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Review from The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California  
(click here to see the review from the Jerusalem Post)

Bulletin Correspondent

It's not often that a Jewish book comes along with a title that hits me like a ton of bricks.

Gil Mann's new volume is called: "How to Get More Out of Being JewishEven If: A. You are not sure you believe in God; B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time; C. You think keeping kosher is stupid; D. You hated Hebrew school; or E. All of the above!"

I first read this book in manuscript form last year. I agreed to write an endorsement for the cover, and I found Mann's material so compelling that I used it as the basis of several sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Mann is a journalist, self-made entrepreneur and volunteer in the Jewish community. He lectures across the country and conducts an online bulletin board called "Why Be Jewish Anyway?" It can be found on AOL's Jewish Community Online.

After three years as a fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, an intensive nationwide Jewish study program for community leaders, Mann decided to learn more about unaffiliated Jews. He convened a series of focus groups, and raised some probing questions about the participants' Jewish identity.

The result is "How to Get More Out of Being Jewish," a dialogue between the author and six individuals. The profiles of these individuals are fictionalized assemblages of real people Mann met and actual comments he heard during his focus groups.

The book is easy reading, intentionally. Mann did not set out to write a work of Jewish scholarship.

Instead, the author directs his message clearly and simply to those who feel turned off by certain aspects of Jewish practice and belief. The book addresses those who find themselves in the synagogue only on the High Holy Days, and for an occasional b'nai mitzvah.

The book offers those who are active in the Jewish community -- professionals and lay leaders alike -- a powerful indictment of the Jewish status quo.

"I'm not sure I need Judaism in my life. I'm not sure anyone needs Judaism anymore," said one of Mann's focus group participants who is quoted in the book. "Maybe Judaism has just outlived its usefulness."

"My most lasting memory of my bar mitzvah is not the event itself," commented another, "but being forced to go to religious school. The best part of my bar mitzvah, besides the presents was getting to quit Hebrew school and have a normal life."

"When I was 10 years old," said another, "my parents made me start going to the synagogue. I came home after the first day and told my parents I couldn't stand services. They said to me, 'The day will come when you will thank us for making you go.' Every year since then, and I'm now 43, after High Holidays services, I say to my parents, 'I'm still waiting for the day to come.'"

This is a wonderful book for readers who are wrestling with weighty questions about how to raise a Jewish family, how to struggle with traditional notions of belief in God and matters of spirituality, how to relate to Zionism and the state of Israel, how to make the synagogue and community more responsive to our needs and concerns.

The author provides some attractive answers, including his classification of Jewish life into three overlapping circles: ethics, spirituality and peoplehood (ESP). And he offers practical suggestions for those who want to take the next step on their spiritual journey.

Rabbis and other communal leaders frequently speak about outreach to the unaffiliated. Mann has taken the next step by truly listening to the cares and concerns of this much-maligned group. 

The voices in his book are not often heard in "official" Jewish circles. They are brutally honest and refreshingly original. Hopefully, they will force us to reexamine some of our cherished notions and strategies. 

"How to Get More Out of Being Jewish" by Gil Mann (158 pages, Leo and Sons, $14.95), (800) 304-9925.

Mark S. Diamond is rabbi of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. He serves as volunteer coordinator of the  "Ask a Rabbi" program, part of AOL's Jewish Community Online.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California

Review from the Jerusalem Post

by Gil Mann.
Minneapolis, Leo and Sons Pub. 158pp. 

By Joshua J. Adler
Jerusalem Post

Despite its seemingly flippant title, this is a serious book. It is also an easy read, though it deals with a weighty problem: How to stimulate Jews who are mostly outside of organized Jewish life to return to some aspect of their heritage. What can one say to Jews that will attract them to Judaism if they are not sure about whether God exists, think that going to synagogue to pray is a waste of time, and regard Jewish rituals such as keeping kosher as stupid?

Unlike nearly all other books dealing with Judaism, Gil Mann's is written in simple conversational style because he seeks to preserve the informality of the discussions he conducted with people who still feel Jewish in some way, if only because they feel more comfortable in the presence of Jews or enjoy "Jewish" foods. From these talks we learn that, despite their alienation from the Jewish community and their non-observance of  ritual and holy days,  most of them still want their children to remain Jewish even if, paradoxically, some would not object to them marrying a gentile.

Mann's goal, therefore, is to stimulate nominal or gut Jews into realizing that Judaism is  multi-faceted and not merely a faith. To inculcate this message he uses  a three- circle intersecting diagram, with each circle representing one aspect of Judaism:  Ethics, Spirituality and Peoplehood (E.S.P.). The purpose is to indicate that if a person is committed to any one of these circles, either wholly or partially, he already is a practicing Jew to some extent.

To Mann, a  Jew who is involved in activities to improve society (tikun haolam), or in charitable work, should not be considered or consider himself to be a bad Jew, even if he  never attends  synagogue or observes the rituals. He believes that our tendency to become inordinately involved in charitable activities is due to our 3,000-year-old religious traditions. He believes there is a special Jewish gene -- which he calls a cultural DNA - behind the concern for the unfortunate and the downtrodden.

The focus of one of his first discussions is spirituality.  Mann finds that, although the issue of God is not normally brought up by  contemporary Jews, people are not at all reluctant to discuss their beliefs and doubts when asked to do so by a sympathetic interviewer. He also discovered that what most people don't believe about God parallels the views and beliefs of many pious Jews and rabbis, past and present, including Maimonides.  That God is ineffable and mysterious is not exclusively a Jewish idea;  according to Mann, it has a parallel in other religions. The Sioux Indians, for instance, refer to God as Wakan Tanka,  which can be translated as "The Great Mystery."

He sympathizes with those who don't find synagogue attendance and prayer meaningful, yet defends the importance of communal worship as a way of identifying with the community (which often comes to one's aid in times of need) and also as a way of becoming conscious of our blessings. Moreover, it provides time for self-reflection and encourages one to become a better person. He also finds that those who are alienated from  formal worship may consider an informal service in an Orthodox shteibel or liberal havura more meaningful.

He believes that in order for worship to become meaningful it is necessary to prepare for the experience by taking a course or reading a book about the Siddur.

To those who have no interest in observing kashrut, Mann points out that anyone who takes the trouble to study what is behind these laws will discover that the ultimate goal is  to make a person more compassionate. Kosher food is not so much health food as Soul Food. He urges people to be open-minded and to search for the spirit behind many of the other ritual laws which at first seem ridiculous or meaningless.

Mann also responds to those who believe that Jewish observance  must be total or dismissed as hypocritical. He compares this attitude to drivers' reactions to traffic rules, which they sometimes knowingly violate. And he asks, rhetorically: Does this mean that all drivers are hypocrites? And do we always tell the truth and act ethically?  Because we sometimes fail to uphold certain principles, does that mean that we should throw out all the rules?

Mann argues that one who feels alienated from Jewish tradition should at least take it upon himself to study it in a serious manner before deciding how much or how little he wants to be involved in the life of the community.

The book closes with a short list of suggested books, magazines, videos and even websites for readers who want to explore their heritage further. Since this book deals with themes which should be of concern and interest to all Jews and not only Americans, it deserves to be published in Hebrew, with obvious changes for the Israeli reader who has additional reasons to be alienated from his religious heritage. 

(c)  Jerusalem Post 1999


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