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Judaism 101--Presented in a Concise and Friendly Manner

Review of Welcome to the Family! Opening Doors to the Jewish Experience. By Lois Sussman Shenker. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2001. 136 pp. $14.95 ISBN # 1-883991-41-2.

The modest size and conversational tone of Welcome to the Family! belie the book's substantiality. In a mere one hundred and thirty six pages, author Shenker succeeds in providing readers with an admirable introduction to the basics of Judaism and Jewish culture. Although the book is geared primarily to non-Jewish family members of individuals who have married Jewish spouses, it should appeal to anyone interested in a concise, clearly written overview of Jewish life--including those Jews whose knowledge of their own heritage may be a bit sketchy.

Shenker defines "Jewishness" as "a complex combination of community, peoplehood, culture, ethnicity, home, and family, all of them connected and interrelated with Judaism--the religion--as the foundation." She goes on to describe, succinctly but effectively, the various components of Judaism that fall within her definition.

The author divides the book into six chapters as follows: "Welcome to the Family"; "Judaism, Jewishness, and the Jewish Experience"; "Understanding the Basics"; "Life Cycle Events"; "The Holiness of Time: Holidays and the Jewish Calendar"; and "Explanations and Definitions."

Under the heading, "Understanding the Basics," Shenker includes a summary of the different denominations within Judaism as well as discussions of the respective significance of such weighty topics as the Torah, the Covenant between God and the Jewish people, Shabbat, Sabbath, the synagogue, prayer, and the special dietary laws. (Since each of the above is typically the subject of at least an entire book, Shenker's compression of so much information into one chapter is no small achievement.)

Non-Jewish relations of people married to Jewish spouses should find Shenker's "Answers to Common Questions" especially interesting. Some "frequently asked questions" to which the author provides answers are: "What do Jews believe about the Messiah?" "Should I send Christmas cards to my Jewish friends?" and "Why do Jews feel such a strong attachment to the State of Israel?"

In that same chapter, Shenker talks briefly about "Jewish Views on Contemporary Topics," including issues such as birth control, divorce, and capital punishment. Although her interpretation of the Jewish laws that pertain to these topics is accurate, Shenker veers into the realm of assumption when she says, "most Jews are opposed to capital punishment." Because she doesn't back up her statement with statistics (and since, according to the latest polls, Jewish views vary considerably depending on such factors as age, income, synagogue affiliation, family background and demography) it may--or may not be correct. On the other hand, Shenker is on target when explaining Jewish views on such topics as birth control, divorce, and abortion. She is also careful to make distinctions between the differing views of the various denominations when appropriate. For example, in describing the "Jewish view" on birth control, Shenker notes that the more "liberal" view--that held by the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism--permits "virtually all forms of contraception," while the Orthodox stance is to permit only those forms of contraception that are within the woman's control, as God's command to be "fruitful and multiply" was given to Adam alone. Shenker points out that ultra-Orthodox groups do not allow contraception in any form.

Shenker also observes that although the view on divorce is not notably different among the various Jewish denominations, which all consider it regrettable but permissible, in order to get remarried in the Conservative and Orthodox traditions, a Jewish divorce, called a get, must be obtained. (In the Reform tradition, a civil divorce is sufficient.)

In commenting on the Jewish view on abortion, Shenker reveals what many who believe Judaism to be "liberal" on that issue do not know-- that none of the branches of Judaism approve of abortion as a form of birth control. It is permitted when the health of the mother--physical or psychological--is in jeopardy. (Ultra-Orthodox groups typically do not allow abortion except when the mother's life is in jeopardy.

The author's appendices, which include examples of frequently used blessings, as well as a glossary and Hebrew pronunciation guide, are very useful to someone who wants an "insider's" perspective on Judaism, rather than just an academic one. Welcome to the Family! would make a timely and thoughtful wedding gift for an intermarrying couple, along with the book recently published by the producers of this website: The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights). Both books can be ordered on Amazon.com, or The Guide can be ordered on this website.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
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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