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A Chat With Author Paul Wilkes - And They Shall Be My People

I speak by phone with author Paul Wilkes 1/6/03 (his 1994 book was And They Shall Be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation).

Booklist says: Wilkes, an award-winning writer and a Catholic, spent one year with Jay Rosenbaum, the 42-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in an upper-middle-class community in Worcester, Massachusetts. Wilkes followed Rabbi Rosenbaum on his daily rounds--leading the services, performing weddings and conducting funerals, teaching children, and counseling couples. Wilkes interviewed the rabbi, the rabbi's wife, and some of the synagogue members. The rabbi had been at Beth Israel for six years, had started many new programs, and had begun to reverse the demographic trend, attracting younger families into what had been an aging synagogue. But he wanted his people to live more intensely Jewish lives. Consequently, the book explores the complex question, What is the place of the Jewish religion in today's lifestyle? In seeking the answer, Wilkes has written an important book, focusing on a religion at a perilous juncture in time.

From Kirkus Reviews: Sometimes perceptive scenes from the life of a rabbi, as observed through the eyes of a Catholic journalist. Both uneasy hybrids, rabbi and book seek the spiritual but often bog down in the mundane. Wilkes, whose In Mysterious Ways (1990) profiled a parish priest who was stricken with cancer, here attaches himself to Jay Rosenbaum, the 42-year-old rabbi of a midsize Conservative synagogue in Worcester, Mass., who is himself the son of a pulpit rabbi. How does a rabbi stem the Jewish tide of assimilation and indifference in a society where his people have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams? Wilkes has remarkable access to Rosenbaum's long days--not all parts of which are so interesting for a man who is both the synagogue's spiritual leader and chief bottle washer--and we are privy to the rabbi as he counsels noncongregants who want to raise their baby as a Jew even though the expectant mother has no desire to convert to Judaism; leads an acculturation class for Russian immigrants, where sometimes only one or two pupils show up; officiates at a ritual circumcision of the son of marginally observant Jews; visits a congregant who is dying of Alzheimer's; hustles to get congregants to join a trip to Israel that he's leading; tells a tale about a Hebrew-speaking parakeet to the Jewish day school's nursery school class; and haggles with the synagogue's board of directors over a new contract. Several congregants confide to Wilkes that the rabbi is unknowable; to the reader he appears under-appreciated, very caring and very frustrated, but also naive and presumptuous in his desire to make his congregants observant Jews. His wife, overweight and depressed, briefly confides her unhappiness with never seeing her husband; more from this insightful rebbitzen would have been welcome. Wilkes follows the rabbi on the congregational tour of Israel, but it's a choppy, pretty banal travelogue. Also annoying is his sometimes wide-eyed appreciation of his subject as evinced by his references to Rosenbaum as a Moses and as the person charged with the care of his congregants' souls. More respectful reportage than rigorous analysis, Wilkes's latest effort begs the question: If, as statistics proffered here suggest, two-thirds of American Jews today are not affiliated with a synagogue, who's going to buy a book on the nuts and bolts of a rabbi's world?

J3fer writes on Amazon.com: "I can't even begin to imagine the extent of the research Wilkes must have done, but he's managed to get every detail of this book exactly right... you find yourself forgetting it's not written by a Jew. There are many touching moments in this book, particularly when Wilkes focuses on the rabbi's chaotic family life and the sacrifices which, he fears, will all amount to nothing."

From Newsday 11/22/94: Both the strengths and weaknesses of the book result from this outsider's view. Wilkes is sensitive to issues of faith that occupy the clergy of all religions. But at times his unfamiliarity with Jewish history and ritual lead him to some real bloopers. This is especially true in the section on Israel, where he seems to take what he hears at face value - such as the statement that before 1967 Jews had been denied access to the Western Wall for centuries, when in actuality it was during the 19 year from 1948 to 1967 that Jews could not pray there. Despite these failings, this is a strong and honest book, and finishing it one can't help but admire Rosenbaum, his long-suffering wife and a patient and observant author for embarking on this journey. If during the course of reading the book I found myself wishing for something more, it would be for someone to write a novel about a rabbi that lived up to the promise of Paul Wilkes' "Temptations."

