Attending worship services at 100 synagogues and digging through historical archives, Raphael (Judaic studies and religion, College of William and Mary) has attempted a comprehensive portrait of Judaism as it evolved and exists in the United States. He surveys demographics; beliefs, festivals, and rituals; and institutions and organizations of religious activity. The role of the synagogue in Jewish life is afforded its own chapter. Also included are select profiles of prominent Jewish thinkers. Annotation ©2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Raphael, the chair of the religion department at the College of William and Mary, explores the history, theology and practices of American Jews in this accessible and absorbing survey. After a brief introductory chapter outlining Jewish diversity, Raphael discusses festivals and life-cycle events, which are the building blocks of Judaism in practice. Other chapters consider the history of Judaism in America, the changing role of the synagogue and the rise of the many para-synagogue organizations and institutions that help define Jewish life. Raphael's study is greatly enriched by his primary ethnographic research; he attended more than 100 services in the four major branches of Judaism, and also interviewed people formally and informally about their beliefs and practices. While he acknowledges the usual grim statistics (declining numbers, increasing intermarriage and a low birth rate), he doesn't dwell on them, insisting instead that "what strikes the contemporary observer of the synagogue is its vitality." One particularly fascinating chapter explores the increase of interest in spirituality and Jewish renewal, the emergence of homosexual congregations, the "surge" in Jewish day schools and the gradual decline of identification with Israel compared to 50 years ago. Another chapter examines the return to traditional observance that has marked all sectors of Judaism in recent years. Newcomers will find this an engaging introduction to American Judaism, and even experts may learn something new. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.