The Whys and Wherefores of Being Jewish Review of The Jewish Book of Why

By Marlena Thompson


Review of The Jewish Book of Why. By Alfred J. Kolatch. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. Rev. Ed. 1995. 326 pp.

Being Jewish signifies more than belonging to a certain religion. It is a way of life. Though many scholars have described Jewish codes of behavior and rules of conduct, few before Alfred Kolatch focused on why certain laws, traditions, beliefs–and superstitions–have evolved.

Instead of the straightforward narration technique employed by most scholars and writers of reference books, Kolatch uses a simple question and answer format in The Jewish Book of Why. It is this format as much as the content that accounts for the book’s immense and lasting popularity. (Originally published in the early 1980s, it has sold over 1,000,000 copies.) Those curious about a particular Jewish custom or practice needn’t plough through reams of erudite but often confusing material. The questions, which cover all aspects of Jewish life, including birth, marriage and divorce, death and mourning, dietary laws, synagogue ritual, holidays, and special objects and garb, are answered sufficiently yet succinctly, usually in one or two brief paragraphs.

Although The Jewish Book of Why is obviously an ideal reference for the non-Jewish member of an intermarried couple wishing to learn more about Judaism, as well as for that person’s extended family, it will undoubtedly enlighten many of us who, though born Jewish, would be hard pressed to respond cogently to a great many of Kolatch’s questions. Even Jews fairly knowledgeable about customs and ritual will surely find something new to ponder. Although I taught Hebrew and Judaic studies for 15 years and was the Director of Judaic Studies in a day school for 7 years, I never knew (but thought I should, so was embarrassed to ask) why the Ten Commandments weren’t included in traditional prayer books. Having readThe Jewish Book of Why, I now have my answer. My husband, who was raised Episcopalian, (and would much rather consult a reference book than me) was delighted to get definitive answers to his questions as to why two or more candles are lit on the Sabbath instead of one, and why mirrors are covered in a house of mourning.

Another name for this book may well have been Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Judaism–But Didn’t Know Enough to Ask.


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