Northern California Jewish Bulletin 2/10/95: Rosenbaum is the center of this fascinating book, and Wilkes allots his voice extraordinary space. He's worth every paragraph; his literate musings and sermons address head-on the joy and conflict of Judaism.

"He was at once an informed, modern scholar capable of giving an interesting, contemporary exegesis of ancient truths and a beleaguered Old Testament figure, gnashing his teeth about the inability of his people to embrace and live out those truths," Wilkes writes.

A six-year veteran of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Rosenbaum is "loved and respected by virtually all his people," a community leader, "an exemplary Jew." Considering the number of congregants who were qualified Torah readers and kept kosher homes, he is a success "by any rabbinical measurement."

The battle to make Beth Israel congregants "hear the voice of God" is the primary conflict behind And They Shall Be My People -- though plenty of others arise. Wilkes discusses the synagogue's turf wars with the federation and Rosenbaum's battles over salary and vacation days with the congregation president. He gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of ubiquitous life-cycle events, describing the preparation that a rabbi puts into a funeral, a brit, a get [divorce ceremony].

Wilkes disguises the identities of only a handful of sources, and his access to all is astounding: bedroom conversations, closed-door meetings, temple members speaking of their feelings about faith, the rabbi and each other. The rabbi's wife, Janine, is particularly candid about the vagaries of life as a rebbitzen.

"Sometimes the congregation acts as if they own both of us," she says. She unleashes a wave of frustration when asked about religion, talking wistfully about going from house to house on Shabbat as a child in Seattle. "But then you are the rabbi's wife... What you did before out of conviction and a pure desire becomes expected of you.

"Our Shabbat routine? Ha! We don't have one. We don't rest. Jay is exhausted; We eat, he naps, and he goes back to shul. How am I going to say this? Being the rabbi's wife has sadly bled religion out of me."

Yet Rosenbaum has other worries. While nearly all accord him honor, plenty of criticism goes his way. Rosenbaum tries to overlook the ceaseless grumbling and myriad obstacles. He is sustained by intermittent small victories: a wildly successful Purim event, a joyous wedding for 11 Russian couples, a hard-to-plan Israel trip that finally happens.

Chaim Potok, Legitimate Voyeurism, Forward, 11-04-1994:

"What is my dream?" Rabbi Rosenbaum says to the author. "Here it is: if Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts, ever became a truly observant community -- just this one synagogue, it would change the face of Conservative Judaism in this country. And that's what we have to aim for -- what I have to aim for. Nothing less."

Despite his clear successes with many of the synagogue's programs, the rabbi gives voice to incessant frustration. He finds in his people no passion for observance. He is not alone in that ocean of discontent.

One of the most troubled individuals in the book is Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary whom the author met at the annual national convention of Conservative rabbis. Responding to the question of what went wrong, Rabbi Gillman states, "Conservative Judaism got very satisfied with...all the fine buildings we had the money to construct, but along the way, God got locked out of the synagogue....We never taught them that God listens when they pray....The Orthodox have community, the Reform go to the mall....We're in the middle....And the Conservative movement did a remarkable thing, marrying the best of the tradition and the best of what needed to change....But, internally, we stopped growing. And our rabbis are out there, feeling very lonely and isolated, wondering what to do next."

In this book, what Rabbi Rosenbaum wants to do next is take about 30 members of his congregation to Israel. He hopes that Israel will somehow spark them into becoming the nucleus for the religious revival of the entire congregation. Mr. Wilkes dexterously threads the preparations for this trip into his narrative, providing effective scaffolding for what might otherwise have been a less dramatic book. And his account of the trip -- he accompanied the group -- is an extended piece of serious reporting on the inner dynamics of complacent people caught up in confrontations with their history and their own selves.

