Friday, November 3, 2017

Q&A with Abigail Pogrebin

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew. She also has written Showstopper, Stars of David, and One and the Same, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Newsweek and New York magazine. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this new book, and how did you settle on the 18 holidays to write about?

A: To start with the latter question, I did take the Chabad list, the Judaism 101 list, all the lists from the internet, and counted. I didn’t want to miss a stitch. If you’re doing the Ironman of the Jewish year, you don’t want to miss [anything]. When you count, you pretty much get to 18, 19, 20; the last two are a little in dispute.

And then there’s the issue of Shabbat—it is a holiday, and it is weekly. I wasn’t going to do 52. If I would pick two or three [Shabbats] to reflect on—do I count those? I didn't want to miss any major or minor holidays, but I did leave out Tu B’Av, the Valentine’s Day of the Jewish calendar; I let that one go. As you get to summer, you’re losing steam!

Why I chose to do this—I am one of the Jewish students who came to learning late. It bothered me that I had gaps in my knowledge. Had I grown up with routines, it would be in my DNA. [I knew about] the High Holy Days and also Passover, the tentpoles of Judaism—but it bothered me what I didn’t know.

In my travels in the Jewish world, when I would see more observant communities, I envied their structural order and certainty. [I would not want to be Orthodox] but I appreciate a certain mastery and fluidity with the text. Not that they know it all, the learning is bottomless. You’re never finished…

[I had] access to rabbis and could ask why we’re fasting…or tell me why this has contemporary urgency. It’s the kind of questions that make me come awake, to go through these and experience them for the first time. I went in as a skeptic but was saying I’m going to take this leap…

Q: Was there a particular holiday you hadn’t observed before that you feel especially connected to now, or a holiday you had observed before but perhaps observed a little differently?

A: Certainly my High Holy Days approach, my approach to atonement, has really changed. I used to punch that clock, but it was a 24-hour experience and you were through it.

Learning about the 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur, you frontload your introspection—there’s the idea that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t sit in synagogue for six or seven hours and do all the work required. It was an eye-opener for me. You’re in a very different place.

I think Shabbat changed [for me]. I had hard conversations where people said you give up something. It’s hard to do something you’d never done before, but pause in some way, not as a sacrifice…I put out an automatic [phone] response that I’m not looking at email. It is freeing. I am engaging in commerce, but I do read more, and I slow down more.

I would say there are so many discoveries, [such as] dancing with the Torah when the [reading] cycle is complete—I was so resistant to the idea of that. I went with a lot of self-consciousness, letting loose, dancing like a crazy person—it was interdenominational, both genders, there was no sense of who knew more. It was a democracy…

This is a sacred thing—you have to touch the Torah. It is usually handled like a fragile egg, but on this night it’s passed exuberantly from one to another. It is a celebration of the biggest book club in the world!

Q: Can you say more about how writing this book has changed you and your observance of Judaism?

A: I think it’s changed more my understanding than my practice. I feel more thoughtful than active. One thing I learned is it’s crucial to keep trying. But it’s hard [to change the things] you grew up with. It’s hard to introduce [new things] to your family when they haven’t taken the journey you have. It is a tricky line to walk.

No one has ever held me back but it’s hard when they don’t go along. I’m thrilled with everything I experienced, but my own Jewish habits are hard to change.

Q: What's been the reaction to the book?

The reaction has been extremely gratifying and humbling. People are not only sharing their appreciation, but their stimulation; it's making them think differently about the holidays they already knew and the holidays they've never explored or experienced. 

Many have told me it's made them finally understand the full cycle, and that they've taken the leap to sample rituals they've never tried before. Many have also said that the ideas and principles which anchor the holidays have been applicable to their lives today. 

Q: What do you hope people take away from it?

A: I hope they take away a sense of the holiday arc as a whole, how each milestone in the calendar connects in ways they might not have understood before.  

I hope they take away an accessible, but challenging, taste of what Jewish time offers us, in terms of forced moments of slowing down, moments of frank reckoning with who we are and who we aspire to be, moments of connection we never expected. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently the president of Central Synagogue, one of the oldest Reform synagogues in Manhattan. It takes up a lot of my time with meetings and strategic thinking.

One thing I’m mulling is not necessarily a book but what I feel passionate about, that teachers make all the difference. If there’s a way to open it up to teens, college students, and give them a taste of what I experienced…

Is there a way to make accessible some of this learning? I would love to figure out whether there is an app or something that unites us, [to look at] what makes this tradition singular.

I’ve seen great teachers and boring teachers….if it’s someone who doesn’t jazz your brain, you could be done. When someone’s in their 20s and there’s so much competing for [attention], the bar is high…I am, in a sense, that EveryJew—I’m not a scholar but have an appetite to learn…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Abigail Pogrebin will be participating in the Lessans Family Literary Series at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, on Sunday, November 5.

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