Reviews & Back Cover Blurbs...because folks have nice things to say.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting and having my morning Kvetch with a friend at the JCC in downtown Toronto “You know,” I said. “I really think the Jewish thing is done. Honestly, it’s enough already. The intermarriage rate is like 70%, synagogues as we know them are losing more members than they are gaining, rabbis preach same old, same old. Who needs it?” My friend heard me out and then suggested that I read, Dan Mendelsohn Aviv’s new book End of the Jews: Radical Breaks, Remakes and What Comes Next. So I did.
Mendelsohn Aviv fulfills the mandate of a groundbreaking book by instigating an important conversation on the future of 21st c Judaism. He does this by asking: What can past crises (“radical breaks”) teach us about remaking our present and our future as 21st c Jews? Clearly, it is a necessary conversation. As Mendelsohn Aviv points out, Jews today are being faced with a crisis in the form of four Ds: Disaffiliation, Demographic Delay, Disaffection, Dissolution. The remake, Mendelsohn Aviv argues, will happen online and its participants are what he calls The Next Jew. These Next Jews “are engaging with Jewish identification, tradition and texts in a manner inconceivable to previous generations. They have taken their questions, God-wrestling, creative energy and desire to connect online. They meet and mate through online social networks. They exchange and grapple with ideas through blogging.” In this Next Jew world, Jews form online Jewish communities, modernize the Talmudic method of annotation by creating online sermons that others can add too, and blog extensively. I don’t disagree with his observation. In fact, I recently told my rabbi that he needed to be on Facebook because that was where the Jewish conversation is happening lead by informed and articulate (and thankfully mischievous) Jews such as Mendelsohn Aviv. But right at the very end of his book, and in a (rare) display of authorial humility, Mendelson Aviv suggests that he may be wrong about his analysis. This is why I say that End of the Jews is a conversation starter.
In fact, it is such an intriguing conversation starter that all I kept thinking throughout my reading is that I wished I could have been the editor on this book so that I could have probed Mendelson Aviv a little more. For example, in his remarkable synthesis of Jewish history, the absence of the Holocaust is a bit glaring. How does that crisis and the remakes which include the creation of Israel, and a desire to assimilate into North American society so as not to provoke the goyim fit into his thesis? Then there is his fascinating discussion of the Siddur, Tanakh, the d’var torah, the Haggadah and The Book of Legends which reminded me Jonathan Rosen’s comparative analysis The Talmud and The Internet (which I have to say is nowhere near as provocative or well-written as End of the Jews so if you want to read only one book of this genre, I recommend this one). Here Mendelsohn Aviv points out: “These ‘open source projects’ not only invited involvement by users at their individual level of learning and desire for engagement, but created connections and forged bonds between individuals across time zones and denominations.” He then describes the modern equivalents notably the Tagged Tanakh where one can comment on a given verse and other online users can respond. This sort of open source, everyone-can –contribute model is Mendelsohn Aviv’s Next Jew.
I want to buy into this. I really do. But the alarm bells of my traditional Reform Jewish upbringing go off in my head. Isn’t religion supposed to be about authority? Orthodoxy? How can I, a barely literate Jew, touch the Tanakh with my keyboard? Where is the rabbinic quality control that I grew up with? Clearly, I am not a Next Jew. Mendelsohn Aviv infers throughout that the Next Jews are younger which suggests Jews in their 30s and 20s. If that is the case, End of the Jews needs a How to Guide for us 40-somethings. Because if we don’t get with the program, our kids won’t and Mendelsohn Aviv’s Next Jew will die out with the current twenty-year olds.
I have other questions. If 21st c Judaism happens on Facebook, what about good old-fashioned face time and the institutions (JCCs, synagogues) where that historically takes place? How do disagreements about Judaism (and there are many—we are a cantankerous people if nothing else) get mitigated online? If we all “unfriend” each other in online fits of pique, then who is left? And, if Mendelsohn Aviv is wrong as he suggests he may be, are we done?
I don’t know if Mendelsohn Aviv has the answers to these questions yet, but I do hope he will continue the conversation that End of the Jews has begun. As one of the clearest Jewish voices on this topic that I’ve read to date, I hope his final line is true that “the sequel is already in production.”
Natalie Fingerhut is an Editor and engaged member of the Downtown Toronto Jewish community.
From animal sacrifice to blogs in 250 pages. In End Of The Jews, Dan Mendelsohn Aviv educates and entertains—and provides an indispensable and timely guide to the past, present, and future of the Jewish People. A terrific read.
Gregory Levey, author of How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months
or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment
We are not who we were. We may not even be who we are. Some people write Jewish history as if it was a children’s story. Some write as if the only people reading are dusty scholars. Dan Mendelsohn Aviv tells the tale of a surprisingly disjunctive history of the Jewish people in a breezy, easy way that is nevertheless underpinned by research and scholarship.
Dan Friedman, arts and culture editor of the Jewish Daily Forward
As today’s Jews grapple with innovative approaches and new technologies that sometimes challenge and often enhance Jewish tradition, Dan Mendelsohn Aviv reminds us that Jews have a long history of making radical breaks and enacting fresh approaches to Jewish meaning and observance. Journeying from the history of sacrificial Judaism to the emergence of traditional Jewish institutional life and extending to today’s New Jews who dwell in spaces both online and off, End Of The Jews is only the beginning of the process of excavation, analysis and self-reflection that continues to shape today’s discussion on Jewish identity and meaning.
Esther D. Kustanowitz, writer & blogger