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New Book: 'Journeys of the Jewish Spirit'
An Uncommon Collection of Essays About Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel
Below is the introduction to my new book, Journeys of the Jewish Spirit: An Uncommon An Uncommon Collection of Essays About Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel.
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I was born in 1989 to two Jewish parents. My mother is a third-generation American from Los Angeles, and my father was born to Hungarian parents in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in Los Angeles.
Growing up, we celebrated the typical Jewish holidays, and I was Bar Mitzvahed at age 13. I also attended “regular” public schools and had a healthy mix of Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Judaism was just a thing in my life, until it wasn’t.
As I developed into my teenage years, I became exponentially less Jewish. I didn’t pay much attention to my increasingly diminished Judaism and Jewishness at the time, but looking back now, some two decades later, I was essentially taught that Judaism is just another religion. Since I didn’t really live a God-centric lifestyle or otherwise feel religious, I wrote off Judaism as simply “not for me.”
Additionally, I have some criticisms about the way I was exposed to Judaism (mainly through a Reform synagogue which I attended twice per week from ages 10 to 13, and then once per week from 14 to 18). I’m not sure that textbooks and whiteboards are the most effective means to teach Judaism, although I do recall field trips to museums, building a sukkah in my friend’s backyard, and weekend retreats.
At university, from age 18, I had but one Jew-ish friend, and I stopped going to synagogue for the High Holidays. I was convinced that Judaism is an antiquated concept, and it was quickly dissolving within my young adult identity.
If you asked me back then, I’d say that I was an up-and-coming journalist, a sports fanatic, an older brother to two sisters, and a progressive-minded, soon-to-be college graduate who preferred to date non-Jewish women. “I don’t feel Jewish!” I’d proclaim to my family and Jewish friends. “It’s just not part of who I am or how I see myself living my life, now or in the future.”
Furthermore, my blossoming intellectual curiosities pulled me in all sorts of directions, including Buddhism, history, political science, sociology, psychology, and Stoicism. The modern self-help book genre was also taking off, and I found myself reading many of them. Basically, I was looking for value in every place except Judaism.
From ages 18 to 22, my mother incessantly nagged me about going on a free 10-day trip to Israel called Birthright. I was mostly dispassionate about her overtures because I was heavily invested in my budding journalism career, and a seemingly random trip halfway across the world appeared counterintuitive at the time.
Plus, I don’t recall us as a family ever talking about Israel growing up, so it seemed out of left field that my mom was pushing this trip on me.
In 2012, at the age of 23, I graduated from San Diego State University with a journalism degree, and floated the idea about signing up for Birthright to my two best friends, Adam and Justin.
A few months later, we were assigned the same trip, which was to leave from Los Angeles on January 2, 2013 — but two weeks before then, Adam and Justin both bailed, so I ended up going without them, alongside 40 other young Jews who were all strangers to me.
Almost immediately after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, I started to fall in love with Israel. The people, the culture, the rawness of a new country, the vibes, the language, the Jewishness. My senses felt like they were on steroids as I took all of it in.
Israel was, in many ways, a door into Judaism I hadn’t previously experienced: dynamic, fun, cool, diverse, compelling. Someone later remarked to me that Israel is like a Jewish Disneyland, and I couldn’t agree more! I remember being at a nightclub in Tel Aviv and thinking: Holy crap, everyone here is Jewish: the bouncer, the DJ, the bartenders, the girls dancing on stage…
The whole experience was, to say the least, intoxicating — so I decided to stay in Israel after this 10-day Birthright trip and become a dual American-Israeli citizen. That’s right, I didn’t get on the flight back to Los Angeles!
Suddenly, I began to love Judaism with great fervor. I didn’t fully acknowledge this mysterious affection at first, but finally it grew so powerful that my vague feelings crystallized into a clear idea to which I gave voice: The thought that there was only one way out of my Jewish self-doubt — namely, to return to Judaism.
When my family and friends found out about this, they shook their heads and thought that I was out of my mind. How could something that only meant an intensification and deepening of the malady be a remedy?
As an entrepreneur and “citizen of the world” with modern sensibilities, I was deeply rooted in many non-Jewish customs and philosophies — and I had absorbed ineradicable elements from the cultures among which my intellectual pursuits had taken me. How was this to be reconciled with my return to Judaism?
I started to read hundreds of books and articles, and spoke with Jews from across the world, including more than 50 conversations which I featured in a podcast called The Future of Jewish. I didn’t consider myself bound by the rigid traditional forms; I was aiming for vibrant truth. But even as I brought new motion into the rigid forms, I still observed their tradition, the refined old style of their arrangement.
When I resolved to return to the ancient fold and openly acknowledge my return, I never dreamed that on my way back home, I would also find immense gratification in using my journalism background to construct essays about Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel.
What befell me was nothing less. My journey to rediscover Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel — each with their own brilliance — inspired lofty thoughts and, ultimately, more than fifty essays which I wrote in 2022.
This book is a collection of some of those essays, but they are not just about Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel. I decided to take a much different approach than others who’ve written on these subjects, by interweaving them with disciplines such as sociology, religion, psychology, business, sports, politics, philosophy, history, and health.
Plus, hundreds of citations from ancient Jewish texts, famed philosophers, thought leaders, rabbis, academics, bestselling authors, scholars, and experts across a variety of fields.
Throughout these essays, I delve into the complexities and nuances of Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel — offering insights and perspectives on topics ranging from religious observance and spiritual practice, to the challenges and opportunities of modern Jewish life, to Zionism and the Jewish state as we know it.
I also explore diversity within Judaism, the ways in which our traditions have evolved and adapted to different historical and cultural contexts, the challenges and opportunities faced by Jews in the modern world, and how Jewish identity and practice are being shaped by contemporary cultural and political forces.
Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel are three distinct but related concepts. The relationship between them is complex and multifaceted. For many Jews, Judaism and Jewishness are closely intertwined, and the practice of Judaism is seen as an essential part of being Jewish.
For others, Jewishness may be expressed through cultural or ancestral ties, without necessarily involving religious observance. And for still others, Israel may be a source of pride and connection to the Jewish People, without necessarily being a central part of their personal religious or cultural identity.
Understanding their relationship can provide insight into the diversity and complexity of the Jewish experience, and can help us to appreciate the ways in which these concepts have shaped and been shaped by Jewish history and identity.
Whether you are a student of Jewish studies, a member of the Jewish People, or simply someone with an interest in these topics, this book is sure to provide insights and perspectives that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of them.