Judaism has always been a deeply felt part of Abigail Pogrebin’s identity.
Still, while Pogrebin grew up attending alternative seders that put a feminist twist on the traditional Haggadah – no surprise, given that her mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founded Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem – and enormous Hanukkah parties, she didn’t start to be truly curious about the religion until she had her first child, a son. At his bris, she found herself in tears.
“I cried that morning because I was hormonal, true, but also because Ben was the newest tiny Jew, joining a tenacious people that many were determined to eliminate,” Pogrebin writes in the introduction to her new book “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” “And I cried at my deficits: how little I knew, and how late I’d have to learn it if I chose to start now.”
From that point, Pogrebin grew more and more immersed in Judaism. First, she wrote a book about how other people understood Judaism: “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” It was a good start, but something was still missing. She started studying Torah, then, at the age of forty, became a bat mitzvah.
Better and better, but still not enough. So Pogrebin decided to do something that, for her, was radical: She would spend a year celebrating every holiday in the Jewish calendar.
She first chronicled that venture in a column for the Forward: “18 Holidays: One Wondering Jew.” In the year and a half since she concluded the project, she’s revised that material into “My Jewish Year,” which will arrive in bookstores on March 14.
The Forward spoke with Pogrebin about “My Jewish Year” over the phone. Read excerpts of that conversation, below.
Talya Zax: This book originated as a series written for the Forward. What were the greatest surprises and challenges you face in adapting it into a book?
Abigail Pogrebin: I think that the biggest challenge was trying to be a little more honest about where I struggled. Where I ran into kind of roadblocks with each holiday. There was more room, now, for taking a breath and circling back on where I went for a particular holiday or what I did ritually.
I think it’s true of a lot of other Jews, that there are experiences that they can have a moment of deep feeling and connection, and then moments of kind of thinking about where you’re going to have the next meal.
I definitely associated with the passage where you wrote about the struggle of staying concentrated during Yom Kippur. It’s always hard for me not to let my mind drift to food.
Without being too pat about it all, I think six fasts is not easy on purpose. I had a relative who said “I don’t know how you fast on Yom Kippur, I get too hungry.” Well that’s the point; the point is hunger. A fast sets something in motion, which doesn’t mean you’re going to love it. You can be stirred by something annoying. It can be both meaningful and burdensome.
Can you tell me more about what went into your decision to spend a year immersing yourself in Jewish holidays?
I was bothered by my ignorance. I would kind of look over at the [Orthodox] people on the other side and see a life that was very organized by tradition, very mapped-out in a way that seemed extremely meaningful to them from what I could see.
I think there is a sense in our tradition that if you didn’t get it early, it’s too late. I really resist that idea. That was part of why I felt like, if I understand the holidays which are clearly driving the year in so many ways, maybe I will understand the whole of this Jewish approach to life in a way I haven’t before.
I also think – this is a Leon Wieseltier line that stuck with me – he said “I think we have no right to overthrow the customs that have made it all the way to us.” That idea that something is required of us is something that resonated for me. It felt like a gauntlet thrown down that I wanted to take up.
How did you decide to write about this experience?
I function both as a reporter and as a seeker. Also, I’ll be honest, I really like talking to rabbis. They are required to constantly do one thing over and over again, which is to make the ancient relevant. As a reporter I enjoy that kind of inquiry and dialogue, but I also as a person want to be challenged. This series and then the book allowed both things to happen.
It’s been a year and a half since your last outing as “The Wondering Jew.” How has your observance of Judaism – and your observation of it – changed since then?
I would say the majority of the holidays that I practice are still kind of the top ten. Or the top six. But they have been deepened, altered, kind of turned; the Talmud says turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Suddenly they became different holidays to me. That is really what this year has left.
In terms of what’s new, something like Elul was really a revelation for me to do, and it is something I have done since in different iterations, and it has wholly changed the experience for me of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Simchat Torah: The exuberance of that holiday, and the democracy of it as well, the idea that everyone is entitled to this book, it’s your dance partner in a very raucous room, that is something I want to maintain. Shavuot, the all-nighter of study, that is something I think will stay with me as a practice.
What was most surprising to you, as you conducted this experiment?
