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18 Jewish Holidays: A Journey to Unexpected Places

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Like the vast majority of American Jews, Abigail Pogrebin couldn’t name all of the Jewish holidays. And, despite being an engaged Jew, she had never experienced the more obscure observances, such as the Fast of Gedaliah or Hoshanah Rabbah.

And so, several years ago, the author—former “60 Minutes” producer and daughter of feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin—immersed herself in the Jewish calendar, minor and major holidays alike. Ever the reporter, the New Yorker decided to write about her experiment, interviewing dozens of rabbis and scholars from across the denominational spectrum to gain insight into the deeper meaning of individual holidays.

Pogrebin chronicled her journey in a series of columns for the Forward. Then, earlier this year, she published My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, a much-expanded version of her newspaper series. The book is an engaging, at times humorous account that raises serious intellectual questions but remains focused on relating the experience of doing. The book has been reviewed in The New York Times, and featured on “The Today Show” and “Face the Nation.”

The staff of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities is thrilled that Pogrebin is leading one of the Reconstructionist Learning Networks. The networks bring people together through live digital streaming to explore crucial questions of Jewish life. Beginning on Oct. 30, Pogrebin will lead a three-part network called “At first glance, or time for a second take: How do I find sparkle in the Jewish calendar?” There’s still space available to join this network and explore the meaning of the Jewish holidays with a respected and probing author. All you need is an Internet connection.

Pogrebin spoke with Bryan Schwartzman, a member of RRC’s communications team, about her recent discoveries. The two discussed what to expect in the network and the enduring power of the Jewish calendar. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

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As an author, what is most satisfying about interacting with readers?

If I learned anything from this expedition—this deep dive into the Jewish calendar—it is that our tradition is a conversation. You can’t have it alone. I certainly got a great deal from everything I read in advance of an interview with a rabbi or scholar, but it was nothing like what I got from a conversation. The ideas behind the holidays, behind Jewish practices, as challenging as they are, come to life when you talk about them. For me, I need to talk about them. In a way, it is part of my spiritual practice to have this conversation.

I do feel like we can’t just settle into the meaning we have decided upon. We have to constantly challenge what we have decided things mean and what they symbolize. I discovered how brilliantly our tradition meets you where you are, and I don’t think that is just coincidence. Whatever you are going through—whether it is the ultimate joy or the worst depths of despair—our liturgy and our rituals say, ‘I am with you.’

How might a participant’s understanding of the Jewish calendar be enhanced by joining the Learning Network?

I hope that anyone who joins this conversation is refusing to be finished with whatever their Judaism is today. They want to keep opening it up; they want to say it is not finished, it is alive and receptive to new ideas. I don’t want to presume to say that I am bringing any kind of definitive wisdom. Not at all. I am bringing a lot of new questions and, frankly, a lot of research.

I am hoping that those who take part are looking to energize and reawaken and revisit some of the ideas that they were certain of. I think if Judaism is anything, it is alive and is constantly challenging us. It can’t challenge us unless we get in the room to hash it out. We’re going through things in our lives that Judaism can speak to, but we’ve got to talk about it together. I think it is hard to just experience this tradition alone.

Is there are anything people should do to prepare for the network?

No preparation or homework is necessary. I hope people will be intrigued enough to open the book or dip into a chapter, but I am going to be starting at a point where anybody can jump in.

Among the 80-some rabbis and scholars you interviewed were a few Reconstructionist clergy members, like Rabbi Joy Levitt, RRC ’81, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, RRC ’90 and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, RRC ’91. Will readers find a Reconstructionist perspective reflected in your book?

I think denominational labels put us into silos that aren’t useful or helpful. When I sat down with rabbis like Joy Levitt and Sharon Kleinbaum, what is going through my mind is the ideas coming out of their mouths. I am not am not focusing on where they got trained. I felt the same when speaking to Rabbi Burt Visotzky, who teaches at [the Jewish Theological Seminary] or Angela Buchdahl, who went to Hebrew Union College. I am not overly invested in the bona fides of where each teacher came from. What I hope comes through in this book is that our teachers are everywhere. Those whose views align with the Reconstructionist viewpoint should feel extremely proud that their teachers are reaching so many who don’t necessarily call themselves Reconstructionist.

One could argue that your whole approach echoed the sociological emphasis of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. By experiencing the holidays, you also looked at how they function—what they do for the individual and the community.

I hadn’t thought about it like that. I think these are ancient technologies. We can opt for these technologies, or we can reject them. Why should we opt for them? What can they do for us? Asking that doesn’t mean we sit back and say, ‘I am waiting for the fairy dust.’ We have to roll up our sleeves and take some elbow grease to get in this thing. I do feel like they have value added, or people won’t choose them. We live in a society right now where, for better or for worse, everything is optional. Why opt in to a very demanding clock? I believe that to engage with a holiday is to have a deeper life. I do feel if you push against these holidays, in the best sense, they are going to push back. And it is going to take you to a place you didn’t expect to land.

You describe in detail your intense preparation in advance of the High Holidays. Yet, you candidly write about feeling spiritually flat at the end of Yom Kippur. My sense is that a lot of people can relate to this.

Judaism doesn’t make it easy all the time. I think that is part of its purpose. We don’t necessarily benefit from the easy lift; we have to do the hard lift. Just to be clear, the ideas around Yom Kippur were incredibly mind-shifting for me and kind of resurface every year since I did this. All the preparation, all the conversations I had leading up to it, have completely changed my relationship to Yom Kippur and my outlook on my life. I wouldn’t say that for every holiday; I wouldn’t say Shemini Atzeret changed everything. But the actual synagogue experience of expiation and breaking yourself open, that is a high bar, and I think sometimes it is too high a bar. I wanted to be honest in this book about where people stumble, where they get stuck, where they check out. We’re not being honest about Jewish ritual and experience if we don’t talk about the barriers and when we don’t feel what we thought we could.

Now that the year is over, are you still observing all the Jewish holidays?

I’m not doing all of them, but I’m doing more than I did before.

ABIGAIL POGREBIN is the author of the My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays; One Wondering Jew – a much-expanded chronicle of her popular column for the Forward, for which she spent 12 months researching and observing every holiday in the Jewish calendar.
Abigail was formerly a broadcast producer for Fred Friendly, Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers at PBS, then for Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. She has been published in many magazines and newspapers including Newsweek, New York Magazine, The Forward, Tablet, and The Daily Beast. She has moderated conversations at The JCC in Manhattan, 92Y, The Skirball Center, and Shalom Hartman Institute. Pogrebin lives in Manhattan and is currently the President of Central Synagogue.

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