Instead of the hoped-for transforming miracle in Israel, a land more secular than America, Rabbi Rosenbaum experiences errors in scheduling, a grating jingoistic Israeli tour guide, complaints about food and hotel rooms and only fleeting epiphanies on the part of a few. He seems not to realize that when Israel effects a dramatic personal change, the flowering will not last long if there is no passionate seedbed back home to nurture it. The Israel trip changes little in the life of his congregation.

We leave Rabbi Rosenbaum wondering about his future and the Beth Israel board of directors mired in meetings about budgets and deficits. And we come away from this book and the Cassandra words of Rabbi Gillman with a disheartening sense of the Conservative movement in disarray and possibly fading into history: its seminary, a once great academy of Jewish learning that produced a number of noted pulpit rabbis and Jewish studies scholars for secular universities, now little more than a good professional school for rabbis; the movement itself an uncertain association of independent synagogues, some wealthy, others struggling, a few with exceptional educational programs, most of them devoid of a Jewish intellectual class and run in the main by service professionals and burghers, who tend to be religiously shallow, shy away from a Judaism of fervor, day schools and intensive Jewish education and are preoccupied with budgets and immediate performance, like corporate executives fixated on the quarterly statement.

The debate about what caused the sudden winking out of the postwar American Jewish renaissance, and whether there is any possibility of a future renewal, still goes on. This book contributes worthily albeit bleakly to that debate.

From the Inside Flap of the book And They Shall Be My People:

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is devoted to his congregation of mostly middle- and upper-middle-class Conservative Jews--yet their tepid observance frustrates and saddens him. The rabbi's sometimes troubled, sometimes joyful leadership of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts, is the focus of this timely, eloquent, and often moving book. Written by award-winning author Paul Wilkes, And They Shall Be My People presents a complex and human portrait of American Judaism at a critical juncture in time.

For Rabbi Rosenbaum, it is a time of new perils and persistent hope. American Judaism, he believes, has in some sense become a victim of its own considerable success. Now, with the struggle for economic security well behind most American Jews and with anti-Semitism on the wane, the health of the Jewish community is threatened by the easy seductiveness of the secular, mainstream American culture surrounding it. Daily, the rabbi confronts this new, complex challenge to his people's spirituality: How to be a people, a Jewish community, and still be Americans?

As a man of tradition, the rabbi believes deeply that conforming to the expectations of the secular world--higher attendance figures, a larger budget--is the wrong way to strengthen his congregation. He knows he must somehow show his congregation the riches and fulfillment of an observant Jewish life. But even the efforts he makes--taking special care to keep his weekly Shabbat sermons both contemporary and spiritually compelling and bringing a sincere sensitivity to the recurring life-cycle events, the Brit Milah, bar mitzvahs, marriages, and funerals, which mark and shape all Jewish lives--may not be enough to overcome the temptations his congregation confronts daily.

And They Shall Be My People chronicles the rabbi's dream of taking twenty-five of his congregants on a pilgrimage to Israel. There, he hopes, his fellow Jews will be inspired by the palpable history of the Jewish experience, the observant life made accessible by a society living more closely to its religious roots. The book helps us understand why Rabbi Rosenbaum so firmly believes that this experience will inspire his companions, and in turn the larger congregation back home, to renewed faith. And it allows us to see the rabbi in his daily life and work, to glimpse the myriad ways his faith and his role in the congregation shape his own life, his family relationships, and his congregation-providing joy in life, solace in death, a sense of spiritual identity, guidance in matters moral and practical.

...........

I tell Paul Wilkes about Stephen Fried's new book A New Rabbi.

Paul: "I'm glad it's doing well and I'm glad there's another one out."

Luke: "Stephen didn't see the resemblance with your book. He read your book and liked it. But he pointed out that you were different because you weren't Jewish. I think that has nothing to do with the book. You capture Jewish life with telling detail. Did you get that response?"

Paul: "Interesting that you would mention that because that did have something to do with some of the reception of the book. I gave a talk at the Jewish Theological Seminary after it came out and I was afforded a 12-minute at a lunch hour, while everyone was opening their brown bag lunches. I don't think it was taken kindly that I wasn't Jewish."

