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Fourth in a Series on Books for Christians about Judaism: Review of A Christian?s Guide to Judaism

Review of A Christian's Guide to Judaism, by Michael Lotker. Stimulus Books, Paulist Press; 2004. 157 pages.

Sometimes it comes down to the most basic questions: If you're attending a Bar Mitzvah (the coming-of-age ritual for boys and girls) for the first time, do you bring the gift to the service or the reception? What is the proper etiquette for a shiva (seven-day period of mourning) visit? What happens at a Passover seder (traditional Passover meal)?

For these and other straightforward questions, Rabbi Lotker's A Christian's Guide to Judaism may be just the book you or a member of your extended interfaith family needs. As Rabbi Lotker explains in the Introduction, this is not a scholarly treatise. It is an “easy-to-use guide.” It is also a “compendium of asked and unasked questions” and its strongest moments are when Rabbi Lotker sticks to questions capable of a simple answer.

But for more complex topics, such as the nature of a Jew's relationship with and belief in God, Rabbi Lotker's book falls short. Here, the brevity doesn't add to understanding and it risks creating the false impression that all Jews see these topics similarly. Granted, it's very difficult to compress the answer into a short format, but others do so more successfully.

For example, The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Neil Gillman, manages to capture the variety and multiplicity of ways Jews view God with far more thoughtful commentary. In fairness, Rabbi Gillman's entire book is devoted to this question, but he covers the topic with a depth that is lacking in Rabbi Lotker's brief and simplistic explanation. There is no mention, for example, in A Christian's Guide to Judaism of the fact that some Jews do not count belief in the deity among their ways of being Jewish.

On simpler matters, Rabbi Lotker organizes his topics in a readable format and many readers may find the brief introductions about what to expect, including do's and don'ts, to be helpful. The final chapter, titled “Your Guide to Attending Jewish Events,” covers eight events and provides good detail about the significance of various rituals, who will be present, and the all-important (and at times, entertaining to read) advice for the reader about what not to do.

Similarly, Rabbi Lotker's chapter titled “Jewish Practice in Lots of Nutshells” will help those baffled by the meaning of everything from a Jewish Star to a mezuzah (a small amulet containing a Hebrew scroll affixed to the doorpost of a Jewish home) to Kosher foods (food that conforms to Jewish dietary laws). Although the explanations are brief, this is an area in which it may be appropriate to simply provide a quick explanation.

For interfaith families, A Christian's Guide to Judaism can be useful. It's an excellent Cliff Notes-type guide; a brief description of rituals and practices that may prove helpful to the non-Jewish members of the family. For more fundamental and profound aspects of Judaism, consider instead The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians, Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians, or Introducing My Faith and My Community.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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