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Why Do Jewish - Book Review

I so badly wanted to like this book. In fact, I am, in many ways, trying to WRITE this book. But Why Do Jewish: A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood by Zack Bodner proves exactly how hard it is to publish a work that can speak to the evolving needs of our reality as modern Jews.

The biggest problem with Why Do Jewish was that I couldn’t figure out the target audience. If Bodner was trying to speak to the Jewishly-disengaged, there was far too much in-speak, language and concepts that would be entirely inaccessible for someone who had distanced themselves from their Jewish roots. If, meanwhile, this was meant to be a conversation amongst the leaders of the Jewish community, the ideas he put forward did little to push the conversation into uncharted territory. As a result, Bodner gets stuck in the purgatory of trying to talk to everyone, and in so doing winds up talking to just about no one.

Bodner is unquestionably a talented and creative Jewish professional, who has an awful lot to teach the Jewish world. But this book is full of lists and acronyms that do as much to clog up the gears as they do to explain the context. The West Coast bias he posits demonstrates the same narrowmindedness as the East Coast bias he is commenting against. And as many questions as he offers, I’m not sure he articulates worthwhile and accessible answers.

The most difficult part of the book to parse is Bodner’s challenge to “institutional Judaism.” It is clear that some of the classic systems of Judaism aren’t doing enough to serve evolving needs, a notion he points out thoughtfully. Yet so many of his ideas and initiatives require massive amounts of infrastructure and traditional resources to actually get done. It doesn’t serve his goals well to say in one breath that Jewish institutions are failing, only to later say that the solutions revolve around pre-existing infrastructure and pooled finances. And when you mention Chabad in the same breath as you discuss start-up Jewish initiatives, I’m not sure we’re having the same conversation anymore.

The world clearly needs books discussing the future of Judaism. And I was pleased to get to read Bodner’s thoughts on where we might need to go next. After reading his manifesto, I am deeply convinced of the problems he discusses; I’m just not sure I see any of his answers working beyond the theoretical.

2/5 stars


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