Luke, amazed: "It wasn't."

Paul: "It was taken as if I were an outsider taking potshots at Jewish life and of course that's not what I do. I try to do be as good as journalist as I can be and tell the story. I'm Roman Catholic and I write a lot about the Catholic church. I just had a piece in the New Yorker a couple of months ago about a parish priest in Boston. It was a warts and all portrait. I'm critical of my own church as well as Judaism, if there's something to be critical about. Yes, I think there was resentment that a non-Jew would write about Jews."

Luke: "It blows me away."

Paul: "Within the Jewish community in America, there's always that feeling that a slight or epithet is just one comment or in the back of people's mind. There's a wariness of the non-Jew, that you won't understand what we go through. Of course you as a journalist and I as a journalist realize that if you are open to the experience, you can indeed come into the center of a story. I virtually lived as a Jew for a year. I wore a kipa all the time when I was with the rabbi. I went to Israel with him. I did a lot of reading on it. By the end of the year, I knew more about Judaism than 95% of my Jewish friends. Just by being there, not because I'm so smart."

Luke: "I loved your book. I couldn't put it down. I went right through it. You captured all the nuances of Jewish life and I don't think it matters a damn that you are not Jewish."

Paul: "I didn't feel it mattered either but that's ok. I'm a big boy. I can take it."

Luke: "Were you invited by other Jewish organizations?"

Paul: "Oh yeah. I gave a lot of talks after the book came out. I was certainly not invited to the rabbinical convention, the one that I wrote about."

Luke: "They didn't take kindly to your comments?"

Paul: "I don't think so. It was a case of we don't want to show anything untoward, unsavory or unpleasant. People will jump on that. That's the way that [Jews] are. It's not the way that they are. It's the way that human beings are. They just happen [in this book] to be Jewish and this is what they go through in dealing with a leader.

"A funny thing happened at the end of the book. The Worcester Telegram did a big story on it and said it's amazing that this rabbi seems so wonderful yet at the end of the book the synagogue was not going to give him a raise. I guess that's in the epilogue. Then of course they gave him a big raise and a new contract. I don't think they really appreciated who they had until he became more of a public figure. He just got a congregation in Seattle [Herzl Ner Tamid]. His wife, a daughter of [Holocaust] survivors, always wanted to get back there. That book, if they ever wanted to do any investigation on a rabbi, here it is. Yet they hired him. That's a proof of something."

Luke: "He comes across well in the book."

Paul: "I think so."

Luke: "Though with some illusions about his ability to get people to become observant. Few Conservative Jews are observant of Jewish Law."

Paul: "You're always looking [as a writer] for those moments in a story that give you insight. I think the whole thing over in Israel where his wife said, 'Let's make aliyah,' and he says no. In Israel they could be 110% Jewish, he says no. I always thought of that as a corollary to his people also saying, 'Yeah, I like the idea of it but I don't think so.'"

Luke: "What was the other fallout for him and his wife? His wife was quite bitter about the community."

Paul: "She's probably still angry to this day about the book."

Luke: "About the book? Not just the congregation?"

Paul: "About the book. She felt too exposed by it. Her weight problem. She was gaining weight and couldn't shop in the stores and all that.

"Before the book came out, I gave the galleys to the rabbi. I told him, 'I don't want any corrections. I don't want any comments. You're not going to rewrite the book. Is it accurate? That's all I want to know. Do I have the Jewish stuff right?' He read the book before it was published so I felt perfectly ok about it."

Luke: "How did he react to the book?"

Paul: "How did he react to the book? Hmmm. I don't know how he reacted. I think he probably appreciated that he had his 15-minutes of fame, that he was a celebrity. I think he's doing a good job. I don't think he likes close scrutiny. Not too many people do. When he heard the reaction of other people to it, he probably thought, 'Oh boy, what did I do here?'"

Luke: "I take it you guys don't stay in touch."

Paul: "I've written 20 books. I've written about a lot of people. Some like me and some don't like me. Most feel fairly treated by me. We talked a couple of times since then. It wasn't like we were the best of buddies. I don't think we were the best of buddies during the book. It's always been cordial. I was asked to give some talks at Barnard College at a Jewish studies course. The rabbi never wanted to share a stage with me. That never happened."

