Would you like to know the difference between mishnah and gemara? Or how to prepare a proper Passover seder? Curious about the approximate price of a used Torah? Or are you just looking for an entertaining way to browse through Jewish culture, religion and thought? Then Judaism for Dummies may be the book for you. That is, if you don't shy away from anything that proclaims itself so boldly to be written for "dummies."
In truth, there's a self-deprecating premise behind the "dummies" series of books--an admission that in certain areas of knowledge, we're all dummies--that I find refreshing. At the same time, though, there's a troubling suspicion of dumbed-down content. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while obviously aimed at making a complex cultural and religious tradition accessible and understandable to folks short on time or attention-span, this book is certainly not dumbed-down. In fact, it's a broad, clever, and instructive compendium of just about all things Jewish. And though it would not be a "Dummies" book without those two or three subheads to the page and the usual cartoons and funny-face icons marking facts to remember, helpful tips, and the like, don't think this is just a lighthearted gloss. The authors are quite serious in their effort to slice this complex history and tradition into small bites and make it digestible without losing any of its flavor.
In the opening sections, which concentrate on what it means to be Jewish and to be an adherent of Judaism (two separate questions that intersect in interesting ways) Blatner and Falcon take on some intriguing issues--from arguments over Jewish identity to disputes over the nature of God--with a great deal of verve and openness and with insights that I found at times surprising.
New to me, for instance, but probably not to students or adherents of Judaism, was the case Blatner and Falcon make for the uniqueness of the Jewish religion as one based as much on arguing with the deity as on articles of faith.
"David likes to tell the story of the two rabbis who were arguing over a detail in the Torah," they write. "The debate almost came to physical blows when, suddenly, there was thunder and lightning. As the rabbis looked on, amazed, a giant hand came down from the Heavens and pointed to one of them. 'He's right,' said the massive voice of God. After a moment, the other rabbi shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Okay, fine, so it's two to one. Let's ask somebody else.'"
Of course, like the whole "Dummies" series, this book is designed more for breadth than depth. It is certainly possible--and interesting--to read the book front to back, but it's clearly a text designed for the Internet mind-set, people used to skipping and browsing, reading a few passages of particular interest then moving on to the next thing that catches their eye. And there's plenty to choose from here.
The section on rituals, for instance, examines the ceremonies that mark an observant Jew's life from womb to tomb--or rather, from bris to kaddish. There's even a discussion of the pros and cons of circumcision, though it seems a bit loaded on the pro side.
Next, there's a concise overview of Jewish history, from Abraham to the creation of the Jewish state. Along the way, the authors take the opportunity to examine the origins of antisemitism and the dismaying ways that myths about Jews still raise their heads today.
Perhaps the longest section in the book is devoted to Jewish holy days and the how and why of the ways in which they are celebrated. The details here are fascinating, though occasionally it's hard to decide what's serious and what's tongue-in-cheek. (For instance, I'm pretty sure Rabbi Richard Israel was having some fun when he suggested that on Rosh Hashanah, one should choose the bread for Tashlich according to one's sins--including caraway for auto theft, and bagels for holier-than-thou thoughts.) Among the useful and interesting information here about Jewish celebrations, the authors even include recipes for such things as latkes and hamantaschen.
Like the culture it chronicles, Judaism for Dummies is a blend of reverence and irreverence--a celebration of the rewards of inherited ritual and those of intelligent questioning. For this clueless goy, it was a good introduction to a rich tradition.