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An Excellent Reference: But Not for "Dummies"

Review of Judaism for Dummies. By Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D. and David Blatner. New York: Hungry Minds, 2001. 400 pp. $21.99

Clear, concise, and accessible--but by no means for "Dummies"--Judaism for Dummies provides a convenient compendium of Jewish knowledge. As authors Falcon and Blatner rightly proclaim in their introduction, "If you are a wise and worldly searcher with a longing for connection, you'll also find jewels in each chapter of this book."

The book is divided into five sections as follows: "What Jews Generally Believe" (which covers the basic tenets and practices of Judaism); "From Womb to Tomb: The Life Cycle" (covering circumcision, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, marriage, divorce, and death); "An Overview of Jewish History"; "Celebrations and Holy Days," and "The Part of Tens" (in which the authors name and discuss Ten Great Jewish Thinkers, provide answers to Ten Common Questions about Judaism, and list Ten (Jewish) Folks You Should Know. There are also four appendices.

Judaism for Dummies will prove to be especially helpful to those who have very little prior knowledge of Judaism, be they non-Jewish partners in interfaith relationships, Jews who are uninformed about their own religion and culture, or non-Jews who are simply interested in exploring the rich tapestry of Judaism. And while complex concepts are explained lucidly enough to be easily comprehended by those encountering them for the first time, the writing is sufficiently engaging to capture and hold the interest of those who aren't complete novices where Jewish knowledge is concerned.

Some items under discussion might be considered controversial. For example, in the segment on Jewish denominations, the authors list the four generally acknowledged branches--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist--and then make mention of smaller, less widely recognized groups. The latter include Jewish Renewal, whose congregations embrace lessons from diverse spiritual traditions that include Eastern theosophies, and Secular Humanistic Jews, who define as Jewish anyone who identifies with the history and culture of the Jewish people, and who completely remove any theistic language from their liturgy. The authors also include a reference to "Messianic Jews," colloquially known as "Jews for Jesus," a group almost universally condemned by mainstream Jews and rabbis. This last group, however, is "boxed in" on the page-visually setting it apart from the other denominations reviewed by the authors. And it is a helpful reference, forewarning unsuspecting Jews about what the goals of this group really are.

In a discussion of interfaith weddings, Rabbi Falcon explains his personal opinions and practices. While very few rabbis--including those belonging to the Reform Movement--will perform interfaith marriages (and fewer still will take part in co-officiated weddings with other clergy), Falcon notes that he does participate in such ceremonies. He believes that the lack of rabbinical participation in an interfaith wedding will only encourage the couple to abandon Judaism altogether.

The appendices are especially useful. There is a section on basic vocabulary in English and in Yiddish, a sampler of common prayers and blessings--in Hebrew, transliteration, and in the English translation; a calendar for Jewish holidays through 2010; and sources for further exploration, including books, journals, organizations, and charities.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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