Luke: "Have you stayed in touch with anyone from the book?"

Paul: "No."

Luke: "Anyone in the book get angry at you afterwards?"

Paul: "Yeah, yeah. The president of the congregation felt like I wasn't fair to him. To tell you the truth, I was probably more charitable [in the book] than I needed to be. I didn't put everything in there that I knew. I didn't put in all the comments that his wife made about the congregation. If it didn't make sense for the story, I didn't put it in for the prurient interest of it. You're a journalist, you know. The people who are basically good people are going to come out ok and the people who are schmucks are going to come out like schmucks.

"Congregations tend to be tough on their rabbis and he needs to be his own man. The rebbetzin has to be her own woman or else they will eat you alive. The politics of it are tough. They are tougher in synagogues than in Catholic churches where guys are appointed by their bishop. In many Protestant positions, they are appointed also. I think it is much tougher in synagogues, and, sadly, not attractively so. I felt strongly that what they put [rabbis] through is not humane. It's not religious. It's not kosher to do that to somebody as if it's a business deal. This is a spiritual leader you're trying to find."

Luke: "Jews complain a lot. We're demanding. We're difficult in restaurants. We demand a lot more than other people and we really put the rabbis through the ringer.

"Stephen Fried begins his book by deploring the low state of journalism in Jewish affairs. There's little narrative journalism of American Jews."

Paul: "That's exactly why my little venture was not warmly received."

Luke: "American Jewish journalism is so boring."

Paul: "I'm not a student of it. I stumbled into my book [on Conservative Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum]. You always stand the chance, especially as a non-Jew, of being considered anti-Semitic. I just won't even look at that. It's not the way that I am. I'm going to call them the way that I see them with charity. I'm also Catholic. I'm a religious person. I'm not going to beat someone up just for a great anecdote in the book. If it doesn't make any sense, I'm not going to use it. If it does make sense, I have to."

Luke: "In the process of writing the book, did anyone try to make it difficult for you because you weren't Jewish?"

Paul: "No. I always felt like an outsider. Not only didn't I know the tradition, it wasn't in my bones like Catholicism is. People were fascinated that someone was doing a book. Nobody knows what it's going to be when you're doing it. When you're around and become like wallpaper, you become so ordinary that they don't realize that eventually there's going to be a book come out of it.

"I'm an easy-going guy. I like people and people sometimes like me. I didn't have any conflicts."

Luke: "I couldn't find any negative reviews of your book. Were there any?"

Paul: "Oh, praise God. I don't even know. I don't even read them. You've got to keep going. This book followed a book I wrote on a Catholic priest called In Mysterious Ways. That priest didn't even read the entire book I wrote on him. That's how much he cared about it. I'm sure Rabbi Rosenbaum read every word. I'm of the first category. I do the work and let other people say what they want to say."

Luke: "Are rabbis public figures and should they be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as leaders in other fields?"

Paul: "No, I don't think they are public figures. They're moral leaders. They're moral stature and moral vision should certainly be taken into account but they're not politicians where you have to scrutinize everything about them. They should stand for something. There's a New Testament quotation about if salt loses its flavor, what use is it? The same is true of a rabbi. God knows that many become salt-free. There's no bite anymore because they are afraid of alienating anyone, of making anyone angry. That's a pitiful state when that happens.

"I just gave talk to a group of priests in Minnessota. They were talking about their bishop. I said, 'Guys, if your bishop isn't calling you on the carpet at least once a year, you're not doing your job. You should be pushing the envelope.' The rabbi is not just a branch manager. You have to have a point of view, and sometimes it is not the point of view of your congregation. The perfect example is the craziness of this war that we're thinking of going into. I think this is a perfect time for someone to stand up and say, 'This is not something we should be doing.'"

Luke: "How did your wife like the book?"