I don’t necessarily think Judaism is as welcoming as people say it is to the learner. I go to these Jewish conferences and I hear people bemoaning Jewish engagement, but the people who are worrying about that are not on the outside, they already get it, they already love it, they’ve made that decision. I’m further in then I think the average Jew in America, for sure, and I feel if I hadn’t been wearing my reporter’s hat sometimes I would have had a hard time walking into some places and feeling at ease.
I think it’s something kind of deeper and more structural, which is a hard thing to change, which is that the knowers are happy and the newbies are in a harder place than the knowers realize. I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe it shouldn’t be fixed. You go in as a rookie, you become part of the team. But there are teams. It’s not just one melting pot of Jews.
The [other] thing I would want to emphasize was the number of my teachers in this book was extraordinary and generous. Nobody said no. That contradicts exactly what I just said. It’s extraordinarily welcoming in that sense.
Much of your in-person research for this book relied on mobility, both in New York, where you frequently moved between synagogues, and in other states. How do you think its lessons might apply to Jews striving for a new level of understanding who live in areas with fewer options for exploring the religion?
One of the things people don’t realize is so many of these things are online and are open. Without being evangelical about this, try one holiday that you haven’t done before: Maybe I’ll go for Yom HaShoah and Google whether anyone’s meeting with a survivor or reading the names. That’s an example of a holiday where there isn’t synagogue ritual, and in a way that makes it more open to all. Things like that – it sounds so basic – go online and find yourself a Hanukkah menorah lighting.
It [is] kind of amazing to be by yourself just experiencing what you’re experiencing alone, without anybody watching you. I write in the book that sometimes it’s hard for me to atone next to my family. It feels very naked as an exercise: Really, am I doing this among hundreds of congregants? How open can you break yourself in public? Sometimes it’s nice kind of showing up somewhere, and you have almost the protection of anonymity to experience what you’re experiencing.
What’s next for you, both as a writer and as a Jew?
I hesitate to say that I feel pulled to the Jewish investigation, the Jewish conversation, [but] there’s something very alive about this conversation right now. Without knowing exactly the iteration of what kind of reporting I want to do in that arena, it continues to fascinate me. There is something that is stronger than my own agency that’s pulling me to continue.
I haven’t quite figured out how to keep learning without feeling somewhat shy about the bottomlessness of that desire. Anyone who takes Judaism seriously knows that it’s never done, and your learning never stops. There’s only so many projects that allow you to take on that role of the inquirer. And that’s what being a reporter allows you to do that, to keep asking questions. Finding a way to formalize that in my life is not clear to me.
The other, more mundane goal is to learn Hebrew in the way I wanted to learn it and still haven’t, which is to be able to read a page without pausing.
The holiday of the moment, in the Jewish calendar, is Purim. That section of the book is particularly emotional, as you recount the death of your father-in-law, Milton. Can you tell me about what it was like to incorporate that event into this book as you wrote it?
This was kind of a microcosm of what Judaism does for you. The holidays really do rise to meet you where you are. In the course of the year the holidays are essentially the same. They are coming around again. You are changing. Here I am at Purim, which is an obviously kind of ecstatic, nutty celebration, with great grief weighing me down. At the same time, I wasn’t going to skip anything, and I felt the ability to hold both things, celebrating and mourning. What I think is amazing about it is it’s almost like Judaism assumes the complexity of any moment.
The fact that you have to fast for Esther the day before Purim is another example of that. You’re holding self-denial and sobriety, and then you’re slamming into celebration. Yom HaZikaron goes right into Yom Ha’atzmaut. Those are modern holidays, but look how they designed them. You are crashing into the party.
How will you be celebrating Purim, and honoring Milton’s memory, this year?
Because the yahrtzeit falls at different times, Milton’s yahrtzeit was last week, so it’s off-schedule in terms of Purim. We lit a candle, my husband and daughter and I. One of the things I had done as part of the series was memorize kaddish, and it’s something I’m glad that I know. Being able to lead my family through that with Milton was very meaningful.
In terms of Purim, I am going to be a little bit boring and go to my own synagogue, which will not be boring. But as you know, I was sometimes feeling like I was betraying my Jewish home by wandering near and far to other places, and I miss Purim there. I want to see how we’re doing it. I was not president at the time that I wrote the original series and now I am, and it feels like the president should be at Purim.