An Indispensable Guide to Living a Jewish Life

By Lynn Melnick


Review of Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper (Collins, 2007)

In her preface to the newly revised and updated edition of Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, prize-winning journalist Anita Diamant explains that she has written this book for anyone interested in learning more about Judaism. Whatever a person’s background, beliefs or Jewish experience, Diamant strives to outline and illuminate Jewish history, culture and practice and to create a foundation for readers interested in modern Judaism in America. She succeeds handily.

Jewish people are often asked how it is that the practice of Judaism varies so widely from one family to another and sometimes even within a family. The appearance of picking and choosing from among many traditions might seem unfocused or fickle to those unfamiliar with liberal Judaism in contemporary America. Diamant thoroughly explains the tradition of liberal Jewish diversity–the practice of Judaism not or not only by God’s command but because meaning and pleasure is derived from it, whatever the particular form–and incorporates these ideas throughout her book, understanding that a reader of this book is searching for “how to make Jewish choices in ways that do not deny the importance of all the other parts of yourself and your world.” Therefore, the word “should” does not appear in Living a Jewish Life.

That said, Diamant, the bestselling author of The Red Tent, isn’t embracing an “anything goes” atmosphere. She firmly states that being Jewish involves making Jewish choices, whatever form these may take for each individual or family. Whether a person keeps kosher everywhere or just at home, whether families attend synagogue on Friday nights or on Saturday mornings, and whether children attend a Jewish school full time or just as an after-school program, Diamant stresses that to be Jewish is to practice Judaism, and she outlines methods for engaging with Judaism in every aspect of life. Appreciating that a beginner’s coming to religion can feel awkward at first, Living a Jewish Life takes great pains to embrace the fluid nature of faith and religious practice. Diamant recognizes that people and their needs change over time, but she also reminds us that one cannot expect to gain anything meaningful from Judaism if time and effort isn’t put into the care and nurturing of one’s connection to it.

For this new edition, Diamant has updated her book to include a new chapter on adoption and conversion and a more inclusive section on the diversity of Jewish families, including interfaith families. While she doesn’t hide from the concern that intermarriage threatens the continuation of the Jewish people, she acknowledges the reality and the need to embrace these families and encourage them in their Jewish practice seemingly for the very purpose of the preservation of the religion.

This is not a book focused on how to manage an interfaith marriage or family, but Living a Jewish Life does not alienate those in such relationships from their own feeling of Jewishness or commitment to Jewish practice, whatever their religious upbringing. As a woman in an interfaith marriage, I appreciated both Diamant’s sensitivity to issues that arise within such families (whether or not to have a tree at home during the Christmas season, for example) as well as her insistence that Judaism must be practiced to exist.

Living a Jewish Life is a remarkably comprehensive resource for interested readers. Topics covered include Jewish parenting and empowering children to make their own Jewish choices, keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher at home and elsewhere, joining a synagogue, Jewish education, Israel, understanding the Jewish calendar, all the major Jewish holidays, and the Jewish rites of passage: birth, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, marriage, and death. Wide-ranging and scrupulous, Living a Jewish Life is highly recommended as reference and inspiration for anyone looking to do just that, in whatever way holds meaning for them.


About Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.