In 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed almost 3,500 U.S. Jews and found that a majority identify as Jewish “on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture” rather than religion. Motivated in part by these findings, journalist and former producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes Abigail Pogrebin resolved to explore what being a Jew meant to her by observing every Jewish holiday for 12 months. The year of fasting, celebration, study, and prayer changed how Pogrebin practices Judaism, as told in her new book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (Fig Tree Books, Mar.).
What surprised you the most about the 2013 Pew Research Center study?
For me, it was how many people said that their Jewish connection did not come through religion at all. That sparked a question for me: is it possible that those people are saying, “Religion, Judaism itself, isn’t why I’m a Jew, it doesn’t make me feel connected to being a Jew,” because they had not necessarily tried it, really explored it? I don’t mean that in any kind of patronizing way—I hadn’t myself. But is it because maybe we actually haven’t taken the deep dive and done, frankly, the hard work? And I do think it is hard work, but the payoff is quite magical.
Why did you decide to observe every Jewish holiday for a year?
I wanted to understand what might be deepened or enriched in my life if I didn’t pick and choose holidays but just took on the whole menu. I wanted to investigate both as a journalist and personally as a Jew, what does it mean to do it all? It was a sense of, Abby, don’t take any shortcuts and see where that path takes you. These texts and rituals have sustained for thousands of years for a reason. I wanted to understand those reasons, and also see whether they deepened and challenged my own life today. As to whether it worked, I would say it was one of the most extraordinary years of my life for sure.
As an adult learning more about Judaism, you describe the faith as a train that circles back to pick you up. Can you elaborate on this?
I felt like the train had left the station—that it was too late for me to get on it, to have the kind of fluidity that people have who grew up with it. I found that actually the tradition waits for you in a way, and when you decide that it is the moment, it’s there to speak to you, and I don’t mean that in some kind of crunchy, over-spiritual way. There were points in my life, like when I got married or when I had my first child, where suddenly there were rituals that are expected, whether you’re breaking the glass under the huppah [the wedding canopy] or naming your child during a bris or a baby-naming ceremony. I did [those things] and thought that’s just what Jews do, but that train is coming back and saying, what does this mean? Why are you choosing to do this, are you doing it blindly, are you doing it out of ignorance, or are you choosing it because it actually means something or is going to be important to your life? That to me was a revelation.
What are you hoping readers will learn from your book?
I really hope that at the very least people say to themselves, let me try one holiday I haven’t tried before. And I do think it can be a book for non-Jews—everyone I hope has a Jewish friend, or maybe someone in their family married a Jew or they are intermarried themselves. What I hope that anyone finds in this book is some answer to why there seems to be a Jewish holiday every five seconds, and also what is this heritage that has endured, what is the power of it, and what is the relevance today? I think that’s a fair question.