Interview'Jewish tradition and heritage is like a banquet waiting for you if you want to approach the table'

A writer gets on the Jewish holiday bus for a year. Where she stops surprises even herself

As she prays and parties every Jewish holiday for a year, Abigail Pogrebin discovers it’s never too late to find personal meaning in tradition

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Abigail Pogrebin (Lorin Klaris)
Abigail Pogrebin (Lorin Klaris)

Until a few years ago, writer Abigail Pogrebin had never shaken a lulav on Sukkot, danced with the Torah on Simchat Torah or baked hamentaschen for Purim. She decided it was finally time to plunge headlong into observing the Jewish holiday cycle.

A culturally Jewish New Yorker, she was a novice to religious knowledge and ritual. But with a strong desire to open herself up to the richness of her heritage, Pogrebin resolved to observe every single holiday, fast day, and day of commemoration on the Jewish calendar for a year.

A former 60 Minutes producer and author of several books (including “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish”), Pogrebin initially chronicled her quest in a series of columns for the Forward titled, “18 Holidays: 1 Wondering Jew.” Her new book, “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” is an expansion of these pieces.

The book is fuller, deeper, and more honest and personal. It is an encapsulation of Pogrebin’s journey, which is resonant for many liberal American Jews who — like her — are not necessarily interested in strict halachic observance, but rather crave a better understanding of and connection to the Jewish holidays.

While her yearlong exploration took her to synagogues around the city and across the country, upon completing her “Jewish Year,” Pogrebin became president of Central Synagogue, a prominent Reform congregation on Manhattan’s East Side she calls home.

In a recent conversation with The Times of Israel, Pogrebin, 51, spoke about what she learned from the rabbis and scholars who helped prepare her for each holiday, how Jews are never alone, and why it is never too late to delve into Judaism.

'My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew' by Abigail Pogrebin (Fig Tree Books)
‘My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew’ by Abigail Pogrebin (Fig Tree Books)

Were you aware of your lack of knowledge of the Jewish holidays? When did you begin to feel that something was missing?

I wasn’t as aware of what I didn’t know because I hadn’t been exposed to the whole canvas. It was something that really began to nag at me when I went to college in the most nascent way when I was irked by the fact that I didn’t know Hebrew and never had the kind of literacy that other Jews around me had. The minute you have children is where the rubber meets the road. Can you explain to this baby when he grows up why you had a bris, why you light candles on Friday night, why you go to synagogue on High Holidays, or even why you light menorah candles? It’s not just about family tradition. That was not sufficient for me. I began to be annoyed with myself for what I had missed and felt somewhat despairing that it was too late.

You obviously discovered it wasn’t too late.

I write in the book how Judaism is like a bus that circles back to pick you up. The idea proved true for me. In a way, Judaism waits for you. It is a big enterprise to take on both spiritually and structurally. I don’t think Judaism is easy. The fact that it’s demanding is part of its power and why I now understand it lasts. I think its endurance is to a great degree because of its depths and layers. You’re never finished or complete. There is always more to learn and feel. I don’t mean that in a crunchy way. I mean it in a very concrete way.

‘Judaism is like a bus that circles back to pick you up’

When I would look at a holiday like Sukkot and there is one layer of meaning that is fascinating and I pursue it for a while, and then I come upon another entire layer of meaning that is absolutely relevant and connects to the holiday but takes me a whole other direction to look at my life… In that sense I do feel like it is never too late.

You have to put a little elbow grease in. You have to put some skin in the game. It’s not going to talk back to you if you don’t start talking. But if you do, that conversation is going to pay dividends you can’t expect. Whenever you get there, Judaism will come alive for you.

Abigail Pogrebin blew the shofar in her home every morning during the Hebrew month of Elul in 2014. (Courtesy)
Abigail Pogrebin blew the shofar in her home every morning during the Hebrew month of Elul in 2014. (Courtesy)

Your journey resulted in a radical change in your level of knowledge and awareness, but not a major change in your practice. Are you satisfied with that?

I think I am still in the Jewish in-between. I am not just going back. It’s not a reset to where I was. That’s impossible. The holidays that I always observed have been deepened immeasurably and challenged indelibly, for sure. So that’s one change. In terms of saying my Jewish year is complete and I’m not adding anything — not at all. Elul for instance, the 40 days leading up to the High Holidays when you’re supposed to begin the work of introspection, is something I have continued and that is a pretty radical change, because that means frontloading atonement into the summer now every year with some kind of practice. I have put the five fast days (in addition to Yom Kippur) in my calendar now so that I know those are days not just of sobriety but also responsibility. And finally Yom HaShoah — I have added that modern day of remembrance that I don’t think has taken hold in America, but should.

You become the top lay leader at your synagogue after your exploration of the Jewish year. Not everyone — especially young liberal Jews — will want to engage through congregational life.

