Author Abigail Pogrebin spends a year immersed in the Jewish calendar – and comes away with a blueprint for life
By Cindy Mindell
Abigail Pogrebin spent the Jewish year 5775 immersed in studying, experiencing, and writing about every single Jewish holiday — including each obscure festival and all six fasts – for the first time. Her lively, personal, deeply-researched book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, chronicles what she discovered, how it changed her, and why she believes the Jewish calendar is a blueprint for life, regardless of faith.
She will talk about her new book on Sunday, March 5 at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zeded in Chester.
Pogrebin is also the author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish, for which she interviewed everyone from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Steven Spielberg about Jewish identity. The book became a bestseller in the Jewish world and was adapted for the Off-Broadway stage, produced by Tony Award-winner Daryl Roth. Pogrebin’s second book, One and the Same, delved into every aspect of growing up as a twin, including the author’s personal experience as an identical double.
Pogrebin was formerly a broadcast producer for Fred Friendly, Charlie Rose, and Bill Moyers at PBS, then for Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. Her work has been published in many magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, New York Magazine, The Forward, Tablet, and The Daily Beast. She moderates her own interview series at The JCC in Manhattan called “What Everyone’s Talking About,” where her guests have included Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Brokaw, Nora Ephron, Nicholas Kristof, and Mario Batali.
Pogrebin lives in Manhattan, where she is currently the president of Central Synagogue.
She spoke with the Ledger about her year of living Jewishly.
Q: After completing one entire cycle of Jewish holidays, did you decide to stick to the routine?
A: I went into the project celebrating five out of the 20 holidays on a regular basis from my childhood – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Passover, and sometimes I would go to a Purim performance at my synagogue, once I officially joined a synagogue about 10 years ago. Generally, aside from those holidays, I was not a very literate, fluid, well-versed Jew when it came to the ancient architecture of our tradition. That was why I embarked on this journey. It wasn’t as a gimmick; it was because I was frustrated by my own ignorance, by the fact that I had never experienced what I saw more observant Jews experience in their average year, and it looked meaningful from my vantage point. So I was making a judgment from afar and saying, “I wonder, what is it like to have your year organized like this?”
It’s extremely organized; the Jewish holidays are very demanding and they’re very structured: they come fast and furious in the fall, they taper off for a bit, and then they heat up again. But if you are really living by the calendar, living by the Jewish clock, you don’t have a lot of time in between that is a non-holiday period. I think there’s something really interesting about that and I wanted to understand that because I knew that Judaism is not random – there was a point to all this. I decided to take a deep dive into this calendar, really immerse myself and understand it, and then see what would happen to me if I went hard to the tradition as opposed to picking and choosing.
By doing them all, I came out thinking that part of the power of this tradition, of this faith, is in the fact that there are so many of these. I don’t think that I am going to be an observant Jew. What I do think I’m going to do is do more of the holiday rituals than I did before and try not to be judgmental of myself if I miss some here or there. I have added a little more disciplined Shabbat habit, which is that I used to just live my life as normal and I now try to go off of my devices or go off email for sure, from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. There are holidays like Simchat Torah, when we complete a cycle of the reading of the Torah and people come together and dance with the scrolls, that I found very exuberant and exhilarating and moving, and that is something that I hope to continue. There are other things like that, that I would like to adopt in my life, that I can hopefully absorb without upending my family’s routine because I am doing this in the later part of my life, when my family is used to doing what we do. I do think it’s tricky, when you’re introducing new things at that point in your life, for it not to feel foreign and jarring.
Q: Speaking of which — how did your experience affect your family?
A: My family was extremely supportive, and I don’t say that in some kind of pat, Pollyanna-ish way. I was asking a lot of them, just to go along with me. That didn’t mean that they were going to go to the services I was going to go to or read the books I was reading or study the prayers I was studying. But not to be obstacles in this very unlikely, unexpected dive that I was taking. I would say that, in some ways, the Jewish calendar takes over your life. My approach was to not just go to my synagogue but to travel around the city and go to places that aren’t necessarily my “denomination,” which is Reform Judaism, but to have a taste of and learn from the other approaches to Jewish faith and tradition. That meant that I was sometimes going to two and three services in one night.
That takes a certain forbearance and my family was more than patient; they were cheerleaders, and it started a very rich conversation in my home about what I was doing and what I was discovering. That said, I cannot tell you that they had the experience I had because they didn’t take the ride I took, and I don’t mean “ride” passively because I feel like observing the Jewish holidays is anything but passive – it’s actually very active – but there is something to it that feels like a ride; it’s a current. If you keep to the schedule and observe the Jewish holidays, it’s like you’re on a vessel that travels with or without you, and when you get on it, you are borne along with everyone else. And that’s part of the power: Jews who are celebrating these holidays show up at the same time – not always at the same place – and you can’t personalize what I call those “Jewish office hours” in my book. You can’t say, “I feel like celebrating Yom Kippur on a different day.” The resonance and power of this tradition is that it does say, we all show up at the same time, and whether or not we’re reading exactly the same prayers or praying in the same way, there is no choice in the matter: if you are going to do this, we all do it together.
I am married to David Shapiro, and I have a daughter who is a senior in high school, Molly, and my son, Benjamin, is a sophomore in college. They were both home; it was 2014-15 and it was very poignant that I was doing this the last year my son was living under my roof and being aware that he was ultimately going to be moving out, and my father-in-law was dying during that time. It’s important to mention those lifecycle events because it’s part of the discovery of these holidays: they’re not separate from your life. Anything I learned, anything that I was reading, anything that I was hearing, I was filtering through everything I was going through in my life. That is part of the sparkle and resilience of these holidays, because they are redundant – technically, they come around every year – but we’re in a very different place every time they arrive.
