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Fall 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 1

Taking Stock
By Bonny V. Fetterman
Please see the Study Guides for Significant Jewish Books

The Beggar KingThe Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness
by Joel Ben Izzy (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 240 pp., $22.95).

The story of a storyteller who loses his voice sounds like the theme of a Hasidic tale or Zen parable--but this is the true story of Joel Ben Izzy, a professional storyteller in his mid-thirties whose vocal chords become paralyzed during surgery for thyroid cancer. Faced with the loss of his voice and livelihood, he sinks into depression, as do his wife and young children, who also grieve his sudden muteness.

Two mentors help him through these dark times. At a bar mitzvah party--at which Joel tries to perform in a hoarse whisper--he runs into Lenny, the man who first taught him the art of storytelling. Soon Joel is visiting Lenny regularly at his cabin in the woods. Each time, the argumentative old man knocks the self-pity out of him with his stories and on one occasion tells him bluntly, You're in a story, you can't walk out of your own story. Months later, Joel visits his mother in the hospital. Between her deafness and his muteness, they can barely communicate. Finally, he takes out a pad and writes, "Tell me your story." Joel had always thought of his parents' lives in terms of economic hardship and chronic illness, but from his mother's telling, he hears a different story--one of courage, caring, and optimism. In his muteness, Joel learns how to listen to stories as well as tell them.

Interspersed throughout this unique little book are stories that Joel collected during his travels. He now tries to understand their teachings and use them in his self-therapy. Thankfully, his own tale ends happily, with his cancer arrested and his voice restored, but his year of muteness taught him to search for life's meaning in a new way--in the stories we make of our own lives.

Click here to order The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

American JudaismAmerican Judaism: A History
by Jonathan D. Sarna (Yale University Press, 490 pp., $35.)

As a graduate student thirty years ago, Jonathan Sarna recalls, a Jewish scholar tried to dissuade him from studying American Jewish history. "I'll tell you all that you need to know about American Jewish history," he railed. "The Jews came to America, they abandoned their faith, they began to live like goyim, and after a generation or two they intermarried and disappeared. All the rest is commentary." Fortunately, Sarna, today a leading authority on American Jewish history at Brandeis University, did not take his advice. His new book offers a fresh and insightful appreciation of Judaism in America.

Sarna breaks ranks with earlier historians who used successive waves of immigration--Sephardic, Central European, and Eastern European--to tell this story. He focuses instead on the big picture: the challenge of creating religious community in a voluntaristic society. Unlike Europe, where Jews had to be part of the local kehillah (the Jewish communal structure), America, he asserts, represented religious freedom in its widest sense, including the freedom not to be religious at all. This volume explores how American Jews created community under radically new conditions.

Histories of American Jewry generally highlight the achievements of individual Jews in the secular realm, but Sarna regards American Judaism as a success story in its own right. In a lay-dominated community--one in which congregants "vote with their feet"--every generation has invented innovative strategies for maintaining Jewish identity and revitalizing religious life. He sees conflict--even the sort that generated the major denominational divisions--as a sign of religious vitality.

Sarna's comprehensive survey extends up to the present day, including late 20th-century initiatives such as the Havurah movement and the active outreach of Lubavitch. He also highlights the religious contributions of Jews who arrived shortly before and after the Holocaust--Reform leaders such as Leo Baeck and Joachim Prinz, and future Reform rabbis Alexander Schindler, Alfred Gottschalk, and Gunther Plaut; Conservative theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; Zalman Schachter, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement; Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, an inspiring spokesperson for Orthodoxy; and Shlomo Carlebach, whose House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco brought members of the "hippie" generation back into the fold.

Challenging those who predict the demise of American Judaism, Sarna points to the commitment and energy of Jews in every generation to keep the faith alive. Published on the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America, this definitive history celebrates the multifarious faces of American Judaism.

Click here to order American Judaism


Editor's note: The Union recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the Union for Reform Judaism's 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 Union Congregation

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