A Sequel Equal to its Predecessor in Distinction: A Review of The Second Jewish Book of Why

By Marlena Thompson


December, 1999

Review of The Second Jewish Book of Why by Alfred Kolatch. New York: Jonathan David Publishers.

In his first volume of The Jewish Book of Why, Alfred Kolatch answered some five hundred fundamental questions about dietary laws, holidays, life-cycle milestones, and other topics relating to Judaism and Jewish practices. The scope of the questions was so broad, and the degree of detail in the relatively succinct responses so high, one might consider a sequel superfluous: After all, how much more can be written on the same subject for a lay readership? But even a cursory glance at the contents of The Second Jewish Book of Why is enough to dispel doubts about the necessity of Kolatch¹s follow-up: While the first volume was more than sufficient in providing basic information about Judaism, this second volume addresses issues that are more complex, complicated, and often controversial.

In the very first chapter of The Second Jewish Book of Why, Kolatch tackles what has been and remains a subject of dispute between individuals and Judaism¹s various denominations—the deceptively simple matter of who should be considered a Jew. Jewish and readers who are not Jewish of the book will learn why, in traditional Judaism, it is impossible to be “half Jewish,” and why religious observance plays no part in determining whether or not a person is Jewish. Even those readers with more than a superficial knowledge of the topic will be fascinated to discover the biblical basis for Jewish law on the subject a law that makes it impossible for Jews to lose their Jewish identity—even if they openly convert to another religion!

The second chapter, “Judaism and Christianity,” is especially relevant for intermarried couples as it highlights some of the differences between Jewish and Christian perspectives on such theological concepts as Original Sin, vicarious atonement, and asceticism. However, in comparing and contrasting the diverse perceptions of Jews and Christians regarding matters of faith, Kolatch also reveals many shared values and areas of agreement. In the chapter, “Marriage, Intermarriage, and Conversion,” Kolatch notes that though most rabbis, including members of the Reform rabbinate, will not perform marriages between a Jew and someone who is not Jewish, those that do perform interfaith marriages cite the Talmudic statement that a conversion performed for the sake of marriage is invalid. By performing religious ceremonies for interfaith couples, these rabbis hope to draw those who are not Jewish closer to Judaism.

In his chapter, “The Personal Dimension,” Kolatch not only writes about Jewish laws and rituals regarding sex and sexuality, he also discusses Jewish attitudes toward various fertility enhancing techniques, such as drugs, artificial insemination, and the use of “host-mothers” to carry fetuses to term. As this book was written well before “Daisy,” the sheep cloned in Scotland, ever saw the light of day, readers will have to await definitive answers to questions concerning cloning and other controversial forms of biological engineering that are likely to arise in the next century.

Additional topics discussed in this book include Jews in a world that is not Jewish, theology and prayer, and the changing roles of Jewish women. The book’s index lists the subjects discussed in this book as well those Kolatch addressed in the original book, giving readers easy access to all of the material on a subject contained in both volumes. Together, The Jewish Book of Why and The Second Jewish Book of Why make up one of the most comprehensive lay resources on Judaism written to date.


About 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.