Book Review: Jewish Literacy

Jewish Literacy:  The Most Important Things To Know About The Jewish Religion, Its People, And Its History, by Joseph Telushkin

This is by no means a small book, and I must admit I have some quibbles about it–especially where the author engages in Talmudic studies–but if you want to understand Judaism from a contemporary Conservative Jew, this is certainly a worthwhile reference source although at 750 pages is not the sort of book that most people will want to plow through in one go.  Even an ambitious reader like myself read this book in chunks over the period of a couple of weeks, and I cannot imagine this book being read much faster than this without becoming the stuff of nightmares.  It should be noted that there are a lot of parallels between this book and the author’s work on biblical literacy, although in both cases the author’s view of biblical interpretation involves the Talmud rather than merely the midrashic interpretation that non-Jewish readers would be more amenable to.  This book could likely be considered to be the sort of work that would not be likely to appeal outside of an audience of Jews who might want to understand their own background better or those who are at least somewhat close to Judaism in terms of their own religious thinking.

This book consists of 352 entries arranged into fifteen parts that give an introduction to Jewish life and history and culture, followed by an index.  After various introductory material the author opens with a discussion about stories of the Bible, divided by book of the Bible, containing the first 63 entries (I).  After that there is a discussion of material taken from the mishnah and Talmud and the history of the second commonwealth period (II).  After this the author discusses the early medieval period where Jews were under Islam and Christianity (III), followed by the late medieval period (IV) and the early modern period in Western and Eastern Europe (V).  A somewhat sizable section includes the author’s thoughts about matters relating to Zionism and Israel (VI) and another grim set of reading concerns the author’s reflections on various aspects of the Holocaust (VII).  From this point the author moves on to a discussion of Jewish life in America (VIII) and short sections on Soviet Jewry (IX), Anti-Semitism (X), and Jewish texts (XI).  After this the author has some longer comments on Jewish ethics and basic beliefs (XII) as well as a discussion of the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays (XIII).  The author concludes the book with a discussion of the life cycle within the Jewish culture (XIV) and the synagogue and prayers of Judaism (XV), which makes for a satisfying conclusion.

With a book like this I am not necessarily looking for things I agree with because there will be much that is outside of my own experience and practice.  That said, this book was very informative and I found it a worthwhile reference material from a Jewish perspective that I could take seriously even if I did not fully agree with it.  And that is likely to be the case with many readers, as this book reveals a great deal of the division that exists over authority and interpretations and beliefs and practices that is within the Jewish community.  The author is forthright about these divisions and makes a point of talking about distinctive elements that both bind people together and separate them, and that give the Jewish community a great deal of diversity even if there are frequently similar experiences of persecution to be found within the grim experience of Jews throughout much of the world.  The author has clearly thought and read a lot and conveys a melancholy sense that there is far more to say than he can manage but that he felt it important to try to provide a guide to Jewish life and history.  The achievement, if an incomplete one, is certainly a worthwhile one, and if you want a book on the subject this is certainly a fine one.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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