Cover Image: Why Be Jewish?

Why Be Jewish?

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Member Reviews

The Bronfman name carries a lot of weight in the Jewish world. Scions of the Seagram’s brand, that’s lots of ginger ale sloshing around for a number of decades.

Shortly before his death in 2013, patriarch Edgar M. Bronfman finished WHY BE JEWISH?, essentially a letter to young people defending the value of a connection to the Jewish world.

For a guy who lived an elite life, Bronfman is remarkably relatable in explaining how strict religious observance can—and sometimes should—be subordinate to cultural values in the development of a Jewish identity.

“In sum, Judaism is not concerned with saving souls for heaven, but with saving lives on earth,” he writes. “The history of Judaism is that secular science and sacred values are allies.”

Bronfman offers an inspiring take on how Judaism’s core principles offer a roadmap to a decent modern life. The power of these principles underpins a vibrant connection between millions of Jews, who live different lives yet feel a strong association with one another. 

Rather than being exclusionary, that shared sense of identity is evidence of Judaism’s unifying power in a fractured era. 

“Judaism does not demand belief. Instead, it asks us to practice intense behaviors whose purpose is to perfect ourselves and the world.” 

Any generation can get on board with that. Bronfman urges us to remember that for some, the Jewish community is an excellent foundation for pursuing this imperative.
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Why be Jewish? Well that’s the question, isn’t it? And it’s one Edgar Bronfman explored in depth, by sharing his own journey and life with Judaism, and the deep love he had for the religion. I read this book without knowing that Mr. Bronfman had completed it within only weeks before his death in 2013, so reviewing it now brings many thoughts of my own regarding my own relationship to Judaism, but especially to how I felt when reading his book. It was very emotional and awe-inspiring for me.
 “Why Be Jewish?” Is a book of reflection and an exploration of what it means to experience faith in oneself and a higher power, no matter who that higher power is. Edgar Bronfman wrote from his life, his heart, and detailed such a compelling reason to be Jewish. I highly recommend this book.
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This book started off solid and appealed to me as a BIPOC secular Jew. I look for ways to incorporate Judaism into my life, but it's hard to separate the cultural values from the religious beliefs. Plus, people that look like me aren't often welcomed into the fold, or at the very least are questioned. It's a wonder I care at all, but for whatever reason I do, and so Bronfman's secular approach was very appealing. In the beginning, I found myself really loving what he had to say and wanting for there to be an intellectual and enriching discussion around the very topics he brought up. And yet, as I read further, the tone started to grate on me a little bit as he started to sound more and more desperate to get people to embrace their Judaism. It must have been great for him to have the time and means to dedicate himself to study and to involve his children, but he and his family are also extremely wealthy, so there is that level of privilege that allowed him to pursue this to the extent that he did. The latter part of the book lost me as he delved into retelling parts of Jewish texts. If I wanted to read them, I would. I'm not sure why I needed his particular take or interpretation, except that he had access to scholars and the likes that I never would. Ultimately, I think this book shines when it's focused around Bronfman's personal journey as he explores various degrees of participation within his Jewishness. It falls flat when he tries to teach because each person's journey is going to come about in its own way. He led the horse to water, but it's up to the horse to drink. Or not.
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This book is amazing in the respect that it does not tell readers they have to be religious in order to embrace the traditions and historical connections to Judaism. I loved the way the author incorporated his own story into the work without making it a memoir as such. This book drew me in and didn't let me go even afer finishing it.

If you are a Jew that has struggled to understand your place within Judaism as a whole, this book may very well have the answers you have been looking for. I am always skeptical at the beginning of books with titles such as this one, but within the first few pages, the author had me convinced that continuing this reading journey with him would be worth the time. I am pleased to say that it truly was.

This is the kind of book that encourages some soul searching and deep thinking. I felt that by the end I had a better understanding of my own thoughts and feelings regarding Jewish life and it made me realise that I was not alone in my fears and curiosity.

If you have questions and want answers, you can't go wrong with this book.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher, provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
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A thoughtful exploration into what it means to be Jewish even for those who have drifted away from the more religious practices of Judaism.
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An interesting walk through the tenets and beliefs of the Jewish faith with historical backing from the texts which illicits deeper meaning for the reader/student. Beautiful and contemplative.
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Bronfman, just before his passing, brings his lifelong questions and studies to the table in this book. When I first agreed to review this work, I had expected an argument for the Jewish faith. When I opened the ARC to read the material, I was surprised to find that, in this book, Bronfman does not argue for the Jewish faith, but rather for the Jewish life. In his opinion, Judaism can be lived in a secular fashion, incorporating the value system and questioning that pilpul and drash foster. Through his work, the reader is led to see the value of the Jewish history and lifestyle, even apart from ethical monotheism.

While he asserts that a Jewish lifestyle is possible without belief, I disagree with his notion on two fronts. First, the Jewish lifestyle is a result of the Jewish faith. HaShem instructs us on mitzvot, not as a means to bless Him or move Him to action, but as a means of changing our own humanity to be more like Him. Additionally, the Jewish culture that exists today would not have been possible if not for HaShem’s protective hand over the Jewish people. Avram believed and became Avraham; via Avraham all Jews can identify their own familial lineage and history. 

Being Jewish is not just about secularism with Jewish thought and practice - being Jewish requires not just action, but faith as well, living the 13 principles of the faith. Bronfman has an excellent grasp on most of what it means to be Jewish, but in his pursuit of the secular, he misses the point altogether. 

Disclosure: I have received a reviewer copy and/or payment in exchange for an honest review of the product mentioned in this post.
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