‘There is no question that my trajectory is a bit abnormal’

There is no question that my trajectory is a bit abnormal, but I think what is universally accessible about it is that even if one chooses to add or explore one new thing, there is this menu sitting there that is open to you that is fairly electric and exciting.

Jewish tradition and heritage is like a banquet waiting for you if you want to approach the table. You may not like the eggs, but you’ll like the French toast, or you’ll at least taste the French toast for the first time. It’s not like you have to eat the whole meal, and I am not suggesting a cafeteria-like selection of Judaism. I am saying that one new thing can lead to curiosity and electricity that makes you want to go for, learn and try more. You will never feel full, I think. And that is a rare treasure trove.

Abigail Pogrebin took this photo of Central Synagogue's Rabbi Angela Buchdahl with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Hanukkah party, 2014. (Courtesy)
Abigail Pogrebin took this photo of Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Angela Buchdahl with president Barack and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House Hanukkah party, 2014. (Courtesy)

With Judaism, it’s not that you are just sitting there as an observer, a witness standing by. It asks something of you and it actually challenges your life at this moment — wherever you are, whatever you are going through. Whether it is the holidays or the liturgy, if you look closely it is speaking to you very personally.

There are a million avenues for Jewish engagement, whether you are sitting at your computer listening to someone’s sermon, picking up a book you’ve never picked up before, or going online to see what synagogues or JCC’s in your area have organized for the holiday of the moment and you decide to go. All of those things are going to be worth your time, and they will change you.

While you had your family’s support, you basically went on this exploration alone. That must have been hard.

‘There is almost no holiday or ritual that happens alone’

In some ways I did it alone, but I was going places with a lot of people waiting for me, even if they weren’t my best friends or family. I think that’s an important takeaway from this book and journey. This holiday net does catch you. There is almost no holiday or ritual that happens alone. I think there is something very powerful about how a Jew can show up alone, but you won’t be alone. That was the case whether it was Hoshana Raba or it was Yom HaShoah. Everywhere I was, I was surrounded. Certainly on Shavuot, when you proverbially go to Sinai and study all night and there were 4,000 people there [at JCC Manhattan], that’s when the message was driven home most profoundly.

Abigail Pogrebin and her daughter Molly's first attempt at baking hamentaschen for Purim (Courtesy)
Abigail Pogrebin and her daughter Molly’s first attempt at baking hamentaschen for Purim (Courtesy)

You were already acquainted with many of the rabbis and scholars you quote in your book. Did you get to know them in a different way through interviewing them about the holidays?

I felt like every one of these interviews was a precious audience with some of the people I have been following and admiring for many years. I did feel like these conversations — even with those whom I had met before — were more intimate in a certain way. There is something quite magical about being able to call or sit with someone whom you respect and say, “Help me through this. Help me understand Shemini Atzeret in a way that I will understand it right now.” I didn’t even have to ask it quite that way. That is the incredible skill of these people. They know that the way that this is going to work is relevance. It isn’t going to work if they are just going to speak from an academic point of view. They have to make it matter. That doesn’t mean they have to be like your therapist, but without blinking an eye they all went to language and imagery that was wholly alive for me at that moment, and that was extraordinary.

Abigail Pogrebin with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Courtesy)
Abigail Pogrebin with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Courtesy)

Your “Jewish Year” was 2014-2015. The tensions that arose within the Jewish community as a result of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza the previous summer feature in your book quite a bit.

There were a few times during the holidays where the idea of Jew vs. Jew and sin’at chinam, or baseless hared, came through to me — particularly on Hanukkah and Tisha B’Av. There was so much rancor on social media about what kind of a Jew you were. And certainly it has reared its head again during the election and again now with this moment of whether we are going right or left with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. I feel like the Jewish community is at a crossroads about being one. I don’t think we are one. As soon as something as the JCC threats happen and the gravestones are overturned there is solidarity, but as soon as it’s a bit more nuanced than that, like discussion of moving the [US] embassy [to Jerusalem] or [Israeli] settlements, the rhetoric is unforgiving.

Israeli army troops operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli army troops operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The other issue which is certainly relevant is the “Who is Jewish enough?” or “Who is a real Jew?” question. When Israeli Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay says Reform Jews are not real Jews, that stays with you. That is discouraging and dispiriting for someone whose personal Judaism came to life during this holiday exploration. At the end of the day for Azoulay, I don’t count. It’s like, “Abby you can have your little journey over there, but you’re not authentic as a Jew.”

Passover is coming up. What is one of your most important takeaways about this holiday?

One of the most important new ideas that I took away for Passover is the point and power of Elijah. When I was a kid, it was always exciting to open the door to “let in the Prophet Elijah,” but I was never taught that he was the harbinger of the messiah, a better world. Whether one believes in the messiah or not, we do all hopefully believe the world can get to a kinder, more peaceful place. And this moment reminds us that it takes human agency to bring that about. I now grasp that there’s great symbolism in it being the children who usher in this prophet, because who better to learn that we all have a role to play in bringing that better world about?

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