Book review: Pastrami as religion

Beyond the Synagogue book cover
Courtesy of NYU Press

By Jesse Bernstein

“Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice”

Rachel B. Gross

NYU Press

Rachel B. Gross, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, is willing to bet that you don’t see your purchase of a scarf from the National Museum of American Jewish History gift shop as religious practice. Ditto for a kosher-style pastrami sandwich you scarfed down, an afternoon spent on a Jewish genealogical website or a historical tour of a synagogue.

These activities, as we typically understand them, are Jewish cultural practices, distinct from religious practices.

But Gross argues in her new book that this distinction between “religious” and “cultural” is false. The widely shared experience of American Jewish nostalgia is, she says, the expression of understanding between Jews living and dead, i.e., religion, and creates networks of sacred meaning. It is in a deli, she argues, digging into that pastrami sandwich, where American Jews practice religion today.

Jewish communal leaders, philanthropists and academics have sounded the alarm at the decline of traditional religious practice, Gross says, giving rise to a fundraising structure that privileges “Jewish continuity” above nearly all else. “But if we reorient where we look for American Jewish religion and reconsider how we define it,” she writes, “then we start to find a lot more of it.”

Gross uses the framework of “lived religion,” expanding the definition of religious activity beyond what “official” religion allows. Rather than accepting religion as prescriptively defined by official texts and dictates of traditional institutions, Gross uses a descriptive approach that “helps us to take seriously the structures, commitments, and activities that shape everyday life,” she writes.

Gross’ assessment of the way institutional Judaism dismisses activities that aren’t officially Jewish is well-argued and comprehensive, and her claim that this is partially due to an understanding of nostalgia as feminine and therefore unserious deserves greater study. But it’s difficult to accept her larger argument.

If powerful sectors of institutional Judaism are not properly valuing cultural practice, it makes sense to argue for the intrinsic value of such practices rather than argue that they should be recategorized as religious. Non-religious connections to Judaism should be encouraged and nurtured, but we don’t need to radically reorient our communal understanding of those connections in order to see their worth.

Whether you buy the larger argument, Gross’ book challenges prevailing orthodoxies of American Jewish life with respect and purpose.

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