I’ve read quite a few books about Judaism by Jews for Jews (or potential Jews), but “Judaism: All That Matters”, by Keith Kahn-Harris, is the first book I’ve read about Judaism, by a Jewish person, aimed at non-Jews – intended as a primer for people who might not know very much about us.
I bought “Judaism: All That Matters” in late December. This wasn’t because I was grasping to connect with the Jewish basics around the spiritually fraught Christmas period, but because it was on sale for £1.49 on Kindle, and because in real life I’ve met the author and know he’s smart, eloquent and a great guy to have on your table at a pub quiz.
Recently I got to hear him speak about the difficult editorial decisions involved in creating the book – not just what to include and what to leave out, but how much to write about what, and where.
There’s a lot to cover about Jews and Judaism, particularly with a word count of 25,000, which is teeny tiny in book terms.
Kahn-Harris divided the book into nine chapters:
- “Judaism on one foot” [a reference to a well-known Talmudic story about Rabbi Hillel]
- Jewish time
- Living Jewishly
- From Diaspora to emancipation
- The Shoah and anti-Semitism today
- The state of Israel
- The Jewish people today and tomorrow
As you can see, one of the problems of writing a book about Jews-and-Judaism is how much of it is taken up with anti-Semitism – two out of nine chapters, not including the introduction and conclusion.
On one hand, it’s impossible to write about Jewish history and identity without talking significantly about anti-Semitism, which has been a formative part of Jewish experience for thousands of years. On the other hand, does using such a high proportion of a book about Jews to discuss anti-Semitism reinforce the paradigm that Judaism and Jews are mostly defined by people who hate us? That’s not healthy for any kind of culture.
Kahn-Harris lays out the different strands of anti-Semitism clearly and cleanly, from the early Christian church to modern times. He analyses without judging too much, which can sometimes be a cop-out but I think is correct here.
Kahn-Harris also writes with fairness and empathy (at least, in my opinion, who is sympathetic to both Palestinian rights and Israeli fears) about Zionism and Israel, and their effects on Israeli Jews – for whom the founding of the state of Israel is now a religious holiday – and on Palestinians – for whom the same event is known as nakba, ‘catastrophe’.
In person, Kahn-Harris implied he was slightly uncomfortable with part of the book’s structure. The chapter on the Shoah (Holocaust) is immediately followed by the chapter on the state of Israel. This makes sense chronologically, as the state of Israel was founded in 1948. But it also reinforces the common, incorrect perception that creation of the state of Israel was a direct result of the Shoah – that the Allied European nations felt so bad about the genocide of six million Jews that they ‘gave’ us Israel to try to make up for it. This feeds into one problem around the conflict in the region today: the impression that Israel is a European problem dumped on the lap of the Palestinians.
In fact, of course, Jews have been living in historic Palestine continuously since the Roman province of Judea and before, and Zionism was a significant political movement from the late 19th century, not an ad hoc post-WWII gesture. Kahn-Harris addresses this in the book, but as he acknowledged when we spoke about it, it doesn’t entirely avoid giving this implication.
What I’d really love to see someday is an overview of Jewish history that puts Zionism and the state of Israel in a chapter before the one on the Shoah – placing the founding of the Jewish state, and all its attendant problems and successes, in the context of 19th-century Zionism where I think it really belongs. But that’s a fairly minor quibble and again I think Kahn-Harris addresses the problem as best as he can within the limitations of his wordcount.
…And the synagogue neither of us would be seen dead in
Where I think “Judaism: All That Matters” is best is communicating the spirit of Jewishness through other ways than dry facts. Kahn-Harris uses incidental trivia and especially jokes to illuminate parts of Jewish culture and society you can’t get on Wikipedia. When he spoke about the book, he mentioned his belief that jokes a group tells each other is one of the best ways to grasp its essentials, especially the unspoken ones. After reading it, I agree: I might recommend buying it for the lightbulb jokes alone.
Covering Jewish religion, practice, culture and experience in 25,000 words is a terrifying prospect, but if someone had to do it, I’m glad it was Kahn-Harris. Of course there are some things left out, but I can’t think of a major topic or issue that was unaddressed. Religious practice was given short shrift compared with culture and history, but you can look up what Jews do on Yom Kippur in five seconds on Google – it’s much harder to find a thoughtful, trustworthy 300-word analysis of post-Enlightenment European Jewish assimilation.
“Judaism: All That Matters” is concise and clear without being dumb or over-simplified. That’s harder than it looks and for relative newcomers to Judaism and Jewishness, it’s a very good place to start.
If you’re interested in learning more, I’d follow “Judaism: All That Matters” with “Essential Judaism” by George Robinson (Pocket Books, 2001, 672pp). Robinson’s book goes into depth in a lot of areas Kahn-Harris doesn’t have room to touch on, and the editorial voices have a similar clarity and fair-mindedness. That said, for current affairs Kahn-Harris is much superior. In many places Kahn-Harris captures the nut of an issue or a debate much more clearly and thoughtfully than Robinson. Part of this is because Robinson’s book was published 11 years before Kahn-Harris’s (2001 vs 2012) – an eon in Middle Eastern politics.