First Graf: The Jewish Catalog

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WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE COUNTER-CULTURAL agents of the 1960s (re)discovered their Yiddishkeit (Jewishness)? A trio of them (and many others) produced the now-classic The Jewish Catalog: a do-it-yourself kit.

As the subtitle implies, the book is chock-full of homemade ways to “do Jewish,” from making your own challah, tying and laying tefillin, navigating a siddur (prayerbook) or the Torah, burying someone with dignity, mystically understanding Shabbat, navigating the “Jewish Establishment” and much much more. Published in 1973 (and serially reprinted since then), it spoke to the nascent anti-authoritarian paradigm of “ethnic pride” and “finding your roots” that was then sweeping the United States. It features articles from such luminaries as Rabbi Zalman Schachter (founder of the Jewish Renewal movement) to Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, and sparked a communal yearning for authenticity and connectedness that still resonates today. The lavishly illustrated book spawned two sequels and is still relevant to anyone seeking to jump into the sea of Judaism:

Perhaps the most difficult question we have been asked in the course of compiling this catalog has been, “What exactly is it?” Having realized quite early that there are no preexisting categories which would adequately satisfy this compulsion for definition, our rather vague response was generally, “It’s a compendium of tools and resources for use in Jewish education and Jewish living in the fullest sense of these terms.” Traditional Jewish compilations did not seem overly concerned with definitional precision or rigidity. To the extent that they were records and guides to life, they were wide-ranging and multifaceted. Thus, the Talmud interweaves stories and anecdotes with legalistic debate; the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah includes a recipe for haroset; the Shulhan Aruch lists customs, variations, and kavvanot (intentions) along with ritual and legal prescriptions; and the Siddur Kol Bo (“the prayer book with everything in it”) has alphabets, diagrams for tying tefillin, calendars, and even pictures of fruit juxtaposed with the traditional order of prayers. Not to be presumptuous, this catalog takes these earlier texts as models for its breadth, variations, uncategorizability, and necessary incompleteness.

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