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Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 1999 / 21 Teves, 5760

Robert Leiter

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'The Way of a Pilgrim'
for the 90s

IN J.D. SALINGER'S famous pair of intertwined stories, Franny and Zooey, Franny Glass, the youngest of that precocious brood of half-Jewish, half-Irish children, is suffering through an intense emotional and religious crisis. Camped out on the living room sofa, she does little more than hold fast to a small volume called The Way of a Pilgrim, at times reciting -- not even all that audibly -- what is described as the "Jesus Prayer." Her older brother, Zooey, does eventually appear in story two to help lift the pall that has descended upon her.

What is important here is that little book and the prayer and the deep, sometimes untoward influence that Salinger and his fiction had on people in the late '50s and '60s. The author didn't make up The Way of the Pilgrim or the prayer; they both exist, and any number of Jewish kids set off on their own religious quests, clutching copies of The Way of the Pilgrim or Siddharta -- anything, in fact, that took them as far as possible from Judaism, both in a geographical and spiritual sense.


But it seems that the tables have turned in the late '90s, and we Jews now have a little book of our own that with any luck young people will hold fast to as they set out on their religious quests. Jewish Matters is a collection of essays compiled by Doron Kornbluth and jointly published by Targum in Israel and Feldheim here. While it can fit into the palm of your hand or the pocket of a coat, and will take up even less space in a backpack, the scope of its ideas could fill multitudes.

The book is divided into three sections -- Our People, Our Life and Our G-d -- and in each section the basic principles of Judaism are laid out, whether it is the matter of chosenness or the centrality of Torah or the ethical basis of kashrut. In his introduction, Kornbluth writes: "It has been said that more Jews know who Jesus' mother was than Moses' mother. While the comparison is a little unfair (Mary is more central to Christianity than Yocheved is to Judaism), the point is still valid" -- and may be even more applicable to the generation that came of age 30 years ago.

Kornbluth admonishes us to know more. "Being Jewish is a wonderful inheritance," he writes. "Jews today from across the spectrum of religious practice are looking to know more about their heritage. It is our hope that with this book we will begin to discover what has truly been ours."

TrakdataThe book is filled with insights, even for those who have read widely in Jewish texts. In an essay called "Word Perfect," Ken Spiro, a senior researcher and lecturer at Aish HaTorah's Discovery seminars in Jerusalem, points out that many of the characteristics we treasure in democratic societies -- respect for life; peace and harmony between nations; justice and equality under the law; accessible education for all; family stability; and social responsibility -- were never attributes of the ancient worlds of Greece -- where Western-style democracy began -- or Rome. Rather, they were the bedrock upon which Jewish life was built.

"The mission of the Jewish people over the last 3,300 years," Spiro writes, "has been to make this concept of ethical monotheism the universal vision of all humanity. This is the Jewish role in history and the essence of the concept of the Chosen People -- a people chosen for the responsibility of teaching the world about one God and absolute morality."

In the essay on kashrut, appropriately titled "Brain Food," Mordechai Becher, a chaplain in the Israel Defense Force Reserves and a senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah in Jerusalem, offers a telling anecdote underscoring his point that the dietary laws are basically about self-control and discipline.

He reminds us that most people dread being stuck in the check-out line at the supermarket because their kids tend to scream and wail for any taste of the sweet treats that surround them at every angles. He then offers a true story.

"I moved with my family from Israel to Toronto for a four-year stay and in the first week was waiting in line at the supermarket with one of my children. He asked me for a chocolate bar. I looked at the bar and told him it was not kosher. He was silent, accepting the decision without tantrums, threats, tears or hysteria. It struck me then that my five-year-old, who has been brought up with the laws of kashrut, had more self-control than the million of adults in the Western world. How many people accept no as an answer in denial of a pleasure that they want now?"

If only this very portable paperback had existed in the '60s. How many protracted searches for the "light of Truth" might have been shortened or avoided completely.

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Contact the author by clicking here.


©1999, Robert Leitern