Harlem to a vaudeville performer, Davis faced physical and verbal abuse in an integrated army unit, returned to the states to become first a popular cabaret singer, and eventually, one of the most famous entertainers in the world and for many, many years a lightning rod in America’s discussions around race. Along the way, he converted to Judaism.

As the story goes, Davis was friends with the Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, who gave Davis a mezuzah as a present. Instead of affixing it to his door, as Jewish law dictates, he wore it around his neck like a necklace. One night, Davis forgot to wear the necklace, and was involved in a horrific car accident in which he lost an eye and was hospitalized. While recuperating in the hospital, he read Sachar’s History of the Jews and spoke with Cantor about the similarities between the plight of the Jewish people and African Americans.   Moved by the endurance of the Jews, and perhaps for other private reasons, he converted in 1961.

I haven’t found much about Davis’s conversion – I don’t know if it was reform, conservative or orthodox. When Davis talked about his faith it was often in a joking manner (“You think you’re discriminated against? I’m a short, one-eyed black jew.” Or “I tried to sit in the front of the bus but the driver said ‘you’re black, get in the back’. I told him I was Jewish and he said ‘get off’”). Serious reflections on faith were few.

Later, Davis would flirt with Anton LaVey’s  the Church of Satan. How seriously, I don’t know. Nor do I know, frankly, how serious he took his Judaism. But he is, without a doubt, an interesting ger.

See all the interesting gers here. 

Review: Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation

Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide
Aryeh Kaplan

A bit of a disappointment. I was hoping to find here a reading of Jewish spiritual life as mediation. What I found instead was a book that, in my opinion, tried to squeeze Jewish tradition into the mediation framework in order to keep Jews from turning “Jewbu” (Jewish Buddhist).

Jewish tradition is rich in contemplation and communal sharing and reflection, but perhaps it just doesn’t fit into a conception of mediation in which the goal is to empty the mind of thoughts. Perhaps that isn’t something Judaism has historically favored? Perhaps, instead, Judaism has emphasized a full mind, over flowing with the ideas of centuries of scholars and mystics.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s part of what draws me to continue a Jewish practice. But it is a different thing than meditation in the Buddhist tradition. This books attempt to find within Judaism that which Buddhism offers seems misplaced.
Not recommended.