Paul: "Her father is Jewish. She felt a little amazed that a Gentile could write about it. Your wife is always your biggest critic. She went to Israel with me. A lot of my Jewish friends read it and I didn't hear of any inaccuracies.

"That book started off as a profile for The New Yorker. Then Tina Brown came to town, taking over for Bob Gottlieb. Tina Brown was not interested in Conservative rabbis in Worcester, Massachusetts, so it never became a New Yorker profile and went right into being a book."

Luke: "Where are you on the Catholic spectrum?"

Paul: "Liberal is a bad word these days, so I would consider myself a progressive Catholic. I take Holy Communion to the hospital each Thursday here in Wilmington, North Carolina. I tithe. My boys went to Catholic grade school."

Luke: "What sense did you get of the vibrancy and viability of the Conservative movement? Many of my Orthodox friends say it won't last."

Paul: "My father-in-law (Larry Goschberg) says the same thing, the guy to whom I dedicated the book. Larry was raised by Orthodox parents, then went lax, and then his son went to yeshiva and became religious and so Larry backed into it again... I think modern Orthodox has a great appeal to me. The black hats I don't feel the same way [towards]. Within certain parts of the Jewish community there's that exclusivity element, the 'I am and you're not'. I find that unattractive. I don't think anybody has the corner on the God market. We all ought to walk humbly before our God and not say we have the way and nobody else does.

"If I were not a Catholic, I would probably be a Jew. I would not be a Presbyterean or a Baptist. I think these are authentic substantials traditions [Judaism and Catholicism] that give you something to chew on and live by. The branch of Judaism that I found made the most sense was Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist movement. While a small movement, it was very spiritual and intelligent and the practice runs a range."

Luke: "Do you believe in a personal God?"

Paul: "Do I believe in a personal God? I live in North Carolina where there are Baptists, and are you saved? Is Jesus Christ your personal savior? That's not my language."

Luke: "Does God know you?"

Paul: "I think so."

Luke: "You believe in an eternal personal creator God?"

Paul: "In my mind, the jury's out on heaven and hell and all that stuff. I believe that when someone creates you, then know you. If that's the life force within me, then that life force knows me. And I seek to know Him. I think Abraham Joshua Heschel was right that we are in search of God and He is in search of us."

Luke: "But Heschel was the enemy of Kaplan?"

Paul: "Shows you how much I know."

Luke: "What are your thoughts on the Conservative movement?"

Paul: "They say it's an Orthodox rabbi leading a Reform congregation. But I saw attractive elements in his synagogue in Worcester. People who were shomer shabbos (guardians of the Sabbath), living the righteous life, in the most simple and Godly ways. The role of rabbi is important, his moral stature, his view of Judaism and his own balance in his life. I saw some people I wanted to be around who were living a rigorous Jewish life."

Luke: "I admit I bring my own personal baggage to this question, but in my personal experience, I've found many rabbis, like teachers and professors, who are control freaks. They don't react well when they're not controlling their own image."

Paul: "I think you're exactly right. When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, they were talking about the old days when 'Our Torah scholars are going to be trained like scholars at Harvard.' This guy said, 'We trained generations of rabbis who loved Judaism and hated Jews.'

"That's a big part of it. Everybody loves being up on the bima [pulpit]. Everybody loves to be a center of attention at a bar mitzvah. But to get into the nitty gritty of people's lives. As Dostoevsky said, 'Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing.' Judaism in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing. It's very difficult. It's wonderful when you read about it but when you live it... I'm not talking about kashrut [dietary laws]. I'm talking about living in community, being supportive of other people and their pilgrimage in life. That's the part that a lot of rabbis don't do as well."

Luke: "I think that's a particular weakness with JTS and its emphasis on scholarship and PhDs."

Paul: "If you want scholars, that's fine but if you want rabbis... To train a balanced person who has a home life and a sense of humor, who knows Torah but also can walk and breathe and live and isn't, as many rabbis were, these green hothouse plants."

Luke: "Is the style of clergy changing in Christianity too?"