I think that nothing drives that home more than Yom Kippur, when we recite the unetana tokef prayer and it’s all about who lives and who dies. Really unpacking that liturgy, for me, was extremely relevant because I lost two people in this year and realizing, without it being morbid, that it’s a focusing idea, it’s not necessarily just a mournful one. It’s a galvanizing idea to think, “I’m not sure I’m going to be here in a year and what does that mean for my choices and what does that mean for what I decide to do with my time, with my family, with my friends?” I think that Judaism is constantly reminding you of the fragility of things, and not to make you hang your head and go feel depressed, but the opposite: it’s to go act, it’s to go connect with people, it’s to savor. It’s basically saying, “Savor this because you’re not guaranteed tomorrow” and that’s okay because it’s the truth of the world but don’t be complacent. I really think that Judaism is the anti-complacency tradition. That came through in almost every holiday I looked at.
Q: How did you decide which rabbis to consult?
A: I tried to spread it out denominationally. I’m not anti-denomination but I think these terms have gotten overly fixed and overly invested. I think we should be a little bit more fluid in our self-definition because there’s real magic in sharing what each approach of Judaism knows and brings to it. But that said, I knew I wanted to talk to a Haredi, Chabad, Jewish Renewal, somebody who was doing Shabbat by doing yoga – I didn’t want to only do what is considered to be conventional, structural Judaism.
I’m a little bit of a rabbi groupie: because I came to Jewish learning in my late 30s, I was so jazzed and surprised by how exciting it was to study Torah or Talmud with a great rabbi. I think the teachers really matter; I think there’s only so much you can do on your own. Even though there are over 60 voices in the book, there are so many people I admire and really wanted to get to whom I never did.
Q: Did the teachers ever contradict one another?
A: Any Jew knows that the hallmark of our Jewish culture is disputation and disagreement. I didn’t necessarily always air those differences in the pages but what it showed me is how available this tradition is for interpretation, reinterpretation, and argument, and it’s part of what has sustained it. If there was this codified thing that couldn’t be opened up again – the Talmud says, “Turn it and turn it again” – I think it wouldn’t have lasted. Part of why it’s so rich – and I would use that word, “sparkling,” very intentionally because I do think it does shine when you engage it – and one of the gifts is that it has room for you and it invites you in.
I don’t think it’s always so hospitable if you are just shooting from the hip and saying what you think without really learning it. I do think it’s pretty demanding in terms of trying to educate yourself before you have an opinion. But I do think it’s inviting if you give yourself a little bit of that elbow-grease first. It is inviting for disagreement in the best sense.
I will give you one example of where there was disagreement, with Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance, what they call a “modern holiday,” because it was developed post-World War II. There are some who feel that the reason why the holiday hasn’t “taken off” – meaning that a majority of Jews, at least in America, do not observe it, is because there’s no ritual. People have invented services, they have a survivor speak, there’s something called “the naming of the names” — but there is no liturgy, there are no particular prayers, and there is no meal … no symbolic table. What a number of rabbis and scholars observed is that the holidays that don’t have a table are the harder ones to sustain. If you don’t give Jews something to do or some place to gather that’s clear, it doesn’t necessarily take root. There are two rabbis in the book who talk about creating a Yom Hashoah seder or some kind of remembrance around it that is active. You can imagine that there’s a lot of pushback. How dare we even think we could use those words for this event? These rabbis who are suggesting it are very sensitive to that and cognizant of how difficult that would be. But they also feel that when, God forbid – but it’s inevitable – there are no more survivors living, there has to be a way to make immediate this excruciating history. They are wrestling with ways to do that. That’s an example of where I saw real discord.
Q: Which holiday did you end up liking the most?
A: I would still say that the most powerful is still the High Holidays, mostly because of the questions that they both ask of us. I would say that I experienced them wholly differently than I had before. Part of it was because I front-loaded or started the atonement much earlier. I had never understood that the month of Elul is where the introspection is supposed to begin and that there should be some discipline, ideally, about investigating or looking at yourself in those 30 days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. I chose a ritual that was suggested by a rabbi online, which was to take a trait per day – whether it be envy, courage, generosity, selfishness – and really address it for myself as honestly as I could stand in an email to a friend, a partner who I had chosen, who would do the same thing back to me. So for those 30 days of Elul, we had those exchanges where we were being extremely candid about looking at one part of ourselves very closely.
By the time I got to Rosh Hashana and was sitting in the service, it had the effect of training for the marathon before it begins, and it really did change the experience of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for me because I didn’t feel, like I felt in past years – where I was almost scrambling for introspection, like a mad dash to atonement. I felt like I had done a lot of work by that point and that it was actually hard work, but in the right sense of difficult. That was, I would say, a favorite, in the sense that I had never approached the holiday that way, where I’m really starting earlier.
The other part of it is that you’re supposed to blow the shofar each morning or hear the shofar each day so I ordered a shofar from Amazon and took the instruction booklet and tried very failingly to blow it each morning and completely annoyed my family. Then you’re supposed to read the 27th Psalm, which is a very powerful psalm, basically asking God not to forsake you or abandon you. So that combination really deepened my High Holiday experience and it’s something that I have done again in a different way, but I chose to repeat it.
Abigail Pogrebin will discuss her new book My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew on Sunday, March 5, 9:30 a.m., at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, 55 East Kings Highway, Chester. For more information: (860) 526-8920 or cbsrz.org.