November 20, 2019

Looking Inward in the New Year

The caretaker of the only shul in Rangoon, Burma, posted this notice just outside the sanctuary before Rosh Hashanah, 2007:

“A tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but a Jew is never alone on his Holy Days.”

Moses, the caretaker, and his son were the only Burmese Jews at services that year. The few remaining Jews in Rangoon are older and frail, and at that time the rains were heavy and the streets were often violent. Some Israeli tourists and an American writer showed up unexpectedly. Together, they said the blessings over juice and then apples and honey, and someone tried to blow the shofar.

Sammy, the caretaker’s son, who has spent time in Israel and in New York, plans to take on his father’s role, upholding in his way the Jewish community of Burma, Charles London reports in his spirited travelogue, “Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community” (William Morrow). Moses muses that if he doesn’t keep up the shul, who would? Who would be sure that no Jew would be alone? Moses swore to his father that he would keep the synagogue open, that there would always be a place for Jews in Burma. He has found ways to cut down on operating costs by sharing water and electricity with Muslim shopkeepers on the block. Sammy says his father is not a religious man, but he’s happy when he sees people in the shul and hears their songs.

“The people are his prayers,” Sammy says.

In exploring issues of Jewish identity, London is particularly drawn to Jews who have stayed behind as their communities have largely dispersed, those who try to create something meaningful in spite of pressures to leave.

London also visits Jewish communities in Cuba, Iran, Uganda, Germany and Bentonville, Ark. — home of Wal-Mart and a fast-growing Jewish community — in an effort to tease out answers to questions about belonging and cultural transmission. His narrative, filled with memorable people and anecdotes, is also a personal story, of his own searching and connection to Judaism, as it evolves. The author of “One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War,” London is program director for War Kids Relief, a youth peace-building organization. He was inspired to begin his travels after his grandmother’s death, when he was surprised to learn that she came from a close-knit Orthodox background in a small town in the American South.

London’s book, along with several other new titles, makes for timely reading at this introspective moment of the Jewish year. These are books that ask more questions than they answer.

“The Life Worth Living: Faith in Action,” by Byron L. Sherwin (Eerdmans) is a thoughtful examination of the largest questions — about the purpose and meaning of life, the nature of wisdom and relationship with God.

Sherwin, a rabbi and theologian who serves as professor at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, writes of faith and spiritual life in authentic and accessible ways, often using Chasidic tales as illustrative material. For him, a life worth living is one of beauty, goodness and meaning, and he speaks of cultivating virtues of gratitude, humility, wisdom and love. While this is a deeply Jewish book, he also looks to other traditions and philosophers for their wisdom and teachings. His themes often parallel themes of the machzor (holiday prayer book). For those who follow the tradition of in-shul reading, this thin book might be a good candidate.

Be sure to take along Erica Brown’s new book as well. “Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism” (Jewish Lights) is an important, passionate book on a subject that’s not often discussed in positive ways.

Brown’s awareness of her own boredom — her sense of being stuck in her religious ways and no longer feeling satisfied — sparked her profound search for its causes and resolution. Brown is director of adult education for the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the author of “Inspired Jewish Leadership.” She takes an approach that’s religious, philosophical, psychological and practical.

As she explains, there’s boredom and Jewish boredom. The latter is “the product of situations and behaviors within a Jewish context that are typical, mediocre, and culturally induced. Boredom becomes the bane of communal Jewish living when our friends and institutions stay rooted in sameness. It sums up the tedium of uninteresting prayer services, the humdrum of a Hebrew school class where the aleph-bet is taught year after year without curricular sequencing…. It is the Jewish day school graduate who gets to university and is over-stimulated by Renaissance art, the philosophy of language, and an introduction to microbiology and wonders why his Judaic studies have been much less sophisticated.”

She worries a lot about boredom and its corrosiveness. Boredom diminishes the recognition of blessing and blessedness, blurs our vision of what is awesome and beautiful. The sense of routinization minimizes intensity of feelings and experience.

Fortunately, she also sees another side — that boredom can be a platform for new thoughts. “Creative minds,” she writes, “are often stimulated by boredom, regarding it as a brain rest until the next great idea looms on the horizon of the otherwise occupied mind.” The book underlines her point: Out of boredom grew a fresh, challenging analysis that is anything but a rote way of looking at things.

About finding mystical wonder, she quotes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in a line relevant for the new year: “An epiphany enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of Creation.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.