cover image THE NEW RABBI: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader

THE NEW RABBI: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader

Stephen M. Fried, . . Bantam, $25.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-553-80103-3

This inside portrait of Conservative Judaism, the largest American Jewish denomination, reads like a novel fueled by a simple yet dramatic plot: Who will become the next rabbi of Har Zion—a powerful 1,400-family Philadelphia synagogue—upon the retirement of Gerald Wolpe, its vibrant spiritual leader of 30 years? Fried draws on his resourcefulness as an investigative journalist to gain access to the usually closed, juicy inner workings of the search process, delivered in a fond spirit that nevertheless has a potentially embarrassing, spill-the-beans quality for some of the players. He opens a door on the private details of a rabbi's life, based on the "unprecedented access" Wolpe granted him. The idea for the book was born upon the death of Fried's father; Fried began attending services to recite the kaddish, the mourner's prayer. He also began taking notes, compelled by the dearth of journalistic accounts of the "lives of American Jews as Jews." What results is a compelling triple memoir, simultaneously recording Wolpe's career, Fried's own journey toward Judaism and a community's evolution. In his crisp yet easy style, Fried chats about the basics of Judaism without heavy explanations that might have deadened the narrative: Yom Kippur is the "April 15th of Judaism"; a citron resembles a "lemon on steroids." Nothing escapes his wry observations, from bar mitzvah yarmulkes to rabbinic conventions. Fried's intensely personal yet broadly detailed perspective should interest both Jewish and non-Jewish readers who are curious about what really goes on behind the lectern. (Aug. 20)