Paul: "Within Catholicism, we're seeing, sadly, because of our thing about celibacy, we're seeing too many third-career second-rate people who finally feel that they will have control over their lives and other people's lives and that they will finally get the respect that they've always thought they were due. On the other hand, I know a lot of great priests. I've written about both sides of this thing. I've written about some of the creeps but most of the time I've written about good guys.

"I don't think congregations are looking for someone just like you and me, someone to hang out with and have a beer with. You want someone who is different, who speaks on a higher plane and yet can speak to you. That's what the prophets did and Jesus did. Had the common touch yet there was another agenda there, a higher calling."

Luke: "Were you happy with the way your book was received?"

Paul: "I guess so. It's had its own life. It didn't sell a zillion copies. It was hardcover and it went into paperback. It was just reissued a year-ago in paperback again. I felt it was a real view into American religous life that we hadn't seen a lot of. Look, I'm a freelance writer. I've been able to sustain myself for 35-years doing this. I'm just happy that I'm able to do books and feed my family."

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum writes: "Dear Luke, I appreciate your asking for my opinion, but I'm regretfully have to decline. I learned quite alot from working with Paul and from the publication of the book. But, there were also some hard feelings created that took a long time to heal. Time to move on."

A Chat With Author Stephen Fried About The Competition

I speak by phone with Stephen Fried (pronounced Freed), the author of The New Rabbi, Sunday 1/5/03 for almost two hours. Stephen was snowed-in at his Philadelphia home.

Luke: "Your book reminded me of They Shall Be My People by Paul Wilkes. [Wilkes spent one year with Jay Rosenbaum, the 42-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in an upper-middle-class community in Worcester, Massachusetts.]"

Stephen, taken aback: "OK."

Luke: "Did you read that book?"

Stephen: "Sure."

Luke: "Didn't you see a lot of similarities?"

Stephen: "Not really, because the guy who wrote it wasn't Jewish. To me, the books are only similar because they're both set in a synagogue. He came to that book because he's a writer about religion and this was his next religion to write about. I came to this book because my Dad died and I began rediscovering my own religion and saw this as a way of doing journalism on that. The intents of the books are totally different."

Luke: "What's your critique of his book?"

Stephen: "That he picked a congregation where not much happened. And because he wasn't Jewish, there were parts of the book that struck me as 'Margaret Mead among the Jews'."

Luke: "What do you mean?"

Stephen: "He was an outsider observing the mores, an anthropological study. He was only interested in writing a book about the life of a synagogue. A lot of my book is based on my own life and search as a Jew and my relationships with the people involved. They were different because I was a Jew coming back after mourning. A Christian journalist from The New Yorker is going to have a different way of doing things. I imagine he would be more likely to write a book like mine about his own religion.

"I remember the controversies about his book. People were amazed that his wife [Janine] had spoken out so boldly."

Luke: "She was so bitter about the congregation."

Stephen: "[Paul Wilkes] is a religion writer and I'm not. I had different goals than he did. But if people read my book and want to know more about synagogue life, they would be well-served by reading his book or Kaddish [by Leon Wieseltier]."

Luke: "I found Kaddish impenetrable. He's a terrible writer."

Stephen: "I don't think he's a terrible writer. There are things in it that are wonderful and things in it that are difficult but I think it is an important book. I'd be lying if I said I read every word of it. His dad died about a month after mine. We started working on our projects about the same time. I was fascinated to see somebody do an exploration of Judaism in the aftermath of their father's death. I found it interesting to see where his mind went during minyan compared to where my mind went during minyan. Both these books grew out of the time you have during minyan sitting around thinking about things. He's read a lot more stuff than me and I've interviewed a lot more people than him."

Luke: "What did you think of Samuel Freedman's book Jew vs Jew?"

Stephen: "I liked it. It's much more about political issues between the Jewish denominations. Sam and I have become friendly. His book about the black church, Upon This Rock, is closer to the kind of project I did. Sam was the first person to agree to blurb my book. I'm teaching at Columbia now in part because of his support. Freedman blazed the trail for real journalism about Judaism and with Upon This Rock encouraged journalism about other religious organizations."