An impressive collection of beautiful photographs showing, for the most part, American Jews of an orthodox persuasion practicing their traditions. While examining those scenes and reading the fairly explanatory captions, I came to realize that my understanding of Judaism had been very incomplete – perhaps because it was based primarily on Jewish characters (biographical and fictional) whose coming-of-age involved rebellion against religious limitations, and was further distorted by the self-deprecating humor of Jewish comedians.
The visual imagery in this book – especially of the individual faces – increased my respect for tradition. At the same time, it increased my puzzlement about the role Jewry – both religious and ethnic – has played over the centuries in the history of the Middle East and Western world. After viewing this book, it would seem even more unlikely that such traditions could persist for millennia, when for the greater part of that period its practitioners have had to survive in often very hostile environments.
The most interesting tidbit I learned from this book was that the ancestor of one of the men pictured had been an influential American Jewish minister in the 18th century: Gershom Mendes Seixas had successfully moved the drafters of the 1783 Pennsylvania constitution to remove a religious test requirement for public office holders, and he was later one of 14 ministers who participated in the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789. By chance, a story about Jewish American entertainer Allen Sherman aired on NPR’s All Things Considered while I was composing this review. They played some of his song parodies that, though intended for a Jewish audience, had received much broader appreciation in America and contributed to the our cultural humor. Taken together, I think these two stories reflect a rather intuitive American appreciation – conscious nor not – that such variety is a major component in the uniqueness of the American experiment.