Taking a different approach to understanding Jewish holidays

Taking a different approach to understanding Jewish holidays

Jewish commemoration of holidays is explored in a series of essays in the form of letters to the author’s daughter, Leah. The main questions the book explores are: Why be Jewish? Why does it matter? And what role do all of the holidays and related customs play in modern life?
The title of the book refers to a passage derived from Ecclesiastes, and Sarna uses it to illustrate how Jews ascribe meaning to their days while marking the passage of time with rites and customs connected to Jewish celebrations. In each chapter addressed to his daughter, Sarna discusses the Jewish holidays in detail, including the meaning and evolution of these holidays. Sarna refers to the Jewish calendar to discuss modern issues facing American Jews today. For example, he highlights Chanuka to focus on assimilation, discusses anti-Semitism in the context of Tisha B’Av, and the environment in the context of Tu B’Shevat.
The author brings in some personal history, such as how the meaning of Rosh Hashana was transformed for him the year he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He also laments the decline of the world Jewish population due to intermarriage and other reasons with startling facts:
More than 60 years after the Holocaust, the worldwide Jewish population still has not recovered. Where once there were 18 million Jews worldwide, now there are only about 13 million. Outside of Israel, only 1.2 of every thousand people in the world is Jewish, probably the smallest percentage of the world that we have been in more than two thousand years. We are — let’s face it — a tiny drop in the world’s bucket. Our numbers are less than the statistical error in the Chinese census.
Sarna concludes that one’s commitment to Judaism comes down to personal choice — he hopes his daughter (and by extension, the reading audience) makes the ones that ensure the perpetuation of the Jewish people.
The award-winning author clearly has an expertise in Jewish history and an intense feeling for Judaism. The book is not preachy, it is introspective, well constructed and an easy but thought-provoking read.

(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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