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Author chronicles her 'Jewish year'

Abigail Pogrebin's journey through the Jewish calendar—and the lessons she learned along the way

AbigailPogrebin image
Abigail Pogrebin. Photo credit: Lorin Klaris.

A decade ago, author and journalist Abigail Pogrebin interviewed prominent Jews for her first book, Stars of David, about what being Jewish means to them.

During her research, Pogrebin talked to celebrities like Nora Ephron, Steven Spielberg, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By the time the book was finished, Pogrebin realized she had posed questions of Jewish identity to everyone, it seemed--except herself.

That changed with her latest book. Her quest to reflect on her own Jewish identity sparked the 2017 book My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (Fig Tree Books LLC), her exploration of the Jewish holidays. She will share her journey at two JUF congregational events in Glencoe in April.

Growing up and into her adult life, Pogrebin--the daughter of famed Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin--celebrated the "big" Jewish holidays, and was familiar with the broad strokes of Judaism, but sensed huge gaps in her Jewish knowledge.

At her son's bris, she asked herself if she really grasped the significance of the ancient Jewish ritual or, rather, were she and her husband just "checking the box" of what new Jewish parents are supposed to do. "I was aware that there was architecture to the Jewish year that I really couldn't explain," Pogrebin said. "It bothered me because I don't like when I don't know, but also because I could sense more and more that [Jewish literacy] defined the structure of Jewish connection.

So, she became a Jewish "study addict," auditing Jewish courses, getting more involved with her synagogue, and studying Torah with a local rabbi. 

But she still wanted to dive deeper into Jewish learning, so she set out on a yearlong expedition to observe 18 holidays on the Jewish calendar--including six fasts. She chronicled her journey in a 12-month series in The Forward , which she later expanded into the book My Jewish Year.

One of her favorite holidays, perhaps surprisingly, is Yom Kippur. "[The holiday examines] what it means to get another year, another day," she said. "That's not a given for any of us. How lucky we are to be blessed with another breath and more of this incredible world. What are we going to do with that time?"

Pogrebin is a big fan of the upcoming Passover holiday, too. She plans to spend the first Seder with her husband's family, who live in the Chicago area. The second Seder, she will host at her Manhattan home as she does every year, alongside her husband, two young adult children, and other family and friends.

All Jewish holidays, she said, share a few common threads-a sense of mindfulness, obligation, gratitude, and community. Throughout her year of observance, she learned the virtue of taking a respite from the daily routine. "The calendar slows you down in a way that is not only beautiful but crucial," she said. "It's telling you that in the craziness of your life, you need to stop once a week on Shabbat and on the holidays."

Now that her expedition is over, do Jewish questions still "tug" at Pogrebin? Of course, she said; after all, questioning is the Jewish way. "Being Jewish is to be tugged, but you close one dam and another one opens. I'll never be done [learning] and I have the humility and honesty [to recognize] what I'll never [fully] understand."

These days, she channels her thirst for Jewish exploration through her synagogue involvement, which she sees as her home away from home. She also co-hosts Tablet Magazine's "Parsha in Progress" with her friend, Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Chovevei, an Orthodox rabbinical school based in New York. On the podcast, they wrestle with the weekly Torah portion. Though the two differ on observance level, they share a love for Jewish wisdom.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson her journey instilled in her was that the Jewish calendar juxtaposes the two extremes of joy and grief. For instance, not long after her father-in-law passed away, she recalled saying Kaddish for him, followed immediately by attending a Purim Schpiel , a festive and comical Purim play. 

"We revel and weep in the same moment…that whiplash is actually what life is," she said. "We don't get to pick the sequence of our highs and lows--they often come at the same time or unexpectedly. Judaism is training so we're not so thrown by them." 

Abigail Pogrebin will speak at two JUF events this month. First, she will appear at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe on Monday, April 8. Then, she'll speak on Monday, April 29 at Am Shalom in Glencoe. Guests are welcome, but reservations are required in advance. For more information, contact Sandi Kaplan at (312) 444-2841  

"I was aware that there was architecture to the Jewish year that I really couldn't explain. It bothered me because I don't like when I don't know, but also because I could sense more and more that [Jewish literacy] defined the structure of Jewish connection. "

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