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Review of Jewish Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Daniel Judson (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006).
Spring approaches, and your thoughts as usual turn to daffodils, longer days, melting snow… and Easter. But now you're in an interfaith relationship, and you find yourself invited to a Jewish home for a Passover seder. You've heard this word before, but you don't really know what it means and you're worried that you won't understand a thing or, worse yet, that you'll commit some religious or social faux pas. What do you do?
Pick up a copy of Jewish Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Kerry M. Olitzky and Daniel Judson.
Olitzky and Judson, both rabbis, have put together an informative and accessible guide to Jewish holidays for the uninitiated. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the authors guide the reader on a journey through a Jewish year and illustrate how the holidays define the rhythms of Jewish life. The authors' discussion of each holiday lays out the essentials: the historical basis for the holiday, common and not-so-common observances, and, where appropriate, ways in which the holiday's meaning and traditions are still evolving. For additional guidance, Olitzky and Judson conclude the book with a brief description of the four major Jewish movements in the United States and Canada and a quick-reference glossary.
Non-Jewish in-laws, friends and family members who wish to participate in Jewish celebrations will find that Jewish Holidays lays a solid foundation of knowledge that will enable them to take part in observances without feeling totally lost, and from which they can join in that most beloved of Jewish activities: asking more questions. Moreover, although the book is valuable as a simple reference tool to look up and learn about individual holidays, a more thorough reading will offer a sense of how important holidays are to Jews and how much of Jewish life is really structured around them, including the essential weekly holiday of Shabbat, the Sabbath. The authors also thread through the book the critical themes of unity, survival, freedom and victory over oppression.
The authors' most ambitious endeavor in the book is the section at the end of each chapter that draws parallels between each Jewish holiday and one or more Christian holidays. This effort to make Jewish holidays more accessible to Christians is laudable and often accomplishes its goal; however, the authors are too wedded to their own technique and at times have to stretch to find parallels that aren't really useful. For example, Christians will recognize the theme of atonement that is the hallmark of Yom Kippur, but the authors' attempt to illuminate the beating of willow branches on Sukkot by discussing "Easter smacks" in European springtime festivals--even after they note that Sukkot has few Christian religious parallels--falls flat and perhaps even augments confusion non-Jews may have regarding Sukkot. In addition, forcing every Jewish holiday through a Christian prism may cloud the true significance of these holidays by discouraging the reader from focusing on the holidays' meanings on their own terms.
Another potential weakness in the book is the authors' decision to begin with the High Holy Days. It is a logical place to begin in one sense; why not, after all, begin a discussion of a year with the holiday that celebrates the year's commencement? Non-Jewish readers, however, may find the angry, jealous God described here--as well as the extremely serious focus of the High Holy Days--frightening and off-putting. This may be especially true for Christians who equate religion and holidays with celebration of a benevolent and forgiving Jesus. One wonders if perhaps the weekly holiday of Shabbat, with its familiar "day of rest" and joyful recognition of the gifts provided by God, would have been a better starting point.
Ultimately, this book serves as a good introduction and reference guide for non-Jews who possess little or no knowledge of Jewish holidays. But the information in the book is just a base. Christians and other non-Jews who really want to understand that intangible "feel" of a holiday--the joy, the sadness, the sense of unity over thousands of years that bind Jews together across the world-- will have to build on the knowledge provided in this book and participate in the holiday observances themselves.