Friday, September 25, 2009

New Reads for the New Year

I recently read two books that I think of almost like opposite ends of a spectrum. The first book, The New Jew: An Unexpected Conversion by Sally Srok Friedes, was one she sent to me after reading this blog (Hi Sally!). The second, The Shiksa Syndrome, I found in the new fiction section of the local library.

The New Jew is a true story of a former Catholic who pursues conversion to Judaism despite her husband's reticence and the less-than-welcoming attitudes of rabbis she meets (see my review). In The Shiksa Syndrome, a born-Jewish woman pretends to be non-Jewish in order to attract and keep a Jewish boyfriend (see my review). One is running to, the other running from, and at the heart of both is what it means to be Jewish.

Good food for thought during these Days of Awe.

FTC Disclaimer: please see disclaimer notes at the end of each review. Thank you.

The New Jew: An Unexpected Conversion by Sally Srok Friedes -- Book Review

"The New Jew" has become very personal for me. It came along at just the right time to highlight what I have and what I’ve lost, what being Jewish means and what being part of a Jewish community means. It is a love story with Judaism and Jewish community, complete with awkward beginnings, passionate disagreements, and a honeymoon.

The book begins with the death of author Sally Srok Friedes’ mother-in-law in present time. This was a poignant start, as I had just lost my mother when I began reading. The funeral and shiva (first week of mourning) descriptions truly depict Judaism and a Jewish community at its best. We are then taken back to the beginning of the author’s journey to becoming Jewish, back when becoming Jewish wasn’t a goal at all.

Time and again, the author tries to get more involved in learning about Judaism so that she doesn’t feel so lost and ignorant when around her husband’s family and folks at the synagogue, but each time, she is insulted, ostracized, and marginalized by rabbis who are opposed to interfaith marriage and see her marriage to husband Michael as a crime against Judaism. It is to her credit that she perseveres.

I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster with her, embarrassed when a rabbi uses his Rosh Hashanah sermon to rant about interfaith marriages and presenting Judaism as an exclusive by-invitation-only club rather than welcoming those who might add to the Jewish community. I was saddened by Michael’s distance from Judaism while he resists Sally’s embrace of it, even as I knew his was a completely normal reaction. I cheered when Sally finally found a rabbi—and a synagogue—who could truly appreciate not only who she was, but who she could become.

Everyone’s Jewish journey is different, and yet there are shared elements that remind us how we are all connected. In "The New Jew," we can all find ourselves within these pages.

FTC Disclaimer: I did receive a copy of the book from the author, with the understanding that if I was willing and able to review it here, I would. If not, I wouldn't. I received no other compensation and there was no expectation of the type of review (positive/negative).

The Shiksa Syndrome by Laurie Graff -- Book Review

When I first finished reading "The Shiksa Syndrome," I wanted to say that I didn’t like it. I wanted to say that because it frustrated me. On far more than one occasion, I was arguing and groaning in irritation with Aimee Albert, the main character and the woman through whose perspective we read the story. Then I realized that more than anything, the book was effective. It engaged me and got me emotionally involved. Laurie Graff did her job and did it well.

Aimee is a Jewish woman who loves being Jewish, but her boyfriend doesn’t seem all that into what being Jewish means to her. She decides, therefore, to find a Jewish man to date. But the more she looks around, the more she discovers that all the eligible Jewish men are dating non-Jewish women. Intentionally. So when she and her non-Jewish best friend Krista are at a kosher wine tasting and in walks gorgeous, rich, and Jewish Josh Hirsch, Aimee doesn’t correct him when he assumes she isn’t Jewish.

In fact, she sees this seemingly minor omission of her identity the linchpin of her success at keeping Josh for a boyfriend. Lies build upon lies, and Aimee’s true identity is buried beneath the layers until she’s not sure exactly who she is anymore—the shiksa (non-Jewish woman) Josh wants her to be, or the Jew she knows she is.

What I do take issue with in the book is that it presents the vast majority of Jewish men as completely uninterested in being Jewish and finding a sort of status in dating a non-Jewish woman. It does focus on a very New York Jewish dating culture, with which I’m not familiar, so maybe some of it is regional.

I was annoyed with Aimee for her subterfuge and for betraying who she is. I was annoyed with Josh for being so dismissive about his Jewishness. But I fought and laughed and cried along with the characters, and kept thinking about the story long after I’d closed the cover, which is really at the heart of what makes a good read.

FTC Disclaimer: I received no compensation, not even a copy of the book, in return for this review. In fact, I found the book in the new fiction section of the library and it looked interesting so I checked it out. And it stuck with me enough I had to blog about it.