Today I finished one of the books I found at the Newberry Library’s sale over the summer. I may have mentioned that this is a rather massive sale, featuring hundreds of thousands of books and other media items divided into six variously sized rooms and dozens of categories. One of those categories is “Judaica” and it is a rather fascinating mixed bag of books, ranging from prayer books to educational books to things that happen to be in Hebrew. I always poke around just to see what’s available, and this year, among other things, I found The Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch.
As someone who is more knowledgeable than many about my religion, I figured I’d pick it up and see what I could learn. No harm done. Of course, when I opened it up to take off the book cover (in such nice condition, I didn’t want to damage it in my work bag), the odor told me this hadn’t been opened much in decades. Which inspired me to check the publication date. 1981 seemed…less than promising. But, it wasn’t a super long book, only about three hundred pages, so I should be fine, right?
I would not recommend this book to anyone who is trying to learn about Judaism for the first time, as there are a number of concepts and terms that you need some background beyond what’s provided to understand. I also would not recommend this book for anyone with my level of knowledge or higher. I feel I learned very little of practical use in today’s world, as many of the questions concern customs I have never heard of before and they sound rather outdated.
It is interesting that, for a book that talks about religion, there is as little religion as possible within these pages. The questions and answers focus on customs and actions for the most part and the author presents what his research indicates to be the beliefs which prompted such actions and customs. He actively tries to keep his own opinions out of the book, which is admirable.
One of the things I found annoying was just the fact that the common transliterations have changed over time, and the author favors different spellings from what I prefer. Transliteration, the act of spelling words in one language from a foreign language that uses a completely different alphabet, is never perfect. But there are commonly accepted spellings, as well as a widely varied number of acceptable spellings. So, nobody wins.
One thing that bothered me was when Hebrew or Yiddish words were used and not translated literally. He keeps referring to the Shulchan Aruch as the Code of Jewish Law but it actually translates to “The Set Table.” I’m not saying he needs to call it that every time, but to actually translate it literally once would have been nice. (It’s a document from the 1500s that was written the definitive Jewish law. Of course, then someone wrote commentary to represent certain regions whose customs were left out…because let’s face, it Judaism is all about commentary.)
This wasn’t a particularly interesting or even good book to read. I did learn some things, had a few others clarified, but mostly I had no interest whatsoever in what I was reading. As I mentioned, a lot of the questions answered concerned customs I’ve never heard of before and doubt many people (at least in this country) follow today. I’ll probably give this book to my dad for Hannukah; he’s old enough that he’s probably more familiar with those obscure customs. He’s also less educated about our religion than I am, and enjoys learning more about it. He probably won’t find it as dry as I did either.
I am definitely reading a novel next. Not sure what, but it will be a real story.