Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal

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Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal, by Dana Evan Kaplan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 446 pp. $34.50.

A number of highly targeted studies have begun to analyze the scope and significance of recent innovations in contemporary American Judaism. However, the book under review, Dana Evan Kaplan's Contemporary America Judaism: Tradition and Renewal, is one of the first synthetic, book-length explorations of the changing realities of American Jewish life. Kaplan seeks to share a popular overview of Judaism over the past five decades with the "uninitiated reader." He certainly succeeds in reaching this goal. Contemporary American Judaism offers an accessible narrative that is especially well suited for introductory courses on American Judaism and lay audiences interested in understanding the rapidly shifting landscape of Jewish identity today.

One of the strengths of this text is its sensitivity to the importance of placing new models of Jewish life in a larger historical context. Kaplan's study begins in the post-war years and narrates the institutional and ideological evolution of American Judaism over the last half century (with an emphasis on the past two decades). Subsequent chapters explore various themes that have shaped American Jewish life over this period, including "The Reengagement with Spirituality," "The Popularization of Jewish Mystical Outreach," and "Herculean Efforts at Synagogue Renewal." The book is striking for its up-to-date analysis of very recent developments ranging from new emergent religious communities, to intermarriage debates, to references from popular culture such as an episode of the sitcom "The O.C." which popularized the word "chrismukkah."

Nevertheless, for a book presented as an analysis of "contemporary" trends, Contemporary American Judaism provides far more detail on earlier developments, such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's Renewal Judaism, the attraction of Buddhism, and the emergence of the Conservative Movement, than on the rise of more recent phenomena. Only time will tell whether some of these newer trends in American Jewish life will have a lasting impact. Yet, I would posit that trends such as young adult engagement through Hillels and programs such as Birthright, the explosion of Jewish cultural and literary organizations, and the shift from membership to meaning as an organizing principle of Jewish life will also prove worthy of inclusion in future explorations of Judaism during the first decade of the twenty-first century. …


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