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winter 2003  
Vol. 32, No. 2

SIGNIFICANT JEWISH BOOKS
By Bonny V. Fetterman
Please see the Study Guides for Significant Jewish Books

The English Disease The English Disease: A Novel
Written by Joseph Skibell
(Algonquin, 236 pp., $23.95)

The English had a romantic view of melancholy--the disease we call depression--but Charles Belski, the anti-hero of Skibell's second novel, carries inexplicable anguish to new heights with the added component of Jewish angst. The result is a surprisingly hilarious novel about one Jew's attempt to find himself.

From outer appearances, Charles leads a charmed life as a professor of musicology at a California university, married to an attractive gentile wife (Isabelle), and father of a precocious three-year-old (Franny), yet the interior world of this thoroughly assimilated intellectual is a battleground: Charles is fighting his own private war with Western culture. He identifies with Gustav Mahler, the misanthropic Czech Jewish composer who never quite feels at home in the world; he despises the popularity of the notoriously antisemitic composer, Richard Wagner; and he cannot forgive Jung for turning on Freud and writing on "Aryan vs. Jewish psychology" with racist overtones. His anger comes to a head when he visits Poland for a musicology conference and takes the obligatory tour of Auschwitz. Soon after, he begins to have dreams about his great-grandfather scolding him in Yiddish for not raising Jewish children (S'felt unz goyim in der velt, me darf nokh an anderer? There aren't enough gentiles in the world, you have to bring in more?) and comes home wanting to leave his marriage.

Meanwhile, Isabelle has taken steps on her own to salvage their family life; she has begun to study Judaism. Charles, who deems himself too sophisticated for religion, makes fun of some of her teachers: a "hippie" rabbi who teaches meditation and Native Indian chants, an Israeli kabbalist, and a Hasidic rabbi who insists that they live apart until Isabelle's conversion. Countering her husband's cynicism, Isabelle asks him: "What's the point of believing that life is meaningless and random if it's only going to make you feel miserable?" Fortunately, Isabelle does not share Charles' ambivalence, and she continues to learn about Judaism with enthusiasm and delight.

This engaging novel makes creative use of a marital drama to explore the dilemmas facing the modern Jew with wit, empathy, and insight.

Click here to order The English Disease: A Novel

American Reform Judaism American Reform Judaism: An Introduction
Written by Dana Evan Kaplan
(Rutgers University Press, 288 pp., hardcover $60,
paperback $22)

In his introduction to the American Reform Movement, Dana Evan Kaplan, a Reform rabbi and professor of Judaic studies, describes the following scenario: an Orthodox Jew stumbles into a Reform Friday night service and is shocked to find some of the women wearing yarmulkes and tallitot, while many men sit bare-headed and bare-shouldered. The phenomenon he is discussing--the interplay between tradition and innovation--raises the question: is the Reform Movement moving in two directions at the same time?

Kaplan explains that the tensions in the Movement and its seemingly contradictory tendencies came to a head in the debate over a new Reform platform considered by the Central Conference of American Rabbis at its 1999 convention. Some rabbis and congregants opposed the reintroduction of traditional rituals, calling it a betrayal of the Classical Reform principles that they grew up with; others hailed it as a move towards building the kind of distinctive spiritual community that a younger generation craves.

To solve this conflict, Kaplan calls for greater theological clarity. "If the Reform movement is to prosper and grow, both numerically and religiously, it is going to have to develop a coherent, effective strategy for reconciling autonomy and authority," he writes. In the book's Afterword, UAHC President Rabbi Eric Yoffie provides a contravening perspective, stating that the formulation of a new theology is not required at this time. "We need to immerse ourselves in Jewish doing, guided always by our liberal principles, and if we do so, appropriate theological formulation will be developed afterwards," Yoffie writes.

Kaplan's concise presentation of Reform history--including chapters on the developments of recent decades: patrilineal descent, Outreach, women's impact on the rabbinate, revitalizing worship, and more--is essential reading for everyone concerned with the future of Reform Judaism.

Click here to order American Reform Judaism: An Introduction.

Editor's note: The UAHC recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the UAHC Significant Jewish Books Web site.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.


First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a UAHC Congregation

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