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Sex, God, Christmas and Jews

Review of Sex, God, Christmas and Jews, by Gil Mann (On Line Marketing, Inc., 2006).

In 1997, former businessman, Jewish non-profit volunteer and author Gil Mann launched a discussion area of American Online titled "Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit In?" He posted an announcement that he would be collecting any mail he received for possible anonymous publication in a book. The result was an inundation of emails, from Jews and non-Jews alike, posing questions about Judaism, its laws and values, and its relevance in modern life. Mann featured some of the most poignant or thought-provoking emails in an online column along with his own responses, then invited additional feedback from readers.

Sex, God, Christmas & Jews is a compilation of many of these emails and responses, organized into chapters on Ethics, Spirituality and Peoplehood and approached from the author's own Jewish perspective. Anonymous voices in cyberspace ask questions about Jewish customs and religious laws, tell personal stories of confusion, pain and soul-searching or ask pointed questions about the relationship between Jews and non-Jewish individuals and communities. Can Jews donate their organs? Why is circumcision important in Jewish families? How can disenfranchised Jews return to their Jewish roots, or non-Jews interested in converting learn more? All of these questions and many more are examined. As Mann points out, the anonymity of cyberspace often frees individuals to ask questions or reveal feelings that they might not feel comfortable confronting in their daily lives or with their own friends and families.

An easy and quick read because of its email format and the friendly and conversational tone of Mann's responses, Sex, God, Christmas & Jews offers value to anyone who has basic questions about Judaism. He focuses especially on the relevance of Jewish customs and community in a modern, largely secular society, often consulting with rabbis to find accurate answers to theological questions. Mann, who does not declare a particular affiliation, expresses a strong attachment instead to the Jewish way of life and stresses the importance of not only its survival, but its ability to thrive in the modern world. Although he does not advocate for a specific level of observance, he stresses that Jewish values, principles and traditions can guide Jewish individuals and families in their daily lives. He also believes that Jewish institutions and organizations must reach out to Jews who feel alienated or rejected by certain traditions or past experiences and who might choose to return to Judaism if they could find new ways to connect.

For a Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship or family, the book provides an opportunity to explore different perspectives on Jewish laws and customs regarding such issues as maintaining a Jewish home, raising Jewish children, the acceptance of interfaith families by synagogues and community members, or how converts (Mann likes the alternate term "Jews by Choice") are viewed by many Jews both theologically and in reality. The book also nudges the Jewish reader to do some soul-searching about his or her own heritage, Jewish education and choices about living--or not living--a Jewish-oriented life, and about such current issues as conflicts between the Jewish and African American communities and anti-Semitism in the world today.

For a non-Jewish partner or for young adults growing up in an interfaith home, the book offers insights into Jewish thinking on intermarriage and acceptance by Jewish parents and why such perspectives or traditions evolved, as well as more pragmatic questions such as whether or not a Christmas tree is acceptable in a Jewish home.

Although Mann's views might not always reflect the experience or opinions of the reader, he provides balance by getting opinions from rabbis from different affiliations and including emails that both agree with his responses and offer alternate perspectives. For example he declares: "I still fear anti-semitism, but I do not fear it from the vast majority of Americans." Yet he also features some heart-breaking emails that reveal anti-semitic behavior in America. Never is one perspective deemed correct over any other, although Mann summarizes his own opinions and suggestions at the end of each chapter.

Mann admits to being disturbed by the rising rate of intermarriage in America, especially as they relate to the rearing (or lack thereof) of Jewish children. Yet he also declares: "I believe our synagogues and other Jewish institutions need to find every possible way to make interfaith couples and their children a part of our community." It is this effort, he asserts, that will encourage interfaith families to participate in Jewish life and help strengthen Judaism today.

Sex, God, Christmas & Jews brings together a community of anonymous questioners and responders to explore many aspects of Jewish culture and life in modern times. The book concludes with a listing of books and online resources to help anyone learn more, as well as suggestions for Jewish leadership and institutions. The author's goal is to help make Judaism accessible and understood for Jews and non-Jews alike. In this he heartily succeeds.

Faye Rapoport DesPres

Faye Rapoport DesPres was born in New York City and holds an M.F.A. from Pine Manor College's Solstice Creative Writing Program. As a journalist, she has published in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail and Timberline and other publications. Her essays have appeared in InterfaithFamily.com, Hamilton Stone Review, Writer Advice and International Gymnast Magazine. Faye lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul DesPres, and their three cats. Her website is: www.fayerapoportdespres.com.

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