Generation J

Book Title: Generation J
Author: Lisa Schiffman
Date Published: August 18, 1999
Publisher: HarperOne; First Edition edition
Genre: 1. Women & Judaism
2. Jewish Life
ISBN: 978-0062515773
Reviewer: Jews for Jesus

I hadn’t a clue about what it meant to be a Jew. I was lost, a Jew without a path.” And so begins 35-year-old Lisa Schiffman’s search. It’s a search for identity, for meaning, for answers. Generation J is an attempt to sort through the confusion of being part of a generation that is willing neither to make a full return to Judaism nor to abandon its Jewish persona completely. Of being in a generation whose parents either followed religious traditions by rote or rejected them altogether. Of being a third-generation American Jew who’s uncomfortable with and suspicious of any kind of organized religion, particularly her own.

In an autobiography that reads like anthropological field notes [she is a social anthropologist by training], Schiffman presents a hodgepodge of stories offering the reader snapshots of Jewish life and thought. She begins with a very vulnerable and personal narrative about interfaith marriage. Schiffman was committed to having a Jew officiate at the wedding when she married her fiance, Michael, a lapsed Unitarian. Several rabbis turned them down because they wouldn’t agree to have a “Jewish home.” Finally, a cantor who moonlights as both an opera singer and an actor performed their wedding ceremony.

Schiffman writes that she’s still seeking validation for her marriage from the Jewish community. She interviews a Reform rabbi from New York who performs weddings for gay couples but refuses to marry a mixed faith couple. Told by the rabbi that her husband would have to embrace a Jewish life and the Jewish community (that he’d have to set a seder table, take their kids to Hebrew school, stand by her side while she lights Shabbat candles), she’s incredulous. Schiffman knows that she is Jewish, but she has never done those things.

Questions form the backbone of this book. What does it mean to have a Jewish home? Is Judaism a religion, a culture or a race? I know I’m Jewish, but how do I know that? What does it mean to look “too Jewish?” Or not Jewish enough? Is it possible to be Jewish alone and separate from the Jewish community?

In each narrative, Schiffman asks good questions but admits to a lack of adequate answers. There is no doubt that it was for very personal reasons that she wrote this book. Schiffman is a searcher and she wants to find spiritual answers. Her questions are an attempt to sort through the confusion of the religious netherworld of American secular Judaism.

In Schiffman’s definition of Judaism, we are a “dark and hairy people” who practice a “strange, argumentative, incomprehensible religion.” Yet she’s still inexplicably drawn to a world she hasn’t experienced — blessings over the Torah, fasting on Yom Kippur, payos and long skirts. For her, being Jewish is about being conflicted, about never being certain who you are and where you’re going and what that means. It’s about having an identity crisis.

This book chronicles more than the author’s own exploration into the meaning of Judaism. It offers a picture into the spiritual quandary of secular Jews today within the larger Christian culture. Schiffman grew up in the largely non-Jewish town of Levittown, New York. She described the place of her birth as “home to one of the largest crosses in the Western hemisphere.” She recalls a childhood incident when “Christian friends invited me to church.” After standing and sitting more times than she can count, Schiffman partakes of the Catholic communion wafer and waits for a “Christlike feeling to arise” in her. It doesn’t. She ponders why and then goes on.

Perhaps the most important question is the one that Schiffman failed to ask in 166 pages: Can you really find your Jewish identity apart from God?

She muses, “If Christianity’s message was Follow your heart, Judaism’s was Follow the directions.

“Jews, however,” she says, “never follow directions without asking why.In spite of our mandate to follow the directions, millions of Jews ‘the unaffiliated, secular, atheist indifferent or simply confused’ are lost.”

Like many in this post-assimilation generation, she looks everywhere for answers, for a solution to that lostness, with one exception — God, the only real source for answers.

In a recent interview, Schiffman was asked, if she could add a postscript to the book, what it would be. Her answer was, “You can create your own path through religion. And if there is another book, that would be the beginning of the next one, something like, ‘P.S., I’m still doing it, piecing the route together.'”1

Perhaps she should look to another book ‘the Bible’ it has already pieced that route together for Lisa and the rest of us.

1Danielle Svetcov, Generation J (San Francisco Examiner Magazine, 12/12/99) p. 32


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