We love "how-to" manuals. A first level search on Amazon under the "self-help" genre returns over 330,000 hits. That's a lot of self-helping. Jewish self-help is big, too. Back in 1964, Dan Greenburg wrote a little book called, How to be a Jewish Mother, which was a huge hit. It was actually turned into a Broadway musical, which wasn't as much of a big hit, but that's ok, darling, at least they tried.
There are books on how to be Jewish mother, how to raise a Jewish child, and even how to raise a Jewish dog. (No word on raising Jewish cats—cat owners, do you want to suggest why?) We have books on how to be a Jewish son, and I'm absolutely sure there's a book out there about how to be a Jewish daughter, though it didn't come up in a search. There are also shelf-loads of books on how to be a Jew. Starting with the "Jewish Catalog" series in the 70's, all the way through to this year's Do It Yourself Haggadah for Passover, we Jews turn to a book to learn how to do something.
Of course, the mother of all "How to" books is the one we're coming to the end of in the Torah cycle—Leviticus. It's a manual from the first to the last, with a few narratives thrown in between. The detail is incredible. It's mesmerizing and enlightening if one has the time, patience and guidance to get into it. It's flat-out mind-boggling and inaccessible, if you one doesn't. Without the inclination to delve into the nuances of its wisdom, Leviticus can seem gross (lots of blood), repetitive (obvious), elitist (all about the priestly class, you know) and presumes a level of knowledge and awareness that the casual reader certainly may not have. So, all the information may be there, but it's not easy to experience, especially all by oneself.
Leviticus may be a go-to manual if you're a Kohen, but is there a manual for how to be a modern Jewish adult? Not a daughter or son, not a wife or mother, not a husband or father. And not the "now I'm a Jewish adult" bar/bat mitzvah kind of adult. A real life, paying bills (hopefully!), deciding how to spend time and money kind of adult. How do you actually learn to be who you want to be now as a Jew? How do you begin to define yourself, separate from your family, in some kind of Jewish way, and more to the point, is "Jewish" even going to be part of your identity vocabulary?
Emor, one of the portions in the Jewish manual "Leviticus", has a suggestion. When you buy a calendar, put down these dates: Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. They encompass a full year's experiences of Jewish living - they hit all the big ideas. Creation. Exodus. Mt. Sinai. Harvest time. Get connected to the Earth, to the idea of personal and national freedom of oppression, wherever it rears its ugly head. Get connected to the idea of hearing voices from the past, and adding yours to the chorus. Get these in your calendar, and then do something about them when they come around. How? Well, all the books in the world, including the Torah, aren't going to teach you what kind of Jew you want to be. The only way to do that is to experience Jewish experiences, however you define them. Look around-it's a big town, with lots of people, organizations, and opportunities to "do" Jewish. Try some.
Nothing's written in stone, so to speak. Actually, we all change our Jewish selves throughout our whole lives, so I don't think anything is written in stone for any of us. We Jews have a tradition of, well - taking tradition and making it relevant. We all need to keep finding, creating, dismissing, discarding, re-inventing Jewish experiences all the time. Dig in, try something, and see if it's meaningful. As with other parts of life, like careers, decorating style, and companions, we explore, experiment, and try on ideas until we find the right fit, and then it clicks. Then, you've got a real relationship to deepen and explore, and that's when the